Monday 18 May 2020

In search of Bach and Handel, and Mendelssohn too: Baroque music aficionado, Tony Cooper, travels to Leipzig and Halle

St Thomas’ Church, Leipzig (Photo: S-kay - Own work, Public Domain,
St Thomas’ Church, Leipzig (Photo: S-kay - Own work, Public Domain)
I’m strolling through the lovely and welcoming city of Leipzig and for some reason or other I feel there’s a touch of magic in the air! Maybe it’s because I’m lost in the mists of time in the company of that great German baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach. Who knows!

Statue of Bach at St Thomas' Church, Leipzig (Photo: Eric Pancer - I (Vxla (talk)) created this work entirely by myself., CC BY 3.0,
Statue of Bach,
St Thomas' Church, Leipzig
Photo Eric Pancer
Leipzig, however, enjoys a rich musical tapestry inasmuch as Richard Wagner was born here, Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn died here and JS Bach spent the best part of three decades here employed as Kapellmeister at St Thomas’ Church from 1723 until his death in 1750. Robert Schumann also lived here, Georg Philipp Telemann worked here and just up the road in Halle, George Frideric Handel was born. That’s just for starters! And Leipzig’s St Thomas’ Boys Choir is almost as old as the city itself as this world-famous choir was founded in the early 13th century.

Surprisingly, during his lifetime, Bach was not recognised as the great composer he is today until a revival of interest in his music was led in the first half of the 19th century by the young Felix Mendelssohn. He conducted at the age of 20 in 1829 the St Matthew Passion, the first performance since the composer’s death. That started the Bach ball rolling and, thankfully, it hasn’t stopped. And Leipzig plays its role to the full by staging the BachFest - inaugurated in 1904 but held on an annual basis since 1999 - which is nothing but brilliant. Its current artistic director is Sir John Eliot Gardiner who also serves as President of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig.

A frequent visitor to the British Isles, Mendelssohn was truly outstanding becoming conductor of the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in his mid-twenties and going on to found the Leipzig Conservatoire while only in his early-thirties.
One of Mendelssohn’s great triumphs in England, though, came by way of the Birmingham Triennial Festival who commissioned that momentous and inspiring oratorio Elijah [see Robert's recent article about the premiere] composed in the spirit of Mendelssohn’s baroque predecessors, Bach and Handel. The work (one of his last major compositions) received its première at Birmingham Town Hall on 26th August 1846, conducted by the composer. It proved to be one of the high points of his illustrious career. He died a year later. Soon afterwards Elijah was heard in Norwich at a Norfolk & Norwich Triennial Festival meeting in St Andrew’s Hall.

Mendelssohn, however, agreed to write a new oratorio for the 1848 Triennial but death robbed him and Norwich of the commission. There’s a rather touching letter from Mendelssohn to the festival secretary dated 27/9/1846 in which he says: ‘... but if I live and in good health, I’m almost sure that I will have something new by that time.’ He wrote once more in October 1847, just one month before his death.

There’s an interesting (and historic) musical link between Birmingham and Norwich (and Leeds, too!) which has become hidden over the years. Just as the Three Choirs’ Festival rotates between the cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester, Birmingham shared their early festivals with Norwich and Leeds. On my baroque fact-finding trip to Leipzig I doubly made sure that I visited Mendelssohn’s house at Goldschmidtstraße - now a museum devoted to his life and work. He lived here for his last 12 years. Looking here, there and everywhere, I soon clasped my eyes on the original score of Elijah and an exquisite typographically-designed concert programme (priced at one shilling) printed by Josiah Allen & Son of 3 Colmore Row, Birmingham.

View of Lucerne – watercolour by Mendelssohn, 1847
View of Lucerne – watercolour by Mendelssohn, 1847
I discovered, too, that Mendelssohn was a very accomplished artist. At the early age of 15 on a three-month family trip to Switzerland in 1822 he stayed at the Interlaken Hotel, the oldest hotel in this delightful Swiss town. And on a recent visit to Interlaken I actually stayed in its shadow at Hotel Royal St Georges. On his various trips to Switzerland, Mendelssohn completed more than 40 landscapes rendered in ink-over-pencil.

In Mendelssohn’s correspondence it reveals that drawing and painting proved an ideal respite from his compositional duties. On another trip he made to Switzerland in 1838, he wrote to his friend Karl Klingemann, with whom he travelled to Scotland in 1829: ‘I composed not even a bit of music, but rather drew entire days, until my fingers and eyes ached.’

