Absolute Classic

Radiating onto Augustusplatz, the Gewandhaus Hall’s vast interior mural, 'Gesang vom Leben' (Song of Life) by painter Sighard Gille is the largest contemporary painting of its kind in Europe. Image Punctum / Leipzig Travel.
Radiating onto Augustusplatz, the Gewandhaus Hall’s vast interior mural, 'Gesang vom Leben' (Song of Life) by painter Sighard Gille is the largest contemporary painting of its kind in Europe. Image Punctum / Leipzig Travel.

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Leipzig in Saxony, eastern Germany, has a more valid claim than almost any European cultural centre to the title ‘City of Music’. Famous as the workplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, tutor to the Thomanerchor Boys’ Choir at St. Thomas church, where his students’ latter-day successors still perform to this day, it was also the long-time home of the Mendelssohns Felix and Fanny, and to Clara and Robert Schumann, birthplace of Richard Wagner and pilgrimage-destination for his operas and the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, and – why stop there? – one-time home to Edvard Grieg, Gustav Mahler and Hanns Eisler, not to mention Germany’s most renowned author, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was inspired to write his Faust when studying law here.

The city’s 5.3km Music Trail, or Notenspur, is denoted by stainless steel flashes set into the pavement. Image Philipp Kirschner / Leipzig Travel.

Running a thread between them all is the city’s Music Trail – a route around the compact city centre, marked out by stainless-steel ribbon-like flashes set into the street paving. Key annual music festivals on the horizon include Leipzig Bachfest (7th – 16th June 2024), the ballet festival Leipzig Dances! (21st – 29th June 2024), the Mendelssohn Festival (28th Oct – 4th Nov), the Shostakovitch Festival (15th May – 1st June 2025). For those who want it dark, heavy and Gothic, the annual Wave-Gotik-Treffen is 17th – 20th May this year.

Lying at a key trade cross-roads – north to northern Europe, south to Africa, west to the Americas, east to Asia – the city coined the concept of the annual trade fair, where merchants would show samples of their wares, taking orders to fulfil in due course rather than selling everything on-the-spot. Leipzig still performs that function, with its giant 1990’s trades hall hosting prestigious international business fairs of all kinds: maybe fitting that the city is a hub for distribution giants Amazon and DHL.

During the post-war decades, as part of the insular German Democratic Republic, the fairs were a rare opportunity to gain valuable revenue by interacting with the increasingly-prosperous west, and this internationally-facing city went on to spur the Peaceful Revolution of 1989, which took root in gatherings at the city’s St Nicholas church, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which proved the catalyst for the dramatic collapse of the Soviet Communist system.

Other musical giants adopted by the city include Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, whose works became a mainstay of Leipzig’s musical landscape after he visited the city in 1950 as a juror at the Bach Competition. In an ambitious undertaking marking the 50th anniversary of his death, in 2025 the biannual festival dedicated to him will see all of his symphonies performed at the Gewandhaus Concert Hall over a fortnight.

Leipzig now numbers among the most dynamic and popular city destinations in Germany, if not Europe: it benefits from a compact centre and its attractions, lying within a stone’s throw of each other, make it among the most endearing and accessible.

In the 1700s Leipzig’s burgeoning merchant class established a network of houses – leafy residential oases with public rooms designed to impress – in the midst of the town’s swarming industry. This was the rise of the Baroque: a flowering of enlightenment in the arts and culture, and advances in science. The wealthy family Bose lived opposite St Thomas’ Church. Bach’s workplace from 1723, besides staging its own concerts, it was responsible for the music at the Opera, and the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir, making it a central institution for the town. In high demand, the Kappelmeister also composed music for the city’s coffee houses. It is at the church that Johann Sebastian found his final resting place, after his grave went unmarked for nearly 150 years before being discovered and reburied in a vault within. 

Outside his workplace, the St Thomas church, J S Bach is depicted with his musical score, and waistcoat unbuttoned for its ready storage and retrieval. Conducting by hand in Bach’s day was customary – batons had yet to become standard. Image David White.

