Postcard from Germany: Leipzig

In making travel arrangements and changing schedules at various points throughout the week, the patient customer service workers for Deutsche Bahn assured us that there wasn’t anything to see in Leipzig. Perhaps they’re right. It’s mainly a college town, and has a fairly East German bleak feel to the city once you get outside the city center. The art museum is modest, though notable for housing few excellent paintings by Max Klinger. The other museums and sights are small and perhaps a bit niche.  

Lucky for you (and me?), niche is my thing.  

Leipzig was home to none other than Johann Sebastian Bach for the last few decades of his life. In serving as Cantor at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Bach made perhaps his most lasting musical impression on the world. After a series of crap jobs and even a stint in prison, Leipzig is where Bach arguably landed on his feet. There he composed over 150 Cantatas, the Goldberg Variations, the Partitas for Keyboard, got himself published, and raised a family of musicians who would go off on to even larger careers (though they are perhaps less well known).  

At the Thomaskirche, one can see Bach’s grave, moved to the front of the church just in front of the altar. Across the street, one can see his house, and learn about the context of his life and the instruments he composed for. One can go downstairs and consult the resident musicologists leading way in publishing Bach’s works in usable format while remaining true to his autograph scores.  

But more than that, one sees in Leipzig the sense of renewal, though not just of Bach. The Thomaskirche once was the office of Felix Mendelssohn, the man responsible for reviving Bach’s works and reintroducing them to the public consciousness. But just as Bach was restored, so was Mendelssohn. One can see the Mendelssohn window in the church, a symbol of recognition of Mendelssohn’s rightful place in the musical canon, despite the attempts of National Socialist ideology to remove him on the basis of his Jewish heritage. The orchestra in Leipzig is Europe’s first professional “orchestra” as we know it, having survived the revolutions of of the nineteenth century and the dissolution of the Weimar Republic. The Thomaskirche’s boychoir is just over 800 years old, a continuous institution that flourished under Bach and Mendelssohn, and survived the Second World War, a communist regime and the fall of GDR.  

Yes, to an extent these sights and sounds are niche, and perhaps overblown in our understanding of the history of classical music. But the city breathes music. Because of the attempts to revive and preserve music in cycles throughout Germany’s turbulent past, the musician’s Leipzig is not just a series of relics as much as a memorial to the endurance of music.  

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