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Where Bach ended, Wagner started

LEIPZIG, Germany -- The bronze statue in front of St. Thomas Church shows a great man with his coat pockets hanging inside out like some scruffy teenager.

The turned-out pockets on Johann Sebastian Bach are actually a humanizing touch on the part of the sculptor and meant to convey the fact that Bach, who fathered 12 children, was almost always broke during the 27 years he lived in Leipzig until his death, at 65, in 1750. The city's official music director and responsible for the music in its principal churches, he was constantly trying to get more money from local authorities, usually without much success.

Leipzig boasts that it is ''The City of Music," no small claim in a country that takes music as seriously as does Germany, which has a number of world-famous orchestras and where great musicians are considered national heroes. Many of the most famous of them were, like Bach, closely associated with Leipzig.

Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, and Gustav Mahler all composed, performed, conducted, or lived here at one time, as have many other noted musicians. Their music fills the air in concert halls and outdoor venues, statues and monuments are dedicated to them, museums are devoted to their lives and work, and some of their haunts have been preserved.

Hard as it is to believe, Bach was almost forgotten after his death, his music rarely performed. He was rediscovered by Mendelssohn, who conducted Bach's ''St. Matthew Passion" in St. Thomas Church in 1841 -- the first time it had been performed in Leipzig in almost a century -- and initiated a series of ''historical concerts" that restored Bach's reputation.

Even the location of Bach's grave was forgotten for a time. In 1949, his by-then-identified remains were unceremoniously transferred from a cemetery to St. Thomas. The story goes that a workman with a wheelbarrow showed up unannounced at the church one day and demanded of a startled pastor: ''Here's old Bach, what do you want me to do with him?" He now rests in front of the main altar in the nave of St. Thomas, the church with which he was most involved.

Among his other duties, Bach was director of the St. Thomas Boys Choir, founded in the early 13th century. The 100-voice choir of 10-to-13-year-olds specializes in Bach and still sings at services in St. Thomas and nearby St. Nicholas Church, where Bach also played the organ and conducted.

The contract Bach signed when he took on all these responsibilities is exhibited in the city museum in the Old Town Hall on Market Square, one of the finest Renaissance town halls in Europe. The museum also displays the only authenticated portrait of Bach. Market Square is the scene of a lively summer festival, scheduled Aug. 5-15 this year, called ''Classic Open," with food stalls, live music performances, and films of classical, jazz, and pop music concerts projected onto a giant screen.

Most of the St. Thomas choir members are boarders at the school that was part of the monastery attached to the church in the Middle Ages. Wagner, who was born in Leipzig, attended St. Thomas School briefly. According to local tradition, he was thrown out for bad behavior. There is a bronze bust of Wagner next to the Opera House on Augustus Square, which opened in 1960 with a performance of his ''Meistersinger."

Weekly chamber music concerts are presented in the Summer Hall of the Bach Archive and Museum in an 18th-century building across from St. Thomas that was owned by a good friend of the composer and where he sometimes worked. Free outdoor concerts are held in front of the Bach statue in July and August.

The big event is the annual 10-day Leipzig Bach Festival, which this year is scheduled May 14-23, and draws musicians and ensembles from many countries.

Leipzig's main musical venue is the New Gewandhaus, a massive modern building on Augustus Square that is home to a renowned orchestra founded in 1743. Mendelssohn was only 26 when he became conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835. During his 12-year tenure, he transformed it into one of the leading orchestras of Europe.

A rather odd-looking modern statue of Mendelssohn stands in front of the New Gewandhaus, replacing a more conventional one demolished by the Nazis in 1936 because of his Jewish origins. The city's website describes the statue's destruction as ''one of the most appalling incidents of cultural barbarism in Leipzig."

Mendelssohn was 38 when he died, apparently of a stroke, in 1847 at his home on Goldschmidtstrasse, which today is a museum, the only one devoted to the composer. Visiting it, you almost have the feeling that Mendelssohn and his wife, Cecilie, have never left. Their apartment, one floor of a four-story, late-classical-style building, has been restored with original furnishings in the drawing room and the study, where Mendelssohn did most of his composing. He was also a gifted artist and some of his paintings are displayed along with scores, instruments, and other memorabilia.

The house was a gathering place for musicians and frequent guests included Schumann and his wife, Clara, a noted pianist, and Wagner and Hector Berlioz. Today, as was the custom then, Sunday morning concerts are held in the music salon.

Mendelssohn, in association with Schumann, founded the Leipzig conservatory of music, the first school in Germany for the training of young musicians. The Schumanns were a celebrity couple in their day, and the house on Inselstrasse where they spent the first years of their married life was also a meeting place for musicians. It, too, is now a museum with a permanent exhibition on the life and work of the couple; musical events are held there throughout the year.

One of Schumann's haunts is a beloved Leipzig institution, Haus Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum (The Arabian Coffee Tree) on Kleine Fleischergasse. Founded in 1711, this is Leipzig's oldest cafe and one of the oldest in Europe.

A plaque in a downstairs room at Coffe Baum identifies Schumann's favorite table. (Leipzigers say an exasperated Clara sometimes showed up and dragged him away from it.) Anyone can sit where he so often held forth, and even order his favorite dish: leg of lamb with garlic and thyme sauce.

Another popular watering hole for musicians and literati, and one of the great historic restaurants of Europe, is Auerbachs Keller, accessed from Maedler Passage, an elegant downtown shopping arcade. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's revered poet and playwright, studied law at Leipzig University and spent a great deal of time absorbing the atmosphere, i.e., drinking, in Auerbachs Keller.

Goethe set a scene in the first act of his play ''Faust" in Auerbachs Keller, one involving drunken students, the devil, and a bewitched wine barrel on which the alchemist Dr. Faust, who seeks the secret of eternal youth, is carried off to a witches' gathering. The oldest part of the restaurant, which specializes in regional Saxon dishes, includes a genuinely spooky medieval wine cellar where, by flickering candlelight, visitors can drink a supposedly rejuvenating witches brew.

Leipzig honors poets, too, and a statue of Goethe stands in front of the former stock exchange building. Today, it is a concert hall. This is Leipzig, after all.

William A. Davis is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge and can be reached at

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