The Pope’s Brother: Those Regensburg Choirboys

by David Yearsley, March 24, 2010

Perhaps God is exacting his revenge on the Ratzing­ers and on Regensburg, whose cathedral boasted a famed musical establishment claimed by Franz Liszt to be the center of Catholic church music, even above Rome itself. Georg Ratzinger, the Pope’s brother, took up the post of musical director at the cathedral in 1964 in the midst of the Second Vatican Council, begun in 1962 and concluded three years later; whatever, you think of the council’s reform, they have contributed to the precipitous decline of musical standards in the Catholic Church. With them came the guitars — though to my knowledge never with the ancient choir of the Regenbsurg cathedral! — along with forms of congregational participation pioneered by Protestants, chief among the previously unthink­able practice of singing Lutheran hymns. Equally as unbelievable when one surveys the long history of confessional insularity and animosity, Bach’s vocal music became a staple.

Compare this all-embracing attitude with that of early times. In Bach’s day the Lutheran’s liked to tell the story of one of their greatest Protestant compos­ers from around 1600: Hieronymus Praetorius set Latin texts, most famously a complete cycle on the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary. Some of this music was said to have made it to the Sistine Chapel, where the pope was heard to remark — again, according to the Lutherans — on the high quality of the music, but then quickly banished it once he heard that it had been “composed by a heretic.” For his part, Bach per­formed much Catholic music, from venerable works of Palestrina to more contemporary ones by Antonio Lotti and others.

Exceptions could be made when great art came knocking on Catholic doors. Italians welcomed the oratorios of the Lutheran Handel, whose music they adored. Though Handel remained a Protestant during his time in Italy (and later in Anglican England), his music nonetheless exulted in Catholic sensuality with an extravagance that was and is irresistible. Among the long list of recordings of the Regensburg Cathe­dral choir, the so-called Domspatzen (Cathedral Spar­rows), are the Bach motets, Christmas Oratorio, and other rabidly Protestant music. While not as overtly anti-Catholic as Bach’s wonderful early cantata Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt. Just as the Rain and Snow Fall from Heaven) BWV 18, which at one point beseeches God for “protection against the gruesome death and blasphemies” of the Turks and the pope, the ethos of the Christmas Oratorio is violently anti-Catholic: the enemies of Christ to be crushed in the very last movement of the Oratorio would certainly have included the papists in Bach’s mind and in the minds of the congregants who heard his music. That Bach’s youngest son, Johann Chris­tian, converted to Catholicism after moving to Italy is one of the most unexpected confessional about-faces in music history. Luckily, his father was by that time well-planted in his unmarked Lutheran grave.

A staunchly counter-reformation attitude worthy of the 17th-century would hold that Georg Ratzinger’s ecumenical approach goes against a half-millennium of sectarian repertoire building nurtured by the Re­gensburg Cathedral choir. Taken as a barometer of tolerance, this all could be seen as a good thing, but the ultimate decision still rests with God, and I expect a premature Judgment Day for the brothers Ratzinger.

After service in the Wehrmacht at the end of World War II and internment in an American POW camp in Naples, Georg Ratzinger’s slaps to the faces of unruly — or out of tune? or both? — choir boys in the Regensburg Cathedral choir must have seemed hardly worse than a bit of cold water. But it is a sadis­tic scenario: the rough hand of war veteran — organist — priest — choir director Ratzinger leaving its mark across the soft, pink cheek of Bavarian boyhood. Actually the word used in the Passauer Presse inter­view of March 9th is “Ohrfeige” — which can mean either the “box of the ears” or “slap to the face.” More precise descriptions of Ratzinger’s predilections in corporal punishment will likely emerge as former choirboys appear out of the Bavarian woodwork and line up at the public confessional.

Ratzinger had himself been beaten once as a choir boy when he mistakenly handed his music teacher the wrong notebook. For this he received a lash, which presumably was hardly worth remarking on given dis­ciplinary procedures of the 1930s in Catholic schools and elsewhere. But when the young Ratzinger saw that he had handed the taskmaster his beloved com­position notebook — the boy had begun eagerly com­posing at an early age — he snatched it back, and was promptly given an “Ohrfeige” by the enraged adult. That is the only incident of physical violence Ratz­inger remembers from his parochial education.

In his early years as head of the renowned Regens­burg choir, no doubt feeling much pressure at safe­guarding, indeed advancing, the group’s august reputa­tion, Ratzinger did some boxing of ears and slapping of faces. The beatings — for that is what they were — were nothing extraordinary in the context of Catholic school culture of the time, but what is worth noting is the way Ratzinger searches for an excuse for his actions in the exculpatory rhetoric of modern psy­chology. His use of what Rumsfeld might call enhanced rehearsal techniques was a product of incipient depression: “I must admit, that I looked forward to every choir rehearsal.” But often he would leave them truly depressed, because “I had not achieved what I had hoped. And at the beginning I repeatedly administered ‘Ohrfeigen’ but really always had a bad conscience over it.”

