An Easter Meeting in Leipzig with JS Bach – 300 years on.

Even people who don’t think they like classical music know and even like at least some of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750). Those who love classical music are mostly in consensus that he was probably the greatest of all the classical composers. I certainly feel that he stands tall not just in the world of music, but in the world of human creativity too. I believe that we are all a bit dwarfed by Bach and his like. – dwarfed but inspired, moved, uplifted and even healed. He is definitely a giant. Last year, in April 2023, I spent two weeks over Easter in Germany – the first half of the trip was spent in Leipzig – an impressive, beautiful and highly cultured city, formerly in East Germany, and now a thriving part united Germany.

Thomaskirche, (St Thomas Church), Leipzig

Leipzig, for all music-lovers, is known as the city of music and of composers, like Mahler, Schumann and Mendelssohn, but most of all, it’s a city known as the spiritual home of Johann Sebastian Bach and 2023/4 is a significant anniversary year because over 300 years ago, in June 1723, 38-year-old Bach was appointed musical director of the St Thomas Choir, meaning that he would head up music in the two Lutheran churches of the thriving trading hub of Leipzig – Thomaskirche, St Thomas Church, and Nikolaikirche, St Nicholas Church. The St Thomas choir, which was founded in 1212, which sang in both churches, was internationally renowned as one of the finest ensembles of the day – as it still is in 2024.

My Easter holiday in 2023 was dedicated to celebrating the great man here in his home town where the majority of his masterworks were written. Leipzig is mounting a two-year festival, Bach 300, to mark the anniversary with a series of Bach concerts and events.

Bach’s monumental statue stands outside St Thomas Church, it is the familiar figure of the be-wigged grandee in his elegant 18th century finery – as in his most well-known portrait….

… Bach, maybe of all composers, is a man for all eras, not just 18th century, so I like to think of him as in the bust I saw in Leipzig’s Bach Museum – the man without a wig, with no fancy clothes, an everyman and a superman.

He is not just superman, but he is also immortal, or his music is, so it was a minor shock, a moment of disbelief, to find his grave stone set into the floor of St Thomas Church. I don’t accept that he is dead, or that he will ever die.

The big ticket at this Easter festival was a performance of Bach’s St John Passion (1724) played in one of the two churches that he mostly wrote for, with their particular acoustics and architecture already familiar to him. It was originally intended to be premiered here at St Thomas Church, but Leipzig council asked for a last minute change to St Nicholas Church. The St John Passion was first performed down the road at St Nicholas Church, after some adjustments made by Bach, on Good Friday on the 7 April 1724, three hundred years ago. He revised the work the following year for performance at St Thomas Church, his first intention must have been to do the work here where I heard it last April. You can watch a video of that performance if you scroll down to the bottom of this page. If you can’t listen to the whole two hours worth of music, dip in and out of it. It was an inspired event, with the choir, vocal soloists, along with the organ and the Gewandhaus Orchestra performing from the organ loft at the West end of the church, as it would have done in Bach’s day. The soloists were internationally-aclaimed Bach singers, Julian Prégardien (tenor, the evangelist) Tomáš Král (bass, Christus) Anna Prohaska (soprano soloist) Andreas Scholl (alto soloist) Raphael Wittmer (tenor soloist) Tobias Berndt (bass soloist) with the Thomanerchor Leipzig, and the Gewandhausorchester conducted by Andreas Reize.

I was sitting in the gallery with a good view of the performers, an excellent position for sound which, I am told is much nearer to Bach’s acoustics since the removal of some of the 19th century resoration work. Behind me, up there was a stained-glass window dedicated to the composer, with his portrait at the centre.

The audience downstairs that night, were, as you’d expect, facing the altar at the East end of the church, so they had their backs to the performers….less distracting I guess, but I don’t think it would catch on in modern concert halls.

Bach lived across the square from St Thomas’ Church with his wife and large family of children along with servants and live-in students. It was a busy household right in the middle of this vortex of musical activity. A concentration of musical creativity that would, quite literally, change the course of musical history.

Down the street, a five minute walk, turn left and go straight on, another couple of minutes, and you can’t miss it – St Nicholas Church – Bach’s other church. The great man would have done this walk almost on a daily basis and I had a constant feeling when I walked round Leipzig, that I really was walking in Bach’s footsteps.

