BERLIN — The 9-year-old girl has a voice that causes patrons in a cafe in Germany to pause when she breaks out in a traditional Christmas carol.
She tried again and again to join Berlin’s oldest cultural institution, an all-boys’ choir, but was rejected three times — the second time in a letter stating, “Never will a girl sing in a boys’ choir.”
So the girl sued.
On Friday, the Berlin administrative court will rule whether the choir — the State and Cathedral Choir of Berlin — must admit the girl, whose identity has been withheld under German law because she is a minor.
In interviews with experts and the girl, what emerges is a case about the force of tradition in the face of a push for gender parity. It touches on a fierce debate about the difference between the voices of girls and boys at certain ages. And because the choir is a publicly funded cultural institution, the suit argues that its services — a high-quality, intense musical education, voice training and performance opportunities — must therefore be made available to everyone, regardless of gender.
Coming months after a leading British soprano, Lesley Garrett, spurred an international debate on gender restriction in the arts by calling for girls to be admitted to King’s College choir in England, the German case is reverberating beyond Berlin.
The State and Cathedral Choir of Berlin, founded in 1465 by the ruler of Brandenburg, Fredrick II, promotes “free musical education for boys,” according to the institution’s website. At the time of its founding, girls and women were not allowed to speak or sing in church, so five choirboys were chosen to make up the ensemble.
Since then, the choir, now part of Berlin’s University of the Arts, has grown into a public institution that includes more than 250 singers in 11 ensembles who undergo rigorous voice training and perform around the globe. What had not changed in more than 550 years is that it only accepted boys.
Germany’s tradition of boys’ choirs includes the St. Thomas Choir in Leipzig and the Kreuzchor in Dresden, steeped in a tradition that interweaves faith and classical music. Along with the State and Cathedral Choir, they are all publicly funded.
The girl first tried to enter the choir in 2016 but was denied. Two years later, she again sought entry and was informed in the letter signed by the dean of the music department that no girls were allowed.
In March, the choir invited the girl to sing before a selection committee, which again rejected her. This time, it said it was because she lacked the “high level of motivation” and “extraordinary talent” necessary to participate in the ensemble, the university said in a statement released by the court.
The university further said that the girl’s voice did not “fit the sound sought after for a boys’ choir,” raising the issue of whether girls’ voices sound different from those of prepubescent boys, and if a difference does exist, whether it is audible to the patrons who flock to hear boys’ choirs at concerts around the globe.
The university did not respond to a request for comment.
In a country that prides itself on a musical heritage that helped define the classical repertoire through the works of Bach and Mendelsohn — both of whom composed for and conducted boys’ choirs — young male sopranos are viewed as unique and uniquely fragile.
Equally important is the mystique surrounding the tone quality of boys’ voices — described as “wondrous” and “natural but utterly transient” — in the limited window before their instruments break at the onset of puberty.
But studies have shown that the differences in boys’ and girls’ voices are so marginal that roughly half of professional musicians could not discern a difference.
Abbie Conant, an American trombonist, said that while women in classical music have made progress, there is still a gap. She sued the Munich city authorities over the right to lead the trombone section of the Munich Philharmonic in the 1980s — a time when neither the Berlin Philharmonic nor the Vienna Philharmonic admitted women — and later took on another suit for equal pay.
Now a professor of trombone at the state conservatory in Trossingen, in the Black Forest region of Germany, Ms. Conant said that what was at stake in the Berlin case was more than just the right to sing: It was about granting girls the same access to music education that can shape their lives and careers.
“I have several male colleagues who were in boys’ choirs and had that training and experience performing at a very early age, and that gave them a leg up in their careers,” Ms. Conant said in a phone interview from her home in New Mexico. “I don’t know any of my female colleagues who were in all-girls’ choirs — they don’t exist.”
In fact, a few do exist, most notably in Cologne, Germany, where an all-girls choir was founded in 1989 as a pendant to the traditional boys’ choir, offering them access to an equivalent musical education, vocal training and the right to perform in the cathedral. Similar programs exist in England.
In Berlin, there is a girls’ choir, but it is only organizationally linked to the State and Cathedral Choir. The ensemble’s website does not advertise a superior music educational opportunity for girls. Instead, there are links to PayPal and details about the foundation that parents can join to support the choir.
The girl involved in the lawsuit had been accepted by the Berlin girls’ choir, but she decided to sing in another ensemble in the German capital, even though it does not have the comprehensive musical education provided to the boys at the State and Cathedral Choir.
The girl, who lives in Berlin, first learned about the existence of the boys’ choir when she brought home a flier from her elementary school about the chorus’s search for candidates. Her reaction when told that it was only for boys: “That’s not fair!”
She wanted to try out anyway.
Recently, the girl sat for an interview in a cafe in Germany. Asked whether she would join the boys’ choir if she were allowed, she brightened with a smile and gave a determined nod.
But not everyone agrees with her quest.
Christian Ahrens, a professor emeritus of musicology who published a study on gender parity in the world’s leading orchestras, said that although he supported equal access to music education, integrating boys’ choirs was not the way to do it.
“I am very clearly against what she is trying to do,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Berlin.
Mr. Ahrens argued that beyond the sound, there is the fact that because boys’ voices break around age 11 or 12 while girls can continue to sing the highest notes until up to 15, their voices would dominate.
“In a mixed choir,” he said, “the girls will have much stronger voices and simply drown out the boys.”
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