Leipzig, a Rejuvenated Musical Capital

By Susan James Created: October 27, 2011 Last Updated: October 27, 2011
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Leipzig has always been one of Europe’s great musical cities. Bach, Mendelssohn, Clara Wieck, Schumann, Grieg, Wagner, and Mahler, all lived and worked here. During the time of the German Democratic Republic, Leipzig’s musical luster languished, but with German Reunification in 1989, a growing number of visitors have rediscovered the city’s musical treasures.

Leipzig today has reestablished its international musical credentials and from chamber concerts to orchestral productions, from opera arias to choir cantatas, the city has again taken its place as one of the world’s great music capitals.

Key to this renaissance are the twin pillars: the Gewandhaus Orchestra, founded in 1743, and the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir, founded in 1212. Each institution has provided a platform for the composition and performance of music recognized around the world.

Conductors like Felix Mendelssohn, Wilhelm Furtwangler, Bruno Walter, Kurt Masur, and Riccardo Chailly have made the Gewandhaus one of the most important orchestras in the world.

The St. Thomas Boys’ Choir is renowned as the choral group for which Johann Sebastian Bach wrote incomparable music for 27 years. Bach lies buried in the chancel of St. Thomas Church where he was kapellmeister and his statue decorates its courtyard.

Museums for Composers

Today, across from the church, stands the Bachhaus or Bach Museum, a composite of a Baroque era building and contemporary interior design. Inside visitors can examine manuscripts and memorabilia from Bach’s life and a collection of historical instruments, including an organ used by the composer.

Cutting edge technical devices, like a light table showing digitized documents from Bach’s career that can be manipulated for closer examination, fill the rooms. Hanging chairs equipped with earphones allow visitors to curl up and listen to individual pieces of Bach’s music.

Lovers of Bach’s music owe a great debt to 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn, who happened across forgotten Bach manuscripts while rummaging in the city archives and rescued them from performance oblivion. Appointed conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835, Mendelssohn reintroduced not only Bach, but also Franz Schubert to the world by playing their music regularly.

The Mendelssohn Museum in Leipzig is the only museum dedicated solely to this important and influential composer. Located at Goldschmidstrasse 12, the museum occupies the first floor apartment where Mendelssohn lived with his wife Cecile and their children the last two years of his life. Liszt came here to visit and so did Wagner and the Schumanns and the apartment echoes with the memories of their music.

Using contemporary watercolor sketches of the décor that existed during the composer’s lifetime, the apartment has been meticulously restored. Next to Cecile’s cool apple-green parlor, the composer’s study, painted a sunny yellow, is flooded with light. His piano sits against one wall surrounded by personal mementoes, watercolors that he painted himself, and scores of his music.

In another room, a score for his great oratorio, “Elijah,” rests in a glass case near a plaster cast of his hand and photographs of the Swedish singer Jennie Lind, the great love of Mendelssohn’s life. One room of the apartment has been set up as a concert hall and regular performances of his music are held on Sunday mornings just as they were during the composer’s lifetime.

Composer Robert Schumann, a contemporary of Mendelssohn, also lived and studied in Leipzig and married his pianist wife, Clara Wieck, here. He was forbidden to marry by Clara’s father, so he and Clara waited until Clara’s 21st birthday to exchange vows and move into a first floor apartment at Inselstrasse 18, now the Schumann Museum.

Once part of a fashionable new suburb, Inselstrasse is only a few minutes walk from the heart of the city. The museum is small, just three rooms, but the spirit of the Schumanns fill the large central chamber where concerts of the composer’s music are held.

Another composer who owes a debt to Felix Mendelssohn is the Norwegian, Edvard Grieg. Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music in 1843, and from 1858-62 Grieg was a student there. He frequently visited his publishers at Talstrasse 10, now the Grieg Memorial Centre. It was here in 1888 that he composed his well-known suite of music for “Peer Gynt.”

Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the United Kingdom, and Hawaii and writes about art and culture.


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