Drawing provided a creative outlet for Mendelssohn on those occasions when he found musical composition impossible such as during the grief-stricken months following his beloved sister Fanny’s unexpected death in May 1847 when he was 38.

Seeking refuge from his grief Mendelssohn took off once more to Switzerland a few months preceding his own untimely death in November 1847 and created a series of watercolour landscapes. In the Mendelssohn museum one can view a small selection of these lovely and inviting landscapes including a charming one of Lucerne, one of his last creative spurts!

Another thing that grabbed my attention was Mendelssohn’s piano. I just stared and stared at it and I wondered and thought that the creativity coming from this ‘work-desk’ is still alive today being enjoyed by thousands and thousands of concertgoers the world over.

The organ of the Marktkirche, Halle (Photo: Andreas Praefcke / CC BY (
The Organ of the Marktkirche
(Photo Andreas Praefcke)
And talking of keyboards I visited Halle’s Marktkirche where Handel learned to master the organ and I was invited by the organist to follow in his footsteps. Carefully, I climbed the narrow steep stairs to the organ loft. It was a tight squeeze getting to the console and immediately I wondered how Handel fared as he had rather a big frame.

If Handel struggled to become a musician, I struggled to play his organ! His father objected to such a career on the grounds that music was not a realistic source of income. In fact, his father would not even permit him to own a musical instrument. It was his mother who was supportive and encouraged him to develop his musical talent. However, Handel reluctantly agreed to study law at his father’s expense and insistence but, not surprisingly, he eventually gave it up as his passion for music could not be suppressed.

At the age of seven Handel had the opportunity to play the organ for the duke’s court in Weissenfels, about 50km from Halle. It was here that he met the organist/composer, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow, who was impressed with the boy’s potential and invited him to become his pupil. Under Zachow’s tutelage, Handel mastered composition for the organ as well as learning to play the oboe and violin - all this by the tender age of ten.

When he reached 18 in 1703 he decided to pursue music as a career and accepted a violinist’s position at Hamburg Opera’s Goosemarket Theatre and made his début as an opera composer here with Almira a year later. He later went on to produce a host of operas in association with London’s Royal Academy of Music before forming the New Royal Academy of Music in 1727. When Italian opera fell out of fashion, he started composing oratorios with Messiah receiving its first performance in Dublin in the spring of 1742.

But, unlike Bach, Handel - who was born in 1685, a vintage year for baroque composers it seems - travelled far and wide. He lived in Italy for a few years before coming to London to make his home and here rented a house at 25 Brook Street in the capital’s select Mayfair district where he resided from 1723 to 1759.

He died in his sleep at the age of 74 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The house in Brook Street is now occupied by a museum devoted to his legendary life and works. And the former residence and birthplace of Handel in Halle is also a museum. There’s a lot to see and take in including a permanent exhibition chronicling Handel and the Europeans as well as an extensive exhibition of historical instruments.

An annual festival in Halle devoted to Handel was inaugurated 1922 but the main objective of the festival since 1952 has been to perform the complete works of Handel according to latest research. It consistently offers its international audience new pieces, rediscoveries and a variety of interpretative styles, most of them in historical Handel venues such as the Marktkirche, Handel House or the historical Goethe-Theatre in near-by Bad Lauchstädt.

Without a shadow of doubt Handel was a creative genius and during his lifetime he composed nearly 30 oratorios and close to 50 operas. At least 30 of those operas were written for the Royal Academy of Music.

I found Halle a charming town and I admired the monumental statue of Handel standing proud in the town’s market-place looking towards the Marktkirche, the inspiration and start of his musical journey. Thankfully, the legal profession came second best! In Leipzig, however, you’ll find Bach standing proud and grand at the entrance to St Thomas’ Church. Where else!
Statue of Handel in Halle (Photo  Michael Bader, IMG Sachsen-Anhalt)
Statue of Handel in Halle (Photo  Michael Bader, IMG Sachsen-Anhalt)

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Care pupille: The London Concert 1746 - Samuel Mariño in soprano arias by Handel and Gluck - CD review
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  • A disc full of discoveries: the first group of Goethe settings from Stone Records' complete Hugo Wolf songs - CD review
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  • Music aiming to deliberately provoke shock and terror: Ian Page talks about his new Sturm und Drang recording project with The Mozartists on Signum Classics - interview
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  • Veni, Vidi, Vinci: Franco Fagioli brings bravura brilliance and distinctive style to arias by the early 18th century Neopolitan composer - Cd review
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  • Time, Space and Change: new works by Ed Hughes from metier  - CD review
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