I am a camera - Leipzig

Creative home of Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Wagner, the setting for a scene of Goethe's Faust, birthplace of GDR dictator Walter Ulbricht and home to the dreaded Stasi secret police, victim of Allied bombing and Communist urban planning, a thriving university city with a dynamic arts scene ..... that is Leipzig. I was a camera there last weekend, here are my snapshots ...

4th March - 5.00pm
Grosser Saal, Gewandhaus
Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
Praeludium in F BuxWV 144
Cantata 'O wie sellig sind, die zu dem Abendmahl des Lammes berufen sind' BuxWV 90
Chorale Prelude 'Nun lob mein Seel und Wohl' BuxWV 213
Cantata 'Wie schmeckt es so lieblich und wohl' BuxWV 108
Chorale Prelude 'Nun lob mein Seel und Wohl' BuxWV 215
Chorale Prelude 'Nun lob mein Seel und Wohl' BuxWV 214
Cantata 'Lauda Sion Salvatorem' BuxWV 68
Chorale Prelude 'Vater unser im Mimmelriech' BuxWV 219
Cantata 'Pange lingua gloriosi' BuxWV 91
Merseburger Hofmusik with Michael Schönheit organ and direction
Friederike Holzhausen & Julie Koch sopranos
Annette Reinhold alto, Gotthold Schwarz bass

Johann Sebastian Bach held Dietrich Buxtehude in high esteem, and according to legend walked more than 200 miles to meet him in Lubeck, yet today Buxtehude still does not receive the recognition he deserves - I wonder why? This excellent concert underlined the importance of Buxtehude as a direct predecessor of Bach. The concert was held in the main concert hall of the Gewandhaus and alternated organ chorales with cantatas. It was a physical as well as musical feat for organist and director Michael Schönheit as he directed the cantatas from a chamber organ on the main platform, and then trotted up several flights of stairs back-stage to appear at the console of the mighty Schuke organ for the chorales, then trotted back down for the next cantata.

The Gewandhaus Hall of 1884 was reduced to ruins in a bombing raid in 1944, but the shell of the hall was kept in the hope that it could be rebuilt. But in 1968, in a spate of GDR vandalism masquerading as urban renewal, the ruins were demolished together with the University Chapel (see below) and other historic buildings to make way for the mixture of concrete cubes and towers beloved by communist urban planners. As well as the new concert hall the 34-storey Universitatschochhaus skyscraper is the legacy of this urban renewal. This new home for Leipzig University was a pet project of the then GDR dictator Walter Ulbricht, a native of Leipzig. The Universitatschochhaus is typical of the empty gestures totally lacking in any economic or aesthetic substance that started the peaceful revolution in Leipzig in 1989 described below. It is particularly appropriate that the collapse of the Communist GDR began in this city with its many connections to the despised regime, not the least of which was the headquarters of the dreaded Stasi secret police (logo above) located on the Dittrichring.

The new Gewandhaus, which opened in 1981, has a wonderful interior and acoustics, but the exterior with its 70s brutalism does not let us forget it is a product of the GDR. And I apologise for the gallows humour, but the fine Schuke organ with its array of silver pipes facing the audience reminds me of the 'Stalin organ' rocket launchers used by the Russians in the Battle of Berlin.

5th March - 9.30pm
Sunday service at St Thomas' Church (photo above) with St Thomas' Boys Choir
Johann Sebastian Bach
Motet 'Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn' BWV Anh. lll/159 with Choral BWV 421
Gunther Ramin

Chorale prelude 'Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit'
(Ramin directed music at the Thomaskirche for sixteen years from 1940, always swimming against the tide of contemporary tastes, fighting the Nazis to uphold the Christian basis of the Thomaskirche’s musical tradition and fighting the post-war socialist governing party [SED], which finally had to concede that the choir would only continue to be a source of foreign revenue if it were allowed to pursue the Bach tradition.)
Carl Philip Emanuel Bach
Adagio from Sonata in A Wq 70/4
Johann Sebastian Bach
Fugue BWV 552/2

To hear Bach's music in a liturgical context in his own church, and sung by the choir of which he was Cantor from the very organ loft where he made music for twenty-seven years is one of life's great moments. As if this was not enough the service I attended marked the twentieth anniversary of the appointment of the current organist of St Thomas', Ullrich Böhme. The service closed with him playing the great five-voice triple fugue BV 552/2 from the Clavier-Ubung lll on the new 'Bach organ' built by Gerald Woehl for the Bach 250th anniversary year of 2000 - Rarely, rarely comest thou, Spirit of Delight!

J.S. Bach became Cantor of St Thomas' and Musikdirector of Leipzig in 1723, and worked in the city until his death in 1750. (His predecesor as Cantor was the little known Johann Kuhnau who I wrote about recently.) During his period in Leipzig Bach composed many of the masterpieces of Western music including the St Matthew and St John Passions, the B minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio, the Art of Fugue and the Clavier-Ubung lll.

The history of the four churches in Leipzig in which Bach worked is closely associated with the turbulent politics of the 20th century. His teaching appointment was at St Thomas', and this historic church has thankfully survived, with the famous statue in my heading photo standing outside. The 15th century triptych altar (photo above) by an anonymous artist was moved to the church when the University Church of St Paul, with which Bach was also associated, was destroyed in 1968 by the GDR redevelopment described above, also lost was the organ there on which Bach often performed. The specification and casing of the new 'Bach organ' in St Thomas' were built to resemble the instrument in the University Church.

St Thomas' contains Bach's mortal remains. They were moved there from their previous resting place in another of his churches, St John's, which was totally destroyed in World War ll. My photo below shows the simple black stone that marks the final resting place of the composer that Max Reger described as the beginning and end point of all music.

We can rejoice that St Thomas' survives while sadly the University Church of St Paul and the church of St John's are no more. Also surviving is the fourth church closely linked to Bach, the Nicolai Church. This is famous as the venue for the first performance of the St John Passion. But today Nicolai Church is best known for the the candle-lit vigils and demonstrations that started there in 1989 before gathering momentum to become the Wende, the peaceful revolution that toppled the Communist dictatorship, and opened the door to the elections that led to German re-unification in 1990. The truly inspirational story of these events is best told by the Rev. C. Führer of the Nicolai Church:

'From 8 May 1989, the driveways to the church were blocked by the police. Later the driveways and motorway exits were subject to large-scale checks or even closed during the prayers-for-peace period. The state authorities exerted greater pressure on us to cancel the peace prayers or at least to transfer them to the city limits. Monday after monday there were arrests or "temporary detentions" in connection with the peace prayers. Even so, the number of visitors flocking to the church continued to grow to a point where the 2.000 seats were no longer sufficient. Then came the all-deciding 9 October 1989. And what a day it was!

There was a hideous show of force by soldiers, industrial militia, police and plain-clothes officers. But the opening scene had taken place two days before on 7 October, the 40th anniversary of the GDR, which entered into GDR history as Remembrance Day. On this day, for 10 long hours, uniformed police battered defenceless people who made no attempt to fight back and took them away in trucks. Hundreds of them were locked up in stables in Markkleeberg. In due course, an article was published in the press saying that it was high time to put an end to what they called "counter-revolution, if necessary by armed forces". That was the situation like on 9 October 1989.

Moreover, some 1.000 SED party (logo above) members had been ordered to go to the St. Nicholas Church. 600 of them had already filled up the church nave by 2 p.m. They had a job to perform like the numerous Stasi personnel who were on hand regularly at the peace prayers. What has not been considered was the fact, that these people were exposed to the word, the gospel and its impact!

Thus, the prayers for peace took place in unbelievable calm and concentration (see press photo from dhm.de below). Shortly before the end, before the bishop gave his blessing, appeals by Professor Masur, chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, and others who supported our call for non-violence, were read out. The solidarity between church and art, music and the gospel was of importance in the threatening situation of those days. The prayers for peace ended with the bishop's blessing and the urgent call for non-violence. More than 2.000 people leaving the church were welcomed by ten thousands waiting outside with candles in their hands - an unforgettable moment. Two hands are necessary to carry a candle and to protect it from extinguishing so that you can not carry stones or clubs at the same time. The miracle occurred.

