Editor’s note: Wrangler News contributor M.V.
Moorhead and photographer Billy Hardiman
accompanied members of the famed, centuriesold
boys choir from Germany during their Sister
Cities outing to the Grand Canyon. The following is
Moorhead’s account of the trip.
One of Tempe’s nine sister cities is Regensburg,
Germany, at the confluence of the Danube and
Regen rivers in Bavaria. And one of the prides
of Regensburg—along with having Tempe, Ariz., for
a sister city—is the Regensburger Domspatzen, the
boys choir of Regensburg Cathedral.
The boys of the Domspatzen could perhaps be
considered nephews of Tempe, and in April their
American relatives got to babysit them for a few
eventful days—and let them sing for their keep.
One of the oldest and most respected boys
choirs in Europe, the Domspatzen (“Cathedral
sparrows”) traces its lineage back to 975 A.D.—
more than 500 years before the first European
would lay eyes on the Grand Canyon.
Almost another 500 years after that, the boys
from Regensburg visited the canyon and released
their angelic tones into its vast chasm. It was a
moment when geological glory met musical glory.
Just hours after an evening performance at
Tempe Center for the Arts, the Domspatzen choir
rolled north out of Tempe before dawn in a doubledecker
tour bus and arrived a few hours later in
Williams, then boarded the Grand Canyon Railroad
for the remaining leg of the trip to the canyon.
It was aboard this handsome old train that
they again broke into song: For the benefit of
the conductors, they performed a spine-tingling
rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
After they finished, Angie Thornton of Tempe
Sister Cities remarked:
“Every time they impromptu sing, I just want
them to keep singing.”
She wasn’t disappointed by the rest of the day.
After a quick buffet lunch at Grand Canyon
Village, the Domspatzen performed a concert
at Shrine of the Ages, a multi-use, multidenominational
chapel not far from the South Rim.
Their set was a mix of devotional and secular
works ranging from “Amazing Grace” to selections
by Mozart, Mendelssohn and Brahms—the encore
was a sublime version of his famous “Lullaby.” There
was more texture and variety to this music than one
might expect—while the upper-register voices of the
younger boys are ethereal, they are undergirded and
given substance by a surprisingly potent rumble of
bass from the older boys.
But having finished this short indoor program,
they weren’t done singing. The Domspatzen boys,
along with the mayor of Regensburg, the Cathedral’s
priest and other dignitaries, both German and
American, next made the short hike to the rim.
Although I’ve lived in Arizona for more than 20
years, I, like (probably all of) the boys, was among
those seeing the canyon up close for the first time,
confronted with the overwhelming, word-beggaring
beauty—and dizzying cosmic vertigo—of the view, on
a flawless, cloudless late April afternoon.
The commonplace about the canyon is that
no photo or film can do it justice. This certainly
proved true for me. The sight was majestic and
moving, although my own fear of heights also made
it unnerving, and the presence of a bunch of tussling,
roughhousing German boys next to a drop of several
thousand feet didn’t ease this anxiety.
The lads were persuaded to sing a couple more
times along the trail, their dulcet sound floating
down among the craggy impressionist sculptures
carved by the Colorado River. Just as the canyon
can’t be done justice in photos, I doubt that the
exquisite quality of the Domspatzen’s music could be
captured by a recording.
The surprised visitors present that day were
At lunch, one of the boys, Max, explained how
the choir works. It’s connected both to the Cathedral,
for whom it provides music, and to a “gymnasium”
“There are some very nice traditional songs,”
said Max, 17. “But many love the modern music more
because it’s…” He searches for the right word, can’t
times in a jazzy beat.
“We love the modern stuff.”
Max has been with the choir since
he was nine. One could theoretically be
a member until the age of 20, though
it would mean failing one’s graduation
exams two years in a row.
This seems unlikely in Max’s
case. Asked what he’d like to do for a
career, he says “Something technical,
because my language…” he shrugs
apologetically. “There are others better
He says this in better-enunciated
English than one expects from the
average American 17-year-old.
After some souvenir shopping,
the party was herded back onto the
bus and driven to a dinner of fajitas at
the Weatherford Hotel in downtown
Flagstaff, then back down I-17 to the
Valley, rolling into the parking lot
of Tempe Public Library well after
It was seriously exhausted boys
that stumbled off the bus to their
waiting host families.
But they had been given lifelong
memories that day, and with their
music they had created some lifelong
memories for all of us, too.