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16 August 2019, 12:41
A girl in Berlin was rejected from a centuries-old boys’ choir and is now filing a lawsuit for gender bias. The case has opened up a wider debate about gender-based traditions in the classical music world.
The family of a nine-year-old girl is suing Berlin’s oldest choir for discrimination, because they rejected her application for an audition.
A court in the German capital city will decide on Friday whether traditional all-male cathedral choirs are obliged to accept female singers under gender discrimination laws.
The State and Cathedral choir of Berlin was founded in 1465 by Prince-Elector Frederick II of Brandenburg. The choir performs regularly in Berlin Cathedral and around Europe, and has apparently never admitted women over its 554 years of existence.
The girl’s family argue that because the choir receives public funding, her rejection goes against German equal opportunity laws.
The choir is currently part of Berlin’s publicly funded University of the Arts (UdK) and provides training for 250 choirboys and 75 young men under the age of 25.
According to the court, the choir contested the rejection was “not predominantly about her gender” and that she would have been admitted had she shown “exceptional talent and motivation” – and had her voice “matched the desired sound characteristics of a boys’ choir”.
They also claimed she was turned down because the choir was not convinced it would be able to work with the girl’s parents.
The girl, who has not been named under German child protection laws, has not spoken publicly. Her mother brought the case to court on her behalf, saying the rejection was discriminatory “in an impermissible way”.
According to the girl’s lawyer, Susann Braecklein, the girl had applied to the choir in 2016 and 2018 and was rejected both times without being offered an audition. The second time (last December), she was allegedly told in writing by the dean of the university’s music faculty that “a girl will never sing in a boys’ choir”.
Despite the dean’s words, she was invited for an audition in March 2019, but was rejected again and told she had neither the motivation nor talent required to join the choir.
The girl’s mother argues any training she could have received from an all-female partner choir at the Berlin Singakademie would have been of a lower calibre.
The case has sparked debate over the traditional view in the classical music world that young boys’ voices have a ‘purity’ most girls cannot match.
Academic studies and music professionals have challenged the views, while British soprano Lesley Garrett described boys’ choirs as a ‘throwback to a bygone era’ and called for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge to accept girls.
Last December, Garrett claimed the traditional views were “nonsense” and said: “Girls’ voices are just as pure, just as sweet and just as sonorous”.
Abbie Conant, an American trombonist who faced discrimination as a woman when she started playing with the Munich Philharmonic in 1980, said numerous studies reveal “even professional musicians cannot reliably hear the difference between a boys’ and a girls’ choir singing the same repertoire.”