Troops, (military) brigade groups and the police were drawn in, became engaged in conversations, then withdrew. It was an evening in the spirit of our Lord Jesus for there were no winners and no defeated, nobody triumphed over the other, nobody lost his face. There was just a tremendous feeling of relief. This non-violent movement only lasted a few weeks. But it caused the party and ideological dictatorship to collapse. Horst Sindermann, who was a member of the Central Committee of the GDR, said before his death: "We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers".'

Political awareness remains high in Leipzig, and my photo below is of a candle-lit vigil for political prisoners that was taking place while we were there this week.

5th March - 4.00pm
Mendelssohn Haus, Goldscmidstrasse
Georg Philipp Telemann - Sonatine in G for violin and bass continuo (1718)
Arcangelo Corelli - Sonata Vll for violin and bass continuo Op 5 (1700)
Jean-Philipp Rameau - Suite in A from Premier livre de clavecin (1705/06)
Johann Hermann Schein - Sixth suite in A from 'Banchetto musicale' (1617)
Georg Philipp Telemann - Sonata Nr 5 in E from 'Sonate metodiche' (1617)
Johann Sebastian Bach - Invention from Sinfonia for Harpsichord (1723)
Georg Friedrich Handel - Sonata in A Op 1 Nr 3 for violin and bass continuo
Kristina Gerlach, baroque violin and Christian Hornef, harpsichord

Finally to remind us of the many other musicians associated with this most musical of cities a recital at the Mendelssohn House, the Biedermeier dwelling of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in the last years of his life. Mendelssohn was Kapellmeister at the Gewandhaus, and in 1829 directed a pioneering performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie, and is commemorated as a champion of Bach in a stained-glass window in St Thomas'. Hearing this programme of exquisite chamber music in the very rooms in which Mendelssohn lived was an appropriate end to an unforgetable weekend.

CDs bought in Leipzig:
J.S.Bach - Leipzig Chorales played on the 'Bach organ' in St Thomas' by Almut Rossler, Motette DCD 13151 - pure digital magic!
Bach und die Romantik - music for organ, chorus and harp from composers ranging from Desprez and Palestrina, through Bach to Britten and Erhard Mauersberger (brother of Dresden Requiem composer Rudolf Mauersberger, a fine composer in his own right) sung by the Dresden based vocal ensemble Die VokalRomantiker whose members include former choristers from the Dresden Kreuzchor and St Thomas' in Leipzig. This is the group's fifth 'concept' CD and it is very well worth getting hold of, programmers for PSB stations will find it particularly rewarding, Querstand VKJK 0509.
Mendelssohn Choral Works - 10 CDs for €25 another Brilliant bargain with the Chamber Choir of Europe directed by Nicol Matt, Brilliant Classics 99997.
Salvatore Sacco -
Missa 1607, Templum Musicae directed by Vincenzo Di Donato, a wonderful early 17th century Mass from this little known pupil of Palestrina on the Carus label which brought us Mauerberger's Dresden Requiem, Carus 83.191.
- not purchased in Leipzig but worth noting is Francis Jacob's excellent Pièces pour Orgue which offers a selection of Buxtehude's chorales for organ and voice, released on the enterprising Zig-Zag Territoires label which also brought us Jacob's Clavier-übung III.

More small print ... the practical details - we flew London Stansted to Altenburg (Leipzig) with Ryanair. Altenburg is best known for the 1739 Trost organ in the Palace Church which was audited by Bach. We stayed at the Holiday Inn, Garden Court in Leipzig using a very good deal via Lastminute.com. We also visited Zwickau, Schumann's birthplace, but that is another article .... All photos taken by Pliable on Casio EX - Z120 digital camera, (C) On An Overgrown Path. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
Related resources On An Overgrown Path include * I am a camera - Dresden * I am a camera - Berlin * A Passion for Bach * Gentlemen, old Bach is here * Mortal defeat for the mob in Paris * Dresden requiem for eleven young victims * Karl Richter in Munich *


Garth Trinkl said…
Welcome back, Pliable, and thank you for your wonderful pictorial, musical mini-travelogue -- and the many interesting links!

