The Girls' Choir at Cologne Cathedral, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2014, has an excellent reputation far beyond national borders. The director, Cathedral Cantor Oliver Sperling, celebrated his 25th anniversary of service on Sunday. An interview.
Mr. Sperling, in 1996 Cathedral conductor Eberhard Metternich entrusted you with the direction of the girls' choir at Cologne Cathedral. Taking into account the very youngest members of the B choir, the choir currently has about 200 girls between the ages of nine and 20. You once said: Choir work is above all relationship work. Can it – in view of this predominance – actually well with the female sex?
Sperling: Let's put it this way: I'm certainly not bad with women. Maybe because I am surrounded only by "women" at home as well. But seriously: The 17 years with the Essen Cathedral Boys' Choir, where music was played exclusively without women, were on the one hand quite formative. On the other hand, I have always worked with mixed ensembles, for example youth choirs, even during my studies. And when I joined Cologne Cathedral Music, I was initially involved with both choirs – the Boys' Choir and the Girls' Choir – so I think I know what makes them tick. Of course, with girls alone it is something else again: musically, emotionally and also group-dynamically. In the individual age phases, which are appealing in different ways, because of course at the age of ten there are completely different challenges than at the age of 18, there is – in contrast to the boys – a relatively constant voice potential that can be reliably worked with. And that is the specific strength of a girls' choir. It's clear that dealing with so many girls requires a fine sense of perception and special sensitivity. But we can always talk openly with each other. That is worth a lot. We are not just any group that makes music together, but see ourselves as a Christian-oriented community. That is a completely different quality. And of course you develop a special relationship to your own choir and its individual members, especially through the pedagogical work, which always has very intensive phases. This also means being there for each other when things are not going so well. In this sense, the choir is also a kind of school of life for many girls, in which they learn common values and share meaningful things with each other.
So you are a passionate team player?
Sperling: For sure. This may be due to the fact that I myself grew up in such a community with the Essen Cathedral Boys' Choir. I also like to play the organ or the piano. But for me the instrument was rather behind the choir singing and served only as accompaniment in the actual thing. I never intended to be a loner at the organ. It was always my explicit wish to make music with others – preferably in a choir. For me, it's especially important in this kind of relationship work – because that's what it really is – that you're willing to give something of yourself away. And that applies to both sides. You should not pretend with each other, but be authentic. I can only hope that my singers feel that I totally identify with them. Perhaps this is the secret of our joint success.
Then taking over the girls' choir was something of a stroke of luck for you?
Sperling: In any case, this task has become a great love affair. I never thought it possible that I would develop so much with this choir. At the beginning, I knew only a fraction of the choral literature for girls' or girls' choirs. Women's voices. Up to this point, I had almost exclusively been involved with pieces for mixed choir or choir with other choirs. Boys' choir busy.
This means that you have only gradually grown into this task?
Sparrow: Absolutely. First of all, Eberhard Metternich, as the founder of the girls' choir, selected the appropriate literature. Building on this basis, I was then able to gradually make my own discoveries and specialize. But I looked through catalogs and studied the programs of other girls' choirs – always with a sideways glance at colleagues who were already a bit ahead of me in this respect. Even in college, the fact that there are also women's choirs in addition to the traditional boys' and adults' choirs was hardly ever discussed. Choral literature for women's voices alone simply did not appear in substance. Perhaps this is also due to the fact that for a long time the prejudice persisted that a girls' choir – in the sense of a deficiency – was not a full-fledged choir at all. Today I would like to prove someone with such a conviction wrong.
Has there been any change in the literature in the meantime??
Sperling: Fortunately. Today there is a completely different awareness of choirs that have only soprano and alto voice ranges. In the meantime, there are also a number of good girls' choirs. And they also want – like the boys' or adults' choirs – to sing good music. Among the first foundations in the 1980s and 1990s were the girls' cathedral choirs in the dioceses of Wurzburg, Limburg and Hildesheim. In 1989, Cologne also came along. At that time, however, we were still in a minority. As far as the literature situation is concerned, for a long time I still had many open wishes. To have the right choir literature in the archives for every liturgy and every church festival, that would be my dream. Choral music for girls should not be an embarrassing solution, for example, by only transcribing existing motets, i.e., making them suitable for their voice pitch, because they were originally intended for mixed choirs. There should also be a sufficient selection of motets and masses, perhaps even a requiem, for a polyphonic girls' choir. I am continuously working on expanding our repertoire – especially with a variety of contemporary works. After all, choral music by composers such as Arvo Part or Knut Nystedt is what gives us our profile. That's why I'm always in contact with contemporary composers and commissioning new works. But if need be, I will write a piece myself, which has not yet been written exclusively for girls' voices. I would be delighted if the lobbying I have done over the years for girls' (cathedral) choirs eventually pays off with an extensive body of music and versatile compositions for girls' voices.
Speaking of writing yourself: In 2000, as perhaps your most liturgically striking work, you composed a St. John Passion that has been performed several times in Cologne Cathedral on Good Friday. "Pueri Cantores" also commissioned you to sing a "Gloria de Noel" for a festival performance in Lyon in 2002 and the "Missa de angelis" for a congress in Rome in 2010. Not to forget the cathedral jubilee earworm from 1998 "We have seen his star…", which has now also found its way into the newly published Gotteslob.