The Bach Museum is a restoration of the Bosehaus, displaying in its permanent exhibition a comprehensive overview of Johann Sebastian’s life and work and affording visitors the chance to immerse themselves in Bach’s world of the early 1700s – its instruments, church and secular cultures, told in documents and artworks from the time. Many of his significant musical contributions during his 27 years in Leipzig, where he composed renowned works such as the St. John and St. Matthew Passion, survive and are archived by the Museum. 300 years ago on Easter Friday 1724 the St. John Passion was premiered in St Nicolas Church. 

There’s some fascinating insights, such as how he got the job (Johann Sebastian was actually third choice for Kappelmeister to the town) and interesting pointers as to where you can hear his music in modern-era pop hits, from the 1960s (The Beatles) through the 1980s (The Beach Boys) to the 2010s (Lady Gaga). You can view some instruments from the period – many of which look strange to modern eyes – and you can ‘mix’ your own ensemble piece, isolating the harpsichord, for instance. J S was, it is said, by far the most accomplished cembalo (harpsichord) player in his day: an all-comers’ competition in Dresden was abandoned when the reputed world’s best, visiting, threw in the towel.

The 1740s saw the first concert enterprises come into being, with the gentry organising musical events for experts and friends of classical music, for an admission fee. This gave root to Gewandhausorchester concerts, named after the drapery merchants’ houses where they first took place. Schumann, Brahms, Liszt and Tchaikovsky were among those airing their work, either to be accepted or shunned by Leipzig’s well-to-do audiences. The Gewandhaus’ musical directors, from Felix Mendelssohn in the 1830s through Kurt Masur in the 1980s, steered the repertoire.

Sighard Gille’s interior mural, ‘Gesang vom Leben’ (Song of Life) is reflected in The Gewandhaus Hall‘s foyer. Image Philipp Kirschner / Leipzig Travel.

Remarkably, Mendelssohn was a relatively lone exponent of J S Bach’s works, which had lain ignored for many years: Bach’s reputation would maybe have remained disregarded to this day were it not for Mendelssohn’s patronage – quite a thought.

Designed by local architect Rudolf Skoda and opened in 1981, the third Gewandhaus Concert Hall is an exemplar of modern, acoustically-attuned architecture, and was commissioned in response to the Gewandhausorchester’s then-musical director Kurt Masur, who insisted on a fittingly world-class performance space for his Orchester as a condition for taking-up his appointment.

The auditorium of the Gewandhaus Concert Hall. Image Tom Williger / Leipzig Travel.

Across the city’s central Augustusplatz, the Oper Leipzig enjoys an outstanding international reputation as a performance venue and opera company, performing with leading international soloists, its award-winning choir and the Leipzig Ballet, and staging a wide range of works from Baroque to modern operas and ballets, operating in tandem with the Gewandhausorchester.

This fretted 6-string ‘cello is displayed in the GRASSI Museum of musical instruments. Image David White.

No small cultural establishment, the GRASSI Museum of Musical Instruments, in a bold, spacious modernist art-deco style building, invites visitors to immerse themselves in the craft of musical instruments with its collection of 5,000 instruments in all shapes and sizes, dating from the 16th-century onward, some of which can be tried-out in its sound laboratory. The Museum goes out of its way to cater to visitors of all backgrounds, including those with visual impairment, and is an all-round artistic and education centre.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and visitors, at his Leipzig home. Image Philipp Kirschner / Leipzig Travel.
The Effektorium is a popular part of a visit to the Mendelssohn House. Image David White.

The Mendelssohn House preserves the only remaining residence of composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy*, his sister Fanny and family, allowing visitors to walk their floors (unchanged since the day), and get a feel for family life – rarely quiet, given the Mendelssohns’ number-one preoccupation; continuously pushing the wheels at the centre of Leipzig cultural life, they gave regular concert matinees and recitals – a tradition which the Mendelssohn House continues today. A special highlight is the Effektorium – an installation allowing you to conduct your own orchestra: select your piece, take up your baton, and ‘bring in’ the instruments as you try follow the score: it takes some skill, and you realise orchestral conductors really know what they’re doing! Again there’s fascination in the discovery of little-known facts, such as Felix’s landscape paintings – he was an accomplished and enthusiastic artist, escaping to picturesque locations to counterbalance the busy day-job.