Nikolaikirche (St Nicholas Church), Leipzig

St Nicholas Church now looks different inside from Bach’s day because the fancy neo-classical decor in added in the late 18th century. It is still a fine building with a superb acoustic and it cannot be denied that this is still an essential part of Bach-world.

St Nicholas Church’s choir was renamed BachChor Leipzig in 2006, and it now has responsibility for all of the church’s services and concerts in St Nicholas Church, under the direction of its director, Markus Kaufmann. Over the Easter weekend in 2023, apart from hearing the St John Passion up the street at St Thomas’, I heard the BachChor Leipzig perform Bach’s Easter Oratorio here in St Nicholas and, on Good Friday, one of the best singing of the week, in a setting of Via Crucis, the Stations of the Cross – I couldn’t find information on the composer (maybe a reader of this can tell me) but it was unaccompanied choral singing at its very best. Bach would, I hope, be proud of the choirs continuing the great choral music tradition in these two churches.

BachChor Leipzig with director Markus Kaufmann

There was more Bach at Leipzig’s splendid modern concert hall the Gewandhaus, home for the Gewandhaus Orchestra (directed for some time by Mendelssohn, no less), one of the most celebrated orchestras in the world and one I was happy to hear live in the St John Passion. On this night there was a very different style of performance here. Bach and the Dutch composer Dieterich Buxtehude, were performed on a smaller scale by the chamber choir, Collegium Vocale Leipzig and Die Merseburger Hofmusik, an early music ensemble who perform on original instruments, directed by the conductor and organist, Michael Schönheit.

The concert consisted of Buxtehude’s great cycle of seven vocal cantatas for solo voices and instrumental ensemble, known as Membra Jesu nostri (1680), a series of aria and chorus settings of meditations on parts of Christ’s crucified body (the feet, the knees, the hands, the sides, the breast, the heart, and the face). The idea might seem strange to us now, but the music is sublime. Buxtehude was perhaps Bach’s greatest predecessor as the master of music in Germany. The young Bach made a 400 km walk to hear Buxtehude play the organ in 1705 – and, apparently, he never regretted the journey. We can tell by listening to Buxtehude, just how much Bach learnt from him.

Dieterich Buxtehude (1637 – 1707)

The second half of the concert was devoted to Bach – his chorale cantata for chorus and orchestra, Christ lag in Todes Banden, (1707) (Christ lay in death’s bonds) based on a hymn by Martin Luther. It was one of his earliest church cantatas, but also one that he performed years later, in 1725, St Thomas Church. In between these two works, Michael Schönheit played a number of Bach’s organ pieces on both the small portative organ and the giant Gewandhaus organ, with thrilling effect.

So, my visit to Leipzig was Bach-dominated, but he wasn’t the only composer with a very visible presence in this most cultured of cities.

The Schumanns, Robert and Clara, husband and wife, had an apartment in a house here in Clara’s home town. They were both composers, Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) is known for his Piano Concerto, his solo piano music and his song cycles, but Clara Schumann (Wieck) (1819 – 1896) was better known in her lifetime as one of the leading classical pianists of the 19th century. Their’s is one of the best-known love stories in classical music, and it is difficult not to hear their love in their compositions. I didn’t visit the Schumann museum but I did get a strange thrill walking part their house every day and imagining the domestic lives of that great couple.

Another Leipzig composer who had an important influence on its musical life, was Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847), a musical prodigy, one of the most talented composers of his generation, he was, from a young age, recognised as a composer, a pianist, organist and conductor. He had one of the most comfortable upbringings of all famous composers, but he often struggled with the conflict of the bourgeois life, his musical facility, and his creative genius. His best works, the Italian Symphony, the Octet, his last String Quartet and his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are up there in the echelon of 19th century masterpieces, but a lot of his lesser works are characterised by his inherent conservatism which had an all too dampening effect on a number of composers who followed his example.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

Felix Mendelssohn and his more recently appreciated composer sister Fanny Mendelssohn, came from the rich Leipzig banking family who ran the Mendelssohn & Co. bank, one of the major German banks in the 19th and early 20th centuries. the brilliant siblings were the grandchildren of the renowned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786). Felix Mendelssohn lived in an apartment in Leipzig after taking the job as director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835 until his death in 1847.

Mendelssohn’s apartment in Leipzig
Mendelssohn’s study.

I couldn’t get tickets for the Leipzig Opera, which was sad. Mendelssohn conducted here and Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911) was once the opera director, but I was in Leipzig for Bach, so I didn’t try as hard as I might’ve to see their zany new production of Bach contemporary Handel’s musically thrilling opera, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724). Another time, I hope. Here’s their trailer to show you the kind of work they are doing here at Leipzig opera.

I did get to visit the magnificent glass box that is Leipzig’s Museum of Fine Arts (Museum der bildenden Künste), with its collection of works from the late Middle Ages, especially Old German and early Netherlandish medieval paintings and German art of the 19th and 20th centuries, with a particularly good collection of works by Max Klinger (1857 – 1920), including his controversial ‘topless’ Beethoven. There is also a collection of paintings, not well-known outside of Germany, perhaps, of artists from the GDR (German Democratic Republic) period. These were certainly new to me, giving new insight into every day life, even dull life, in Leipzig in the days of the Soviet Union.

Adam and Eve (1533) by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Holy Walburga’s and the Miracle in a Storm (1611) by Peter Paul Rubens

View of the Sea Coast in Vic (1835) by Caspar David Friedrich

Bull (1878) by Ferdinand Hodler

Dead Island (1880) by Arnold Böcklin
Crucifixion of Christ (1890) by Max Klinger

Salome II (1900) by Lovis Corinth
Rebuilding Windmühlenstraße, Leipzig (c.1953) by Emil Koch
Evening in Front of the Arts Centre (1960) by Günter Albert Schulz
Portrait of Frieda G. (1977) by Monika Geilsdorf
Abend/Evening (1979) by Andreas Deckardt
Beethoven (1902) by Max Klinger

It is too easy to forget that Leipzig hasn’t always been such a relaxed and comfortable place to visit. It is also maybe too easy to dwell on the bad things too and to only see bomb craters where exciting modern architecture stands today. It is also still possible to see some of the old pre-mid 20th century buildings in an enjoyable mix with the new. I found it tempting to imagine living here. I know that’s a common holiday sin, but I liked Leipzig a lot, with that mix or the old and the new, high culture and popular culture, treated with a sophisticated respect for the aesthetics of beauty and design..

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), another intellectual colossus, was a university student in Leipzig from 1765 to 1768. HIs masterwork, Faust (1772 – 1831), has a lively drunken scene in Auerbach’s Cellar, when Mephistopheles, the Devil, goes on his wild ride on a barrel, which possibly reflects the young Goethe’s at least occasionally riotous student life. Auerbach’s Cellar, somewhat restored, is still there and still selling food and drinks.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847)

Mendelssohn is here too in statue form – in his own right as a great composer, but also, placed near to St Thomas Church, he is honoured as the man who revived the reputation of J.S.Bach in the 19th century, with his own conducting of Bach’s St Matthew here in 1829. Goethe was there at that Leipzig performance and said that hearing Bach revived was ‘like the distant roar of the sea.’

I was staying in a hotel across the road from the railway station, a walk away from the Bach churches and the museums, but also from the many restaurants and cafés that are an essential part of the Leipzig experience.

I not only found places for some of my favourites – coffee and croissants, German sausages, wonderful (the best) German rolls (brötchen) and Weißbier (white beer) – but I also found a space for my morning martial arts practice by these magnolia trees, across the road from the station, near to the hotel, and also to a busy procession of morning commuters. If I can do all 66 tai-chi moves undisturbed, then I feel I am at home. An elderly German woman, who had been watching me intently, even came up to me after I had finished and told me how much she’d enjoyed the show, having tried her own tai-chi style for over twenty years. She looked very fit from it too.

I also found time, inspired by this artistic city, to try my hand at photo-editing – it made me feel, almost, like I was an artist too.

Another Bach statue stands round the corner from the more well-known one by St Thomas Church, Mendelssohn helped raise the funds for its erection and it is a modest affair, easily missed, but it is believed that this is the truest likeness of the composer, and therefore a fitting way to say aufwiedersehen. Below is the recording of the St John Passion that I attended in St Thomas Church. It is well worth a watch.

Johann Sebastian Bach – Johannes Passion, BWV 245 (Gewandhausorchester with Andreas Reize, 6 Apr. 2023 Leipzig, Thomaskirche) Julian Prégardien (T) Tomáš Král (B) Anna Prohaska (S) Andreas Scholl (A) Raphael Wittmer (T) Tobias Berndt (B) Thomanerchor Leipzig

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