Sparrow: There must always be a reason or a reason to take up the pen oneself. Most of the time it is a biblical text, a psalm, that inspires me, because there is no musical setting for it yet, but one is needed for the liturgy. In addition, I have a preference for Latin. That's why I also deal a lot with Gregorian chant. But there is also a lack of utility literature for mixed girls' choirs and mixed boys' choirs to make music together at a high level. For this reason, I have also arranged the final chorus from Bach's St. John Passion, which in the original provides for all four classical voice parts, for four girls' voices. Traditionally, it is always sung at the end of every Good Friday liturgy in the cathedral – no matter which choir is on duty according to rotation. It was important to me that the girls do not have to abandon this tradition, but that Bach still sounds like Bach.
Who created in you this noticeable enthusiasm for liturgical music??
Sperling: As I said, I grew up in the Catholic liturgy. This was a form of socialization for me, in which the Essen cathedral chapel master Georg Sump certainly had a great influence on me. Without it, I probably wouldn't be standing here today either. I am very lucky to have a very versatile profession – the best in the world, I would even say – because it allows me to live out my love of music. Besides, I have always enjoyed literature. I also enjoy reading the Bible and studying the meaning and significance of biblical texts. I find it very fulfilling to have the appropriate music for individual verses or even to write it myself. Because only when text and music are in harmony with each other, a meaning is conveyed. The parameters are the tones, the rhythm, the sound…But when you get to the point with a choir that finally everything fits together, then you always want it that way. A picture that is painted remains a finished product and can be looked at endlessly. A musical work of art, on the other hand, requires constant work. Because even if there was a perfect result for a moment, a second later it's already a thing of the past. But if we don't have a feeling for it, how it should sound according to our claim – and this succeeds in an almost perfect way often enough – how should others hear what really good music is??
You have always attached great importance to the fact that your choir is characterized by versatility and that the singers try themselves out, above all in competitions, but also in the opera or in concerts.
Sparrow: In the course of a year, many different elements come together that are quite necessary for the choir's motivation. Being on stage with professionals – be it singers or conductors – in the Philharmonie or currently in the Staatenhaus for opera productions – is immensely stimulating for the girls and undoubtedly promotes their personal development. Because in such joint projects, they can learn a lot of new things and always get tips from the outside to help them move forward. And that is extremely exciting: Whether they are performing the St. Matthew Passion with Helmut Rilling, the icon of Bach music, talking through the mimic scenes with the renowned opera director Michael Hampe – as they did most recently with "La Boheme" – or working through Poulenc with the new Cologne General Music Director Francois-Xavier Roth, who was completely unknown to them until then – as they did in October at the great cathedral concert – going through such a school has a high value and is a very unique experience that many of them may only be able to appreciate in retrospect in its significance.
You always have intensive times together on the big trips abroad..
Sparrow: I agree with Eberhard Metternich that every choir member should have been to Rome at least once in his active career and, in addition, preferably also to Israel, and thus should have become acquainted with the places of the roots of our faith. This also has a lot to do with learning experiences – especially in the large community of the choir family. At the same time, it is important to me, in addition to the liturgical mission we have at the cathedral, to take seriously our role as cultural ambassadors for our city, to cultivate a cultural aura, but clearly also to communicate our values, which are self-evident for a cathedral choir. Festivals, operas, making music with the Gurzenich Orchestra Cologne or the WDR Radio Orchestra – we can dance at many, very different weddings and are increasingly requested to do so. At the Katholikentag in Leipzig, for example, we will give the world premiere of the oratorio "Ecce homo" by Colin Mawby together with the Dresdener Kapellknaben, which the English composer composed especially for this occasion. It is an honor for the girls' choir that we are allowed to participate and it promises a new challenge.
After the trip to eastern Germany, there will then be another "world trip" in the fall…
Sparrow: With stops in Shanghai and Beijing, a 14-day trip to China is planned in October, to which the Chinese choral association has invited us. It is already clear that the tightrope walk between our self-image as Catholics and the contact with a social order unknown to us is a special mission that requires sensitivity. The girls are also prepared for this. We don't want to proselytize anyone for the time being, in that we'll be focusing on pop songs and Chinese folk songs, but above all on sacred music, which we'll be presenting in probably eight or nine different concert halls. But we also want to stand by what makes up our identity and not deny any of it.
In view of these many intensive experiences, including the concert tours, are there still any open wishes at all?
Sparrow: From a practical point of view: Yes. A rehearsal hall with optimal conditions, as it will hopefully soon be available in Lindenthal with the planned new building for the next decades. And then my self-chosen ambition to one day be able to hand over a choir archive with a complete Sunday and holiday liturgy: preferably something suitable for all occasions. A motet, which then lasts about eight minutes and fits well into a chapter office. On the other hand, a cathedral preacher does not get a time limit either. In other words: Of course, one may also trust the congregation once in a while by practicing listening for a longer time and by taking them on a journey with the music. It would be a misconception of participatio actuosa if the congregation only ever celebrated "proper" worship when only it sang – and the choir did not.
Are there any further incentives or challenges for you??
Sperling: I'm not a higher, faster, further kind of guy. So it's not about quantity, but always about quality. That is, I always need new good music. Yet an a cappella motet can be just as meaningful as a great oratorio. What I work out with the choir should be as good as possible. I am continuously working on this goal. Especially when participating in competitions, the motivation of the choir is huge. Such a participation is worthwhile only because of the time of preparation, which at no moment is more intense for all of us than just before such a project. In the run-up to a competition, we work on the seven or eight pieces that we then present in a much more concentrated way than in everyday life. You have to be an "efficiency fetishist" so that the result can be heard afterwards and all participants still have great fun with it. Because for the children themselves to enjoy what they are doing is actually my greatest wish.
The interview was conducted by Beatrice Tomasetti.