Perhaps the weirdest thing about the Passauer Presse interview with the 86-year old brother of the Pope, is that he admits to being relieved that corporal punishment was outlawed by state law in 1980. His bad conscience wasn’t enough to modify his approach to discipline or the approach of his colleagues. Out­side intervention was required. It is indeed rare in the long history of the Catholic Church for it to welcome temporal intervention, and it is certainly hard to rec­oncile this attitude with the approach of Ratzinger’s younger brother, Pope Benedikt XIV, who, when he was a Cardinal, did his utmost to “handle” sexual abuse cases within the church and keep them out of reach of the interferences of criminal and civil law.

Georg Ratzinger’s professed relief at the wisdom of the state also reveals one of the many flaws in his story: if, as claimed, he slapped kids only at the begin­ning of his tenure, why was he grateful when the law was passed, 16 years later, well into the second decade of his long directorship? It was all so long ago, or as Ratzinger put it in the Passauer Presse “something from the deepest past” — ancient history.

The interview spends much of its time on “abuse” — involving physical discipline — that apparently took place in the boarding school of the choir. The recent reports of sexual abuse came, said Ratzinger, as a complete surprise, a claim that defies the experience of anyone who has worked in church music or for that matter in the church, where such rumors and even reports have circulated for decades. Such scandals rocked the School of St. Thomas a half-a-century before J. S. Bach showed up there as head of music in 1723. One of the alleged perpetrators, Johann Rosen­müller, who was among his generation’s greatest com­posers, escaped unforgiving Leipzig for Italy and later returning to his homeland with his reputation rebuilt.

Ratzinger is at great pains to stress that the board­ing school was a fully independent organization and had been set up this way by his predecessor as direc­tor of music at the cathedral, one Theobald Schrems. The worst physical abuse — the battering of children until they were “green and black” — was inflicted by the director of the school, who, says Ratzinger, fiercely guarded his prerogatives and would never have allowed the music director to intervene — as if deal­ing with abuse is a matter of privilege, protocol, and seniority, not moral necessity. The interview refers to the director as “Johann M” — a bit of pseudo-privacy probably undertaken by the paper for legal reasons. His identity was easily uncovered: Johann Meier. Ratzinger tells the Passauer Presse that “Johann M.” had to give up his job prematurely in 1992 after a mere four decades of in the post because the press “had gotten a hold” of reports of his rough treatment of his charges. Ratzinger would retire two years later. Yet stories continue to emerge. Rudolf Neumaier, a stu­dent at Etterzhausen in the early 1980s and then member of the Domspatzen, said he witnessed much harsh corporal punishment and even reported to Ratzinger that he had seen Director Meier hit an eight-year-old boy with a chair, but to no avail. “He chose not to listen,” said Neumaier.

Ratzinger only admits that on concert tours (when there is more time to talk, and one doesn’t felt the presence of school authority so severely), students — Neumaier presumably only one of many — had told him about the violence at a Etterzhausen, a feeder school for the Cathedral choir, but “these reports did not come to me in such a way that I believed that I had to do something about them.” This is meaningless equivocation. Even if he had wanted to act, claims Ratzinger, the procedure would have been to notify the head of the school’s foundation, in which case the director Meier could anyway have easily said, “This does not concern you.’ Thus responsibility is diffused across the elaborate ecclesiastical bureaucracy, until at last, as is the case now, the press shines the harsh, if cathartic light, on the past and present.

The pope’s brother eagerly shifts blame on to Meier not only as the scourge of unruly boys, but for Ratzinger’s own inability or unwillingness to protect the choirboys from his depredations. “I was like a king without a kingdom,” claims Ratzinger — nominal head of the musical and ethical education of choirboys but without the actual power to do anything. The head of one of the most esteemed musical institutions in the long history of the Catholic church can only wave his arms to elicit musical harmony and now and then deploy them with sharp smack to ensure those sonorous results. He has great ears for music but not for what could be described as cries for help. Meier has not given his side of the story. He seems to be conveniently dead. But the interview’s contradictions that will likely be beaten and pulled on in the weeks to come.

Music directors have long been hailed for the severe discipline: Gluck was lauded as a general who marched his orchestral troops mercilessly; Handel too countenanced no insubordination; Bach insulted those under him, and in the early years of his profes­sional life even came to blows with one of them. Yes, these were adults not children. But did choir directors from Palestrina to Bach and beyond slap and whip their boys? Most certainly. Ratzinger’s famed choir could in this light be scene as the last recorded exam­ples of a group sound built at least partly on corporeal punishment, a ghost of a venerable tradition of peda­gogy extending back at least over the thousand year history of the Domspatzen. In this way listening to these recordings is like listening to the early 20th-cen­tury recordings of the last castrato made in the Sistine Chapel. We have come to the end not just of an era but of an epoch.

Doubtless the sales of Regensburg Domspatzen’s many recordings have spiked with Ratzinger’s admis­sions and non-admissions. The faithful offer their support by taking solace in the heavenly sounds of the pure boys’ voices. The detractors listen for the darker undertones. The musical results of Ratzinger’s once time-honored and now discredited techniques have none of the impetuousness of the boxing of ears and the slapping of cheeks. The sonic fruit of this vio­lence, be it endemic or the rarest of instances, is instead ponderous and precise. Perhaps that is the sound of the Church itself.

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of “Bach and the Meanings of Counter­point.” His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu.)

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