At the feet of the master: a Bach performance under the Bach memorial at the St Thomas’s Church (photo: LTM_PK Fotographie)
Leipzig was the home to more high-profile composers during the 18th and 19th centuries than almost any other city in the world – and now launches an initiative to celebrate them in style
Look closely at the Schuke organ that forms the focal point of the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig, and you will see the words ‘Res severa verum gaudium’ spelled out below a splendid spray of horizontal silver trumpets. ‘True pleasure is a serious affair,’ is the general gist of the Latin phrase. In this town, it is more than appropriate. There are few cities in the world that take the enjoyment of music as seriously as Leipzig does, and the Saxon metropolis is about to prove it in style.
In truth, that has long been the case, from the Leipzig of Luther’s time to the buzzing metropolis that was recently named European City of the Year by the British Academy of Urbanism. Exactly 500 years ago, the ‘Leipzig Debate’ saw Martin Luther defend his ideas against fellow theologian Johann Eck. The theological upheavals that followed – including Luther’s belief that music ‘is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind’ – would reshape Europe and underpin the philosophy of the greatest composer associated with the city: Johann Sebastian Bach.
Four hundred and seventy years later, another Leipzig musician would prove that true pleasure is indeed a very serious affair – one with the potential to shift European politics and the world order. In September 1989, under those silver trumpets not yet a decade old, Kurt Masur conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a performance of Brahms’s second symphony for an audience of politicians from both sides of divided Germany, having invited them to the city for talks. It was the beginning of the end for a divided Germany – the precursor to the Monday Demonstrations that would lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Was it the music, ultimately, that swayed them?
The Gewandhaus and the Panorama Tower (photo: LTM Punctum)
Leipzig’s New Dawn
The modern Gewandhaus opened in 1981 as the third home to what Herbert von Karajan described as ‘the mother of all orchestras in Germany’. It was driven from drawing board to reality by Kurt Masur’s vision of renewal and pride, and by city authorities as ready to celebrate their home’s unmatched musical heritage then as they are today.
Though it bears some of the most distinctive hallmarks of that difficult period, the new Gewandhaus on Augustusplatz was ahead of its time – a structure that preempted the boom that would transform the historic Saxon city two decades later. First came new BMW and Porsche plants in 2000, and next a population explosion that would see the number of citizens soar.
Then came visitors from around the world and an acknowledgment from the international media that if you were going to visit one city in Germany, it might as well be this one. In this new century, Leipzig’s wide boulevards and functional transport hubs dating from before World War II – back when the city’s population first expected to reach 1 million – came into their own. Now, Leipzig is not so much Germany’s best-kept secret as its most celebrated pearl.
In one sense, nothing has changed: those were precisely the qualities that had made Leipzig a mecca for creative artists for centuries. Bach was desperate to get here. Goethe praised the city to the heavens, calling it ‘a small Paris.’ Nietzsche found his earliest intellectual stimulation at Leipzig’s university and Mendelssohn found it the perfect place to build an orchestral tradition that arguably remains unsurpassed in the world. In fact, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Berlioz, Strauss, Nikisch and Furtwängler were just some of the many musicians who clamoured to conduct the Gewandhaus Orchestra after Mendelssohn, with its illustrious history dating back to 1743.
City of Composers
No city on earth boasts such strong links to music’s greatest personalities as Leipzig does, and it is revealing how many of them came here by choice. Bach had his most productive years having applied successfully for the job as music director of the Leipzig Churches. Robert Schumann came to the city to study with the greatest masters, benefitting from a music life that had been electrified by Mendelssohn. Mahler got his first major conducting appointment here, during which he conducted his first (nearly) complete Ring Cycle. Wagner, unusually, was one of the few composers actually born in the city. Another was Clara Schumann, a composer at last achieving the recognition she deserves.
Almost all those composers drew inspiration from the past – from Leipzig’s musical imagination and innovation (the very qualities that led to the establishment of the Gewandhaus Orchestra by Leipzig’s merchant class). In the same way, Leipzig draws inspiration from them in nurturing its own music life today, creating a classical music scene that combines the best of world-class performances with a comprehensive, unified vision for programming that is unsurpassed. From 2020, the city’s four major musical institutions will combine to present ‘Music Festivals Leipzig’ – a yearly celebration dedicated to a composer, or era in music, to which the city bears particularly strong links. Of course, there is only one place to start, and that is with Johann Sebastian Bach.
When Mendelssohn set about turning Leipzig into the musical hub of northern Europe, he did so by looking back to Bach. Mendelssohn reminded the townsfolk that the man who had once been music director of their churches was one of the greatest musician who had ever lived; in 1829 – years with a ‘nine’ at the end appear to hold special significance for the city of Leipzig – Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in over a century.
