The Great German Unknowns: Leipzig and Halle
It’s hard to believe, as you stand near the tomb of Johann Sebastian Bach, that Bach’s music and legacy were all but forgotten 70 years after his death. Even in Leipzig, where he lived for 27 years and was the choirmaster at the St. Thomas Church, his original gravesite remained unknown for at least a century.
Today, Bach music lovers flock to this city of culture and share in its rich music history. And in Leipzig—Germany’s 14th largest city but second-largest in Bach’s time—you can easily, by foot, get to know the major areas associated with Bach, Richard Wagner, and Felix Mendelssohn, just to name three.
Bach’s duties as choirmaster at the St. Thomas Church, home of the St. Thomas Boys Choir established 800 years ago, kept him very busy. After lengthy days of directing and overseeing church-related affairs, Bach would compose sometimes using songs and lyrics from Martin Luther, his soulmate. It was said that Bach’s view of church music was based on that of Luther’s, who once stated, “Noble music is next to God’s Word, the highest treasure on earth: it governs all thought, perception, heart, and mind.”
Mendelssohn made it a priority to revive interest in Bach’s music around the same time Leipzig’s native son, Richard Wagner, was born. A self-guided tour, the Leipziger Notenspur, leads you around the city explaining areas related to its musical past and to its history as a highly important trade centre.
Stasi HQ museum
Leipzig was, in more recent times, active in East Germany’s movement for peace. Starting as a protest against the arms race, the Leipzig Citizens Committee held weekly meetings, the famous Monday Demonstrations, which led to the 1989 overthrow of communism.
When the communist regime’s fall became imminent, the Citizens Committee ended up protecting the Runden Ecke, the headquarters of the dreaded secret police, the Stasi. They also wanted to protect the employees and secure the archives that the secret police had been compiling on ordinary citizens for decades.
Today, you can visit the former Stasi headquarters, now a museum, located just a five-minute walk from St. Thomas Church and the Café Baum, thought to be Germany’s oldest café.
A former insurance company headquarters, the Runden Ecke is a somewhat attractive-looking building from the outside. But it has an interior that is as lugubrious as it is terrifying.
Here, exhibits detail how citizens were tracked, spied on, and encouraged to spy on each other. A map shows the location of the scores of addresses where the Stasi could go about their shady business. This included their so-called “safe houses,” places where their agents could go without creating suspicion. One room is devoted to a “how-to-disguise” workshop, complete with a false stomach that included a hidden camera. Indeed, Polaroid cameras, used to take pictures of apartments that were to be bugged, are also on display.
Leipzig’s old town is also famous for a safe house for Luther, Germany’s best-known dissenter. Five hundred years ago, it was at the home of his friend Heinrich Stromer von Auerbach that Luther—outlawed and excommunicated by the pope—went into hiding following his break from the Catholic Church. Paintings in the home’s cellar, now a truly historic restaurant called Auerbachs Keller, show Luther disguised with a beard and long hair. This basement restaurant is a must-visit for culinary and history fans. It also celebrates its connection to German’s most beloved poet, Goethe, who was inspired to write “Faust” here.
In the neighboring city of Halle, the work of native son Handel is celebrated. You can hear the original 1664 small Reichel organ that he and Bach played on at the Market Church. There is also a strong connection to Martin Luther in Halle. He preached at the Market Church here, and his original death mask and hands have been preserved and are on view.
Nearby at the Marion Library, priceless first and second editions of the German Bible—first translated from Latin to German by Martin Luther—are on display. The rarest books have dedications in Luther’s own handwriting.
There is a huge Handel festival in Halle every spring. At the Handel House, details of the composer’s life are delved into in great detail, explaining how he became the equivalent of a European music superstar in the 18th century.
Handel traveled extensively throughout Italy and in England, although he returned often to visit his family in Halle. His renown was guaranteed when he became England’s most cherished musician, a favourite of the Royal family and the London public at the Kings Theatre, Haymarket. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, a rare privilege for foreigners.
The Red Tower, located next to the Market Church, a Halle landmark, chimes the Westminster Gong hourly reminding us of the connection between Handel and London. As a matter of fact, since major repairs have silenced Big Ben, Halle will be the only place you can hear the Westminster Gong in the foreseeable future.
Motel One Leipzig-Augustusplatz:https://tinyurl.com/y7pzxuym
Bach Leipzig Festival: https://tinyurl.com/y9dp5v4g
Dorint Hotel Charlottenhof in Halle: https://tinyurl.com/y7pl4y49
Halle Handel Festival: https://tinyurl.com/yc8rzgpt
German National Tourist Board: https://tinyurl.com/8axfwct
Bruce Sach is a veteran travel writer based in Ottawa.