First, I must say that I was very happy seeing the blue sky in your photos, given that you were worried not only about Arctic temperatures, but also March Central European snowfalls.

Your report brought back memories of my trip to Leipzig 5 years ago at Easter-tide; and I enjoyed the musical, architectural, urban, and political focus of your report.

A few brief comments/questions as we await your recovery and separate Zwickau/Schumann report:

I recall the 34-storey Universitatschochhaus skyscraper having the MDR (Middle German Radio) logo and transmitter at its apex. Did you notice this? I remember broadcast cables running from the Gewandhaus Concert Hall into this skyscrapper. Also, did you see the bizarre 19th c. Max Klinger sculpture of Beethoven in the Concert Hall atrium, and the, in my opinion, aweful neo-expressionist/graffiti art mural in the same atrium?

Did you and your wife happen to catch the new white Leipzig Art Museum, designed by O M Unger, which opened, I think, in 2002?

I also recall the beautiful urban park on the west side of the city, as well as the vast tracks of slums on the east side of the city near the beautiful Mendelssohn House. I hope that the slums, largely comprised of fine architecture, are beginning to be redeveloped. However, given the high unemployment rates in eastern Germany, I someone doubt much progress has yet been made. [I remember some of the buildings were slated to become specialized museums and student housing for the huge Leipzig University.]

Thanks again for your report and camerawork!
Pliable said…
Hi Garth and many thanks for your kind words, and yes we were lucky with the weather. But we had quite a bit of snow which could have caused a problem for the return flight. Ryanair's highly profitable business model involves finding municipal airfields in the middle of nowhere, and then getting the local town to pay handsomely for the privilege of a daily flight which brings tourist money. Altenburg is a perfect example, a disused Lufwaffe base complete still with numerous blast shelters. The once a day Ryanair flight is the only commercial traffic - thankfully the runways were clear of snow, but I would not like to be there in a blizzard.

Leipzig is one big building site. The main project is the 'city tunnel' which puts rail links across the city centre, but currently means virtually every public space is a large hole with pile-drivers, look to the left in my photo of St Thomas' and you can see the omni-present scaffolding. As you say many old buildings have been renovated, but the problem remains of the communist public housing. The four large GDR apartment blocks between the main railway station and the city centre (next to the new Art Museum) are all empty (complete still with Welcome to Leipzig in Russian on one fascia!) awaiting demolition.

Even sixteen years after Wende the economic blight is startingly evident, particularly outside the cities. Everywhere there are empty houses, derelict factories and warehouses,and disused railway buildings - many pock-marked still with bullet and shell scars from WWll. The green shoots are definitely there, and town centres such as Zwickau are immaculate because all the infra-structure is new. But travel on the trains and you see the huge challenges facing the whole German economy. Yes, we even saw Trabants on the road, and I have a photo for my next article to prove it.

I can confirm the Universitatschochhaus is still the broadcast base for the Leipzig channel of MDR, and by the miracle of the internet I listen to Telemann's Der Herr ist König, TWV 8:6 (Kantate für Sopran, Tenor, Baß, 4stimmigen being webcast by MDR as I type, just follow this link to listen.
Anonymous said…
I have your blog on my radar. I made a short note that our Karl Richter in Munich readers and friends should visit and enjoy your great blog.

Karl Richter got his grounding on Bach's music performance in Leipzig under Karl Straube and Guenther Ramin, and the younger brother of my friend Pia was a member of the Thomaner Choir and we have still good and regular contacts.

Best regards,
Pliable said…
Wonderful to see the truly international response to this article, here are just some of them:

Russian Federation

Germany - Leipzig

North Carolina

Many thanks to all my fellow bloggers for the links.
Pliable said…
And a nice blog of Leipzig related stories via this link.

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