A performance inside Leipzig’s St Thomas’s Church
Bachfest Leipzig 2020
Back in the composer’s day, the musical dynasty that was the Bach family would meet once a year in Thuringia, just west of Leipzig, to eat, drink, exchange news and make music together. In 2020, the oldest of Bach Festivals, the Neue Bachgesellschaft, will go to extraordinary lengths to recreate the spirit of the occasion by presenting its festival in Leipzig and inviting more than 250 similar societies from across the globe to join in.
In the image of the Bach family festival, Leipzig’s Bach Festival 2020 promises to be ‘the greatest family reunion the worldwide Bach community has ever held,’ and you are invited. In the spirit of the Bach jamborees of the eighteenth century, the music will not be confined to Johann Sebastian Bach or even the Bach family, and will include those who shaped the musical world they knew.
Never before has a Bach celebration of this scale been seen in Leipzig, a town forever associated with the composer. The repertoire covered will be comprehensive. Both Johann Sebastian Bach’s extant Passion settings will be heard at St Thomas’s Church; late night concerts will cover his entire works for solo violin and cello; more than 30 specialist Bach ensembles from six continents will give performances of his complete sacred cantatas at churches throughout the city in concert and liturgical performances. The motto of the festival is simple: We are Family. Come to Leipzig and join the family too.
Ticket packages range from €150-320, and are available from the Bach Museum Shop and at bachfestleipzig.de
Sometimes, it can be hard to know just which great composer to associate more closely with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – the ensemble that performed the first complete cycle of Beethoven’s symphonies, was changed forever by Felix Mendelssohn, and came to be inextricably associated with Brahms as well as Bach.
We can add Gustav Mahler to that list too. When Mahler set about transforming the reputation, quality and operating model of the Vienna Staatsoper, he was enacting valuable lessons learnt in Leipzig. In July 1886, Mahler arrived in the city to take charge of the Neue Stadttheater, and immediately subjected its employees to his famously high standards. For two years, Mahler conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on an almost daily basis.
The two years Mahler spent in Leipzig were vital for his development and his career. He made key contacts in the music world, became the composer we know him as today and even took his first enthralling symphonic steps – sketching out his groundbreaking Symphony No 1 while in the employment of the Stadttheater (he also wrote his song cycle Das knaben Wunderhorn in the city).
In recognition of this decisive period in Mahler’s career, in 2021 the city will swing its festival spotlight onto the composer for a twelve-day festival. The Gewandhaus Orchestra will joined by nine counterparts for performances of the composer’s complete symphonic oeuvre. Gewandhauskapellmeister Andris Nelsons will take his orchestra through the gigantic Symphonies Nos 2 and 8, while orchestras of the highest pedigree from Germany, Austria, Holland and Great Britain will join for the remaining symphonies, song cycles and the formative cantata Das klagende Lied.
With guests including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Mahler youth Orchestra, this survey of the composer’s seismic cycle of symphonies on live, love and death will be the most intensive Mahler experience the city has seen since Mahler left in May 1888.
Mahler 2021 takes place from 13-24 May 2021; for concert details and ticket packages, visit gewandhausorchester.de
As the resident orchestra of Europe’s third oldest opera company Opera Leipzig, the Gewandhaus Orchestra is more than familiar with the opera house on the other side of Augustusplatz to its concert hall. The building opened with a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1960, and occupies the very site on which Wagner saw a production of Beethoven’s Fidelio in 1827 and vowed to follow in that composer’s footsteps.
By 2022, Opera Leipzig will be the only company of its kind in the world to have Wagner’s entire mature operatic output in its repertory. More than that, it will present all those works that very summer, in the order in which they were written (with the exception of the Ring operas). The summer of Wagner will open with a brand-new production of the composer’s first mature opera, Der fliegende Holländer and will culminate in a full Ring cycle conducted by the house’s music director Ulf Schirmer – the first new Ring cycle seen in the city for over 40 years.
With Wagner’s entire mature output presented in the space of just three weeks by a first class cast of conductors and singers, Leipzig’s Richard Wagner Festival in 2022 will be an event without precedent or equal. A testament to the genius of Wagner and the Leipzig composers on whose shoulders he stood, yes. But also a testament to Leipzig’s traditions and its resurgence – a city whose illustrious past makes it more than a museum, but a dynamic destination whose ambitions are only eclipsed by its welcome.
Wagner 2022 takes place in June and July 2022; visit oper-leipzig.de for more details and booking procedures