Eastern Germany's Three Great Cultural Cities

By Waters, Irene | Contemporary Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Eastern Germany's Three Great Cultural Cities


Waters, Irene, Contemporary Review


'WILLKOMMEN in Leipzig' proclaims the sign atop one of a group of communist era tower blocks (scheduled for demolition) opposite the railway station. Covering what would otherwise be their drab exteriors are massive colourful murals, one of which depicts a football match--the German Football Association was founded here--with the goal defended by an oversize Bach wearing the No. 1 shirt. On an adjacent wall Goethe appears with other well-known cultural giants associated with this and the surrounding cluster of cities. The eye-catching sight summarises this part of eastern Germany where the past is part of the present.

Leipzig has a long history as a centre of education, culture and trade. Granted a market charter in 1165, its university (founded 1409) is the second oldest in Germany, its printing presses turned out their first book in 1481 and the world's first newspaper in 1650. Today it houses the German National Library and hosts a major annual Book Fair. Along narrow cobbled streets, amidst restored Renaissance and baroque splendour--and some modern monstrosities--visitors tread in the footsteps of illustrious personalities whose lives are extraordinarily intertwined. If the abundant souvenir items bearing his name and portrait are any indication, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is indubitably the No. 1.

Yet it was not always so. Leipzig's councillors were responsible for appointing the Kantor (Director of Music) for their four churches, priding themselves on choosing a well-known composer. In 1722 they wanted Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), who had made an outstanding impression when a student in the city. But he was established as organist in all five principal churches in Hamburg and turned down the offer. So did a couple of other candidates. Head-hunting having failed, when Bach's application arrived there seemed no alternative. Although his audition overcame reluctance and the appointment was unanimous, discord sounded within two years, climaxing in 1730 when Bach received a formal letter of complaint proposing to reduce his salary. Instead of meekly accepting the rebuke and apologising, he fired off a ten-page response telling the councillors in no uncertain terms that, if they wanted to impress the world beyond their city, they should provide their Kantor with better working conditions. There is no known response.

Before coming to Leipzig Bach had spent some years (1703-17) as court musician and Konzertmeister to the Duke of Weimar and later from 1717 to 1723 as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Kothen. The Prince was a music lover, Bach was well-paid, in charge of a proficient and salaried group of seventeen musicians and his compositions were presented at concerts in the castle's magnificent Hall of Mirrors. Concerts are still given there and (since 1967) a biannual Bach Festival is held in various venues in the town including a splendid new concert hall (opened March 2008) in the castle precinct. He was also free to travel, for example to Dresden and Hamburg, where his performances on the organ and harpsichord impressed everyone.

Bach would have found the restrictions and workload in Leipzig onerous and irksome, and the threatened salary reduction the last straw. A bronze statue outside St Thomas' church shows him with pockets turned out: empty. The demands of a growing family--twenty children, albeit eleven died in infancy--doubtless contributed to his impecunity. The building (also housing the school) next to St Thomas' church, where the family lived, was demolished in 1902 but, just across the road, stands the house of their friends the Bose family; this now contains the Bach Research Institute, Archive and Museum. Here musical instruments, original manuscripts and memorabilia give a fascinating insight into the life of the Kantor and his family, and weekly concerts are held in the Sommersaal where the Bach family performed.

Perhaps the deciding factor behind a seemingly unhappy move was religious: Bach, a devout Lutheran, had little opportunity to write church music at the Calvinist Kothen court. …

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