LEIPZIG JOURNAL: PART 2

By James Conlon

I had intended to submit this entry on December 15, the day after the terrible events in Newtown, CT. I found it impossible to think about anything else, and felt it was inappropriate, if not disrespectful, to publish it on that day. I have kept it for the New Year and offer it to the reader with my best wishes for 2013.

At the end of my previous entry, I was wandering around the streets of Leipzig and reveling in the cultural riches it has to offer. From Bach to Stockhausen, this city has played a historic role disproportionate to its size, and the Gewandhaus Orchestra can be credited with having kept much of that alive.

The orchestra derives its name from “garment house” and had its first home on the second floor of a commercial center used by merchants to exchange wool and cloth. Mozart performed there once, in 1789. Mendelssohn, who became the first “modern” conductor by insisting on standing in front of the now larger ensemble of musicians and taking the reins from the concertmaster and continuo player, transformed and led the way to the expanded nineteenth-century orchestra. That building saw the world premieres of Schubert’s “Great” C Major, Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” and Schumann’s “Spring” Symphonies. The premiere of the Meistersinger Prelude was shared with Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto played by Hans von Bülow. Later, when the orchestra had long outgrown its home, a new, magnificent “Second” Gewandhaus was opened in 1884. Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss all conducted their own works there; Nikisch, Furtwängler and Walter were among its principal conductors.

In 1878, The Leipzig Opera became the first theater to produce Wagner’s Ring Cycle outside of Bayreuth. Earlier in the 19th century it was a center for so-called German “Spieloper,” with premieres of Carl Maria von Weber’s Oberon, and other important firsts by Marschner, Lortzing and Schumann. In the 20th century, at times in the avant- garde, with Kurt Weill’s Mahagonny Songspiel and Ernst Krenek’s groundbreaking “jazz” opera, Jonny spielt auf. Soon after the reunification, two parts of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Licht were premiered in 1993 and 1996.

I also went to see the house in which the young Erwin Schulhoff lived when he came to study in Leipzig at thirteen years of age. My interest in him and the subject of composers who were suppressed by the Nazis is not unknown, and so I was appreciative in a very personal way that the importance of one of these composers was recognized in a standard tourist guidebook. I cannot remember ever seeing a comparable reference to any other “suppressed” composer anywhere in the world. An entire page was devoted to him, including the address of the building in which he lived. I went to find it, a bit off the beaten path in what now seems to me to be a Russian-speaking neighborhood.

The building is currently being renovated. I took pictures of the construction site (which looks like any other), struggling to master my new iPhone. In its present condition the structure is without poetry, as perhaps befits Schulhoff’s fate in a Bavarian internment camp. But in an illuminating irony, a sign still hangs on a window. It reads: LIVE Guitar-Night, Jazz Session, Rock and Blues Session, Psychedelic Session. EINTRITT FREI (free admission). Almost exactly one hundred years ago, Schulhoff, with his classical education, passionately embraced and promoted jazz as the future of Western Music. He was in the Post World War I avant-garde and spent many a night, often until the crack of dawn, in such tiny establishments.

One might think that Leipzig has enjoyed all of this in a seamless and untroubled atmosphere, but it was not at all so easy. It maintained itself throughout the twentieth century’s turbulent political history. What is perhaps most admirable of all, is that music has remained deeply and firmly ingrained in the culture of this city. We all are aware of the hard economic times we are currently experiencing in our country, and worrying about the future of classical music, and rightly so. But it is nothing compared to what the Leipzigers have experienced in their history. I think we can draw inspiration from their example.

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