Pianist Madoka Ito gives a recital in the Mendelssohn House’s recital room. Image David White.

*Bartholdy was the Christian name adopted by this Jewish family to assist in their assimilation in Society. Though Felix converted to Christianity, Jewish heritage remained a stumbling block to acceptance for many in all walks of life: Richard Wagner later denounced his music on racial grounds, and the Nazis tore down his statue that had stood before the Gewandhaus. Today, the Mendelssohn memorial stands near St Thomas’ Church: he would have liked being so close to Bach. The monument was erected in 2008 as a faithful replica of the one that stood in front of the second Gewandhaus Concert Hall, known as the Neues Concerthaus, in the music quarter from 1892 to 1936. 

The new building of Oper Leipzig, opened in 1960. Image David White.

The third-oldest such music theatre in Europe, the Oper Leipzig maintains its outstanding international reputation in a building noted for its attractive, generously-glazed facade, with a highly-detailed bespoke, near-opulent, interior: a dazzling example of the GDR’s lofty central ambition of cultural enrichment for its citizenry. Carpets, chandeliers, balustrades and doors represent an astonishing attention to detail, finished in highly-prized materials such as fine-porcelain wall tiles and columns with gold-leaf ornamentation. It’s a round-the-clock workplace behind the scenes, with productions built-up and dismantled daily on its vast revolving stage, and a rabbit-warren of costumes and scenery stored on-site, with an army of bustling staff.

Image ©www.pkfotografie.com, Philipp Kirschner

Outwith music, the city has plenty to fascinate the cultural visitor, such as the Museum of Fine Arts (MdbK) – one of Germany’s oldest public art collections, it is now housed in a vast glass and steel cube, placed to reflect the network of pends that connect the old town. Inside its glass, concrete, limestone and oak interior are 3,500 paintings, 1,000 sculptures and 60,000 graphic works, spanning European art movements from the late Middle Ages to the present day, among which are German artists such as Leipzig-born Expressionist Max Beckmann, Leipzig-born representative of Symbolism Max Klinger, Renaissance artists such as Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein, Romantics, eg. Caspar David Friedrich, Impressionists and Symbolists. Other movements represented include Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity, as in the work of Otto Dix) and a Museum focus on contemporary German painting and sculpture, the ‘Leipzig School’ (1960s – 70s) and so-called ‘New Leipzig School’ (post-1989). Although not so much a style in itself, and unpopular with the artists it purports to encompass, the name has helped raise their profile, principally painter Neo Rauch, whose work also features at the nearby G2 Kunsthalle.

The Old Town Hall, which houses the city Museum. Image David White.

Dating from the mid-1500s, the Museum at the Old Town Hall occupies the city landmark, considered one of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in Germany, sporting a splendid astronomical clock on its tower. It is where J S Bach’s ubiquitous 1748 portrait by Elias Gottlob Haussmann is displayed, and where he signed his commission from the city; there is an engaging permanent exhibition, Leipzig – City History from the Middle Ages to the Present, which relates the highly-eventful last few hundred years of city life. These are, mercifully, relatively-settled times here, the city having emerged from a dark and turbulent 20th century – enduring the terror of the Nazi years, two world wars, sustaining heavy allied bombing in the latter, the oppressive GDR years and an often-forgotten unsettled period following the 1989 Revolution, when following decades of collectivisation, major contentions sprang up over what belonged to whom, and a massive amount of Federal money was poured into rehabilitating the GDR’s massively-polluting, outdated and unprofitable industrial infrastructure.

The ‘Spinnerai’: the former cotton mill in Leipzig is one of the most interesting art studio and gallery centres in Europe. Image Leipzig Travel.

The move away from old industry is exemplified in the Plagwitz area, west of the city, where several spaces have been re-purposed out of former industrial sites, driving an emerging, lively creative quarter. Chief among these is the vast Spinnerei – once the site of Europe’s largest cotton-spinning mill, and covering the same area as more than twenty football fields, it became defunct in the early 1990s as the cotton industry struggled with the new post-1989 economic landscape, and has now emerged as a vast art and craft destination.

