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Between sacred tradition and a secular world

The world-famous St. Thomas Boy Choir of Leipzig celebrates its 800th anniversary in 2012. A German documentary peeks into the singers' lives as they become initiated in centuries-old rituals.

Members of the St. Thomas Choir in Leipzig

Members of the St. Thomas Choir

Gleaming eyes, dark-blond locks and an angelic voice - nine-year-old Johannes is thrilled. He's a Thomaner, as members of the world's oldest and arguably most famous boy choir are called: the St. Thomas Choir of Leipzig.

Johann Sebastian Bach spent nearly 30 years as the choir's director. During the era of former East Germany, the choir was a favorite showpiece. It's remained a source of national pride after German reunification.

But getting in is just the beginning of a long road for Johannes. His afternoons for the next nine years will be dedicated to rehearsals, and he has a new home - inside the boarding school for St. Thomas choir members.

A choir member holds a songbook next to a piano

Some feel homesick, some just feel proud: The choir puts big demands on its young members

Modern parents may feel a bit queasy when they glimpse the rows of beds in the sleeping quarters that resemble barracks far more than an elite academy. Renovations are underway, but tradition won't be lost entirely. The new dormitory will still feature mixed-age rooms, and privacy is all but impossible.

One of the first things incoming Thomas singers have to learn is to share and to give up some individuality. Johannes' mother is unsure whether that is the right move for her son, but neither does she want to stand in the way of his love of singing.

Too harmonious?

"A Year with the St. Thomas Choir Leipzig" is the subtitle of the documentary by filmmakers Paul Smaczny and Günter Atteln. For a year, their cameras followed Johannes and around 100 other children - at play on the soccer field, in classrooms, at rehearsal and on tour all the way to South America.

A row of St. Thomas singers

Boys can join the choir at nine years old and remain members until they are 18

The film lets viewers in on some of the problems that come up in the prominent choir. One chubby beginner - an "Ultimus" in Thomaner jargon - talks about his homesickness, and a more senior singer is shown dishing out work to younger members as a punishment for being late and other mischief.

Leipzig has none of the Hogwarts School romanticism people might expect from Harry Potter films. The atmosphere is very sober. But everyone seems to praise the "tradition of collaboration and living together," and uplifting, conciliatory Bach melodies wind their way even through the film's stormier moments.

In a sense, directors Paul Smaczny and Günter Atteln neglect to draw out one of the most intriguing aspects of life in the St. Thomas choir: the tension the young men may feel between their lives within an 800-year-old tradition and in the modern world outside. The viewer waits in vain to see contrasts drawn between sacred music and daily secular life.

At best, one might notice the Wacken Heavy Metal Festival poster hanging on the wall of a dorm room, a sign that there may just be a dissenter or two in the choir's midst. All the while, the filmmakers prefer to focus on the fact that the Thomaners graduate with the best grade point average in the entire state. The sense of an untroubled utopia sets in again.

Between Bach and Playstation

The St. Thomas Choir in concert in Leipzig

The choir counts 92 members in total

"Singing nicely isn't enough!" bellows the choir's cantor - a strict man named Georg Christoph Biller - to his young charges. It's a statement that sums up a central task of the group. The St. Thomas project stands for preserving cultural values, not just vocally but also in terms of discipline and self-control. Bach trumps Playstation, and the good of the group takes precedence over individual desires.

One might like to believe that it's not just ambition and discipline that holds the choir together. But what is it then? The film gives a few hints - as when one boy talks about the sense of responsibility he already feels today for the 1,000th anniversary of the choir. Or when another doesn't just proclaim his love of the music on the program but immediately sits down at the piano to play it, a misty-eyed expression on his face.

Author: Anastassia Boutsko / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker

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