By: James Conlon
The Gewandhaus Orchester was the first to play the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, conducted by the composer, on November 1, 1862. The orchestra traditionally observes important anniversaries of works that were premiered there. The honor (and pleasure) fell to me last week to open the program with the Prelude before moving on to works less familiar to the orchestra and to the public in Leipzig. But even the ten minutes spent in front of one of the oldest and most distinguished “Traditionsorchestern” (as the Germans, with well-deserved pride, refer to them) is enough to drive home the immense value of tradition in the best sense of the word. (More on this subject to come.)
The city’s metamorphosis since the re-unification of Germany is astounding (I had not seen Leipzig since 1985). My afternoons were all free, as German orchestras, who often have two services in a day, usually respect the afternoon as private time. I took advantage of that, and had a week of tourism, which will remain unforgettable.
Leipzig is designated a “Musikstadt,” and it is richly deserving of the name. Of the many famous composers who lived, worked or passed through Leipzig, only Richard Wagner was born there. As was (and still is) characteristic, his relationship to the city, and its relationship to him, was testy and contentious. But standing on the street where he was born, walking upstairs to the second floor of the Nicolaischule, where he was a rebellious student, or to see the “Königshaus,” where his uncle, who had inspired Wagner’s lifelong love of literature, lived and worked, is impressive.
The old center of Leipzig is quite small but boasts an extraordinary wealth of musical history; almost all of it is within walking distance. Within its borders flourished one of the world’s greatest concentrations of compositional genius from the time of the arrival of the young Johann Sebastian Bach up until the 1930s. It is to German Classical Music what Florence is to the Italian Renaissance, a tiny square mile or two that has enriched the Western World as a zenith in cultural history. Between museums, monuments, residences and plaques, you can retrace a trail of composers and musicians equaled perhaps in a few European large capitals, but unsurpassed in a city of these compact dimensions.
Most moving for me was seeing the Thomas and Nicolai Churches, where Johann Sebastian Bach created the bulk of his life’s work. In addition, one can visit the beautiful new Bach Museum (in the house where Bach lived across the street from Thomas Church) with its interactive exhibits. Bach’s presumed remains are marked by a simple bronze plaque in the church. An organist was practicing an impressive piece of Messiaen while I was visiting, a reminder that Leipzig’s rich past was always based on being at the forefront of the “contemporary” music of the time.
Bach (and sons), Edvard Grieg, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, Clara and Robert Schumann, Georg Philipp Telemann and Richard Wagner, for starters, all lived and worked there for some period of their lives. Composers less familiar to us in America but significant in the history of German music left their mark as well: Hanns Eisler, Albert Lortzing, Heinrich Marschner, and Max Reger. Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz, as well as Wagner and Mendelssohn, visited the Schumanns in a house that is open to the public and is home to a beautiful collection of memorabilia.
There are many bookshops, and in one of them I found something of very special interest. It was a standard tourist guidebook, one devoted exclusively to Leipzig’s musical landmarks. There was one very surprising entry and there will be more to come on that subject next time.