Soviet-style socialist sculpture on display at the Zeitgeschichtliches-forum. Image David White.
The much-unloved Trabant car is one of the symbols of everyday life in East Germany (GDR) on display at the Zeitgeschichtliches-forum. Image David White.

Moving away from the past, while coming to terms with it, is articulated by another peoples’ museum, the Zeitgeschichtliches-forum, which paints a vivid picture of life post-1945, with the division of Germany, and the establishment of a socialist state that looked to the USSR as its near-sole export market; politically, increasingly paranoid about The West, and with an ever-greater adherence to a rigid collective socialist ideology, at its best the GDR delivered cheap universal housing and education, and at its worst became an insular, ever-suspicious police-state, with an unsustainable economy and plummeting living standards.

The events of the Peaceful Revolution of 1989, and the cradling role the city played in it, are still within living memory: regular ‘prayers for peace’ inside St Nicholas Church (which continue every Monday) grew to become the non-violent ‘Monday demonstrations’ outside, expanding massively and in time spearheading mass-protests against the government across East Germany, and the toppling of Erich Honecker’s regime – achieved without western assistance, and altering forever the course of world history.

A monument stands in the platz outside St Nicholas church, where the 1989 Peaceful Revolution took hold. Image Adam Kumiszcza / Leipzig Travel.

I’m grateful to the helpful people at Leipzig Tourismus und Marketing GmbH, especially Maike Makowka, Dana Marschner and Vanessa Hofer.

To visit Leipzig I flew from Edinburgh to Frankfurt, then on to Leipzig / Halle airport, and over the course of my visit stayed comfortably at the friendly, well-appointed Marriott Hotel Leipzig in the city centre, enjoying their convivial bar and welcoming restaurant at breakfast-time.

I stopped at Café Riquet, where you can enjoy a fresh coffee, hot tea and other traditional specialities such as the famous Leipziger Lerche (lark cake). It’s one of the city’s oldest coffee houses, dating back to 1745 (the oldest coffee house in Germany is the Leipzig Coffebaum, which has been serving coffee since 1711, and will reopen after restoration at the end of 2024. 

I enjoyed the cosy atmosphere and classical music at the popular Weinstock restaurant, directly on the market square, opposite the Old Town Hall. It serves seasonal Saxon and international dishes accompanied by a wide variety of wines from around the world.

After visiting the Bach Museum, lunch was at the café Bachstübl, which has been just opposite St Thomas’ Church since 1977, in a building dating back to 1735, in the middle of Bach’s time as Thomaskantor.

And following a fascinating tour of the Gewandhaus Concert Hall and an engaging visit to the GRASSI Museum, I tucked into dinner at the Panorama Tower restaurant: the highest restaurant in central Germany, it affords breathtaking views of the city and offers artful, imaginative cuisine.

The Gewandhausorchester with conductor Alan Gilbert and ‘cellist Christina Reiko Cooper, performed consummately Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony that evening, preceded by Lera Auerbach’s haunting 6th Symphony, Vessels of Light.

Following a tour of the Mendelssohn House and a delightful piano recital, I was treated to a fascinating tour literally behind-the-scenes at the Leipzig Oper, with a delicious meal at Barthelshof restaurant, which retains the traditional atmosphere of one of the oldest inns in Leipzig, with fine regional specialities.

The visit was capped-off with a Leipzig Opera performance of Mary, Queen of Scots by Scottish composer Thea Musgrave (they must have known us Scots were coming). Multi-award-winning director Ilaria Lanzino and Dirk Becker’s disturbing, radical gothic production is setting new standards in that has been built around sustainable environmental practices, exploring climate-neutral options in all aspects of the production.

And a final stop before departing for home – an exquisite afternoon concert of Bach Motetten at St Thomas Church performed by the successors to his original proteges, three centuries ago, the Thomanerchor – St Thomas Boys’ Choir.

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