Wednesday 24 January 2024

Norfolk-based arts writer, Tony Cooper, enjoys a musical heritage tour to Leipzig, a relaxing and inviting city to visit awash with so much musical history.

The Gewandhaus at the Augustusplatz in Leipzig-Mitte with the Mendebrunnen at night (2016)
The Gewandhaus at the Augustusplatz in Leipzig-Mitte with the Mendebrunnen at night (2016)
(Photo: Wikimedia - By Ichwarsnur - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0) 

Come 2025, the Leipzig Gewandhaus will be staging a major international festival in honour of Dimitri Shostakovich marking the 50th anniversary of his death

A frequent visitor to Germany attending Ring cycles here, there and everywhere, Tony Cooper recently enjoyed a short break in Leipzig taking in a concert by the Gewandhausorchester conducted by Alan Gilbert featuring Shostakovich’s 10th symphony whilst also enjoying a rare performance of Thea Musgrave’s opera, Mary, Queen of Scots.  

With so much musical history and knowledge wrapped up in Leipzig’s cultural portfolio, Tony also took adventurous steps by way of trekking the Leipzig Music Trail stopping off to visit the Bach-Archiv, conveniently situated opposite St Thomas’ Church and the Mendelssohn House Museum not forgetting, of course, the Schumann House while soaking up the city’s illustrious past discovering that Richard Wagner was born here, Georg Philipp Telemann worked here and just up the road in Halle, George Frideric Handel, entered life. And that’s just for starters!  

I’m strolling through the lovely 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, JS Bach. 

Although not born in Leipzig, it was in this lovely and inviting city (forming part of the German state of Saxony) that Bach’s fame lies mainly through working as organist, choirmaster and director of music at St Thomas’ Church. He reigned here supreme from 1723 until his death in 1750 but, surprisingly, he was only the third choice for the post of Thomaskantor, director of St Thomas’ Boys Choir. 

The first choice fell to Georg Philipp Telemann, at the time working as a music director in Hamburg. However, his employers upped his salary as an incentive to keep him. Money talks - and that, of course, did the trick! The same scenario fitted the next favoured candidate, too, Saxon-born composer, Johann Christoph Graupner. 

In a slip of the tongue, though, the chairman of the recruitment committee, Abraham Christoph Plaz, infamously said: ‘If you can’t have the best, we shall have to settle for second best.’ And one of the ‘mediocre’ candidates in contention for the job was none other than JSB, working at the time in Köthen as director of the court orchestra. Graciously, he accepted the job thereby becoming the 17th Thomaskantor of this most important and great musical post established in 1518 while Herr Plaz redeemed himself to some degree by becoming Bach’s patron.  

Graciously, too, after hearing about Bach’s appointment, Herr Graupner penned a letter to Leipzig’s Burgermeister assuring him that Bach ‘is a musician just as strong on the organ as he is an expert in church works and acapella pieces and, therefore, he’ll honestly and properly perform the functions entrusted to him’. How right he was. 

Surprisingly, during his lifetime, Bach (who was a tireless worker and knocked off compositions and produced children thirteen to the dozen!) 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. For instance, he conducted (at the age of 20) the St Matthew Passion in 1829, the first performance since the composer’s death. That performance started the Bach ball rolling - and, thankfully, it hasn’t stopped.  

The music salon in the Mendelssohn Haus in Leipzig (Photo: Dirk Brzoska)
The music salon in the Mendelssohn Haus in Leipzig (Photo: Dirk Brzoska)

Mendelssohn was special, though. He flourished in Leipzig like no other becoming conductor of the famous Leipzig Gewandhausorchester in his mid-20s and founded the Leipzig Conservatoire a decade later. A frequent visitor to England, the Birmingham Triennial Festival -who rotated their festival with Leeds and Norwich much in the same way as the Three Choirs Festival continues to do so today with the cathedral cities of Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester - commissioned Mendelssohn and he delivered them that momentous and inspiring oratorio, Elijah, composed in the spirit of his baroque predecessors, Bach and Handel.  

The work (his final composition) received its première in Birmingham Town Hall on 26th August 1846, conducted by the composer. It proved to be one of the high points of Mendelssohn’s illustrious career. Sadly, he died a year later. It is, perhaps, no coincidence to learn that Leipzig and Birmingham are twinned with each other gracefully tying the knot in 1992. Mendelssohn, surely, was the inspiration. 

Therefore, I doubly made sure that I visited the Mendelssohn House Museum in Goldschmidtstraße,  listed No.2 on the famed Leipzig Music Trail , where he lived for the last 12 years of his life.  

Looking here, there and everywhere, I soon clasped my eyes on the original score of Elijah. Another thing that grabbed my attention was a piano of Mendelssohn’s day. I just stared at it and wondered and thought that the creativity that came from such a ‘work-desk’ as Mendelssohn would have used is still alive today being enjoyed by thousands and thousands of concertgoers the world over. 

I also found out that Mendelssohn was a very accomplished watercolourist. At the early age of 15, a three-month family trip to Switzerland in 1822 afforded him a wonderful opportunity to devote himself to drawing and he completed more than 40 landscapes. 

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 Carl Klingemann (a lifelong friend born in Limmer-an-der-Leine near Hanover, the son of the local cantor and schoolmaster) whom he travelled to Scotland with in 1829: ‘I composed not even a bit of music, but rather drew entire days, until my fingers and eyes ached.’ 

During his Scottish trip, the 20-year-old composer conceived his third symphony - known as the ‘Scottish’. An emotional and lyrical work, it comprises a grand first movement, a joyous and brief second and a slow movement maintaining an apparent struggle between love and fate while the finale takes its components from Scottish folk dances. The work (completed in 1842) premièred in Leipzig on 3rd March 1842. 

At times, painting and drawing meant just as much to Mendelssohn as did composing. He relied heavily on drawing as a creative outlet 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 only 38. 

Seeking refuge from his grief, Mendelssohn travelled to Switzerland where a quarter-century before he had spent several enjoyable family holidays. On this excursion - which took place in the months preceding his own untimely death in November 1847 - he poured his grief into the creation of a series of watercolour landscapes. In the Mendelssohn House Museum one can view a small selection of these lovely and inviting landscapes including a charming panoramic view of Lake Lucerne. 

Without a shadow of doubt. musical history hits you slap bang in the face at every turn in Leipzig whether it be the Bach-Archiv, founded in 1950, marking the bicentennial of Bach’s death, by Werner Neumann and now part of the University of Leipzig conveniently situated opposite St Thomas’ Church. 

The city of Leipzig is a magnet for visitors and performers alike and I soon discovered that the distinguished Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich came to Leipzig in 1950 to act as one of the jurors for the Bach Competition which forms part of the annual Bachfest. This year the festival takes place from 7th to 16th June. And to mark the 50th anniversary of Shostakovich’s death next year, the Gewandhaus is dedicating its biannual festival to this prominent Russian composer of the 20th century.  

St Thomas' Church, Leipzig with the statue of Bach (Photo: Tom Williger)
St Thomas' Church, Leipzig with the statue of Bach (Photo: Tom Williger)

However, this visit to Leipzig offered me a nice taste of what’s in store as I attended an exhilarating concert featuring Shostakovich’s 10th symphony (premièred in December 1953 shortly after Stalin’s death) performed by the Gewandhausorchester conducted by Alan Gilbert.  

Overall, the symphony is widely reckoned to address the political oppression Shostakovich encountered during the brutal Stalin era and the ‘scherzo’ could well be described as a musical sketch of ‘Uncle Joe’ whose totalitarianism form of government robbed people’s individual freedom to the single authority of the state.  

An innovative and free-thinking composer, Shostakovich, who was heavily influenced by Neo-classicism and by the late romanticism of Gustav Mahler, combined a variety of different musical techniques in his works while his music is characterised by sharp contrasts, elements of the grotesque and ambivalent tonality. For instance, his 9th symphony, often referred to as his ‘classical symphony’ because of its brevity, form and frequent chamber character, follows an 18th-century sonata form - the only Shostakovich symphony to do so.

Originally, it was intended to be a celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War and Shostakovich clearly stated that it would be a large composition for orchestra, soloists and chorus. However, the resulting symphony was far removed from the one he had originally planned.

And in a bold and daring move. Shostakovich publicly announced in 1955 that his 11th symphony will commemorate the 50th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ when Czarist troops massacred peasants in a peaceful protest outside of the Imperial Palace in January 1905 thus causing a reaction that ignited the Russian Revolution.  

Therefore, Shostakovich 50 - one of the most comprehensive examinations of the works of Dmitri Shostakovich comes round in May/June 2025 - falls under the spell and artistic direction of Latvian-born conductor Andris Nelsons and Moscow-born conductor, Anna Rakitina, thereby offering a feast of Shostakovich like no other. God willing, I shall be there! 

Featured orchestras comprise the Gewandhausorchester, Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Festival Orchestra founded especially for the occasion. All the players have been carefully selected from members of the Mendelssohn Orchestra Academy and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. 

An unsurpassed roster of world-class performers includes Russian pianist/composer, Daniil Trifonov, Danish violinist/conductor, Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider and Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. They’ll feature in the extensive chamber-music series while a couple of performances of a brand-new production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Leipzig Opera (a work that totally displeased Stalin) will be conducted by Andris Nelsons.  

However, on my current visit to Leipzig, the Gewandhausorchester conducted by Alan Gilbert and the GewandhausChor under the direction of Gregor Mayer delivered a sensitive and soulful performance of Lera Auerbach’s Symphony No.6 (Vessels of Light) featuring Israeli cellist, Kristina Reiko Cooper, who, incidentally, performed at the work’s première and, indeed, came up with the idea for the work. 

Singing in Yiddish, the quartet of outstanding vocalists was admirably led by German soprano, Johanna Ihrig, who harbours a strong, richly textured wide-ranging voice, well supported by Nora Steuerwald (contralto), Falk Hoffmann (tenor) and Steven Klose (bass) complemented by the ‘poetic whispering voices’ (Flüsterstimmen) of Eliana Pliskin Jacobs, Sasha Lurje, Daniel Kahn and Karsten Troyke. 

Dating from 2022 and commissioned by Yad Vashem (the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem) and the American Society for Yad Vashem, the work received its première on 5th November 2022 by the Kaunas State Orchestra and Kaunas State Choir under Constantine Orbelian in the Philharmonic Hall in Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania after Vilnius and an important centre of Lithuanian academic and cultural life. 

Inspired by the heroism of Chiune Sugihara who saved thousands of Jewish lives through his decisions and actions during the Second World War, this five-sectioned work (with prologue and epilogue) was written by the extremely talented and well-respected Soviet-born, multi-dimensional Jewish artist, Lera Auerbach, one of today’s leading female composers, grabbed my attention right from the start. 

For instance, the soft and inquiring opening bars of the prologue in which pre-recorded tape and hauntingly-whispered percussive sounds were eerily mesmerising to the nth degree especially when heard in a blacked-out auditorium fusing well with the equally soft and dignified ending of the epilogue in which Maestro Gilbert held the ‘curtain’ for a short period in the same setting in what I considered a silent homage to those who perished in the Holocaust. 

Therefore, these vital seconds of total darkness allowed one’s innermost thoughts to travel far and wide and from my perspective my thoughts circled and were heavily engaged on the shock and horror (let alone the agony) of the terror that the Holocaust brought to many innocent Jewish people. 

An innovative and free thinker, Lera Auerbach came up with the bright idea of incorporating Yiddish-speaking voices of the Jews murdered (as well as those saved) during the Holocaust and the famed and international pianist, Yvgeny Kissin, assisted the composer in choosing the poems while translating some of the Yiddish text. 

As such, it weaved a multilayered tapestry of words to such a delicate and thoughtful score comprising Yiddish poetry and the mystical Shevirat ha-kelim (‘Breaking of the vessels’) and the silent words of Psalm 121 in a work she proudly (and deservedly so) dedicates to Sugihara and all those who risk everything to save others.  

This luminous performance of Vessels of Light - greatly influenced by the writings of the art of Japanese Kintsugi, a practice of creating new art from broken pieces - proved a most inspiring and thought-provoking work which, incidentally, left me in deep thought for days afterwards.  

One of the main characteristics and charm of the work focused on the melodic lines interlaced by the solo cello holding tightly the threads of the five sections thus making them a robust unit in which to create a sense of unity intermittently punctuated by whispered choral recitations of fragmented Yiddish poems. 

Thea Musgrave: Mary, Queen of Scots - Oper Leipzig (Photo: Tom Schulze)
Thea Musgrave: Mary, Queen of Scots
Oper Leipzig (Photo: Tom Schulze)
I also enjoyed the première of the first climate-neutral opera production staged by Oper Leipzig, Thea Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots, set to a complex scenario surrounding a journey into the world of intrigue, scandal and power revolving round the young regent, Mary Stuart. 

Written for Scottish Opera, Mary, Queen of Scots received its première at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in 1977 as part of the Edinburgh Festival directed by Colin Graham and conducted by the composer. A single performance was staged in Germany at Staatsoper Stuttgart in 1980 therefore it was pleasing to see the work in the current season of Leipzig Opera thereby offering a host of performances. 

In fact, the opera was the first of four focusing on historical figures composed by revered Scottish composer, Thea Musgrave, now in her 95th year. The others are Harriet, the Woman Called Moses (1985), Simón Bolívar (1995) and Pontalba (2003). 

Musgrave’s starting-point - the first in which she wrote her own libretto, a practice she continued with in her later operas - was the unpublished play Moray by Peruvian-born writer, Amalia Elguera, who, in fact, wrote the libretto for Musgrave’s 1973 opera, The Voice of Ariadne.  

An intriguing scenario, the opera focuses upon Mary's troubled relationships with her half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray, her husband Lord Darnley and her seducer the Earl of Bothwell. These relationships are foreshadowed in the delightful aria of Act I - ‘The Three Stars of my Firmament’.  

However, the libretto took some liberties with historical facts inasmuch as the character of Lord Gordon is fictitious although partly based on Lord Huntly while the real Earl of Moray was murdered two years later than depicted in the opera. And another character, Cardinal Beaton, was already dead before the opera’s action begin in 1561. 

A composer I have championed over the years, Musgrave offered an electric and piercing score referencing delicate and tuneful 16th-century court music in the somewhat quieter scenes in stark contrast to the rowdy and bloodthirstiness in others punctuated by screaming brass and percussion heard against intense haunting string textures witnessing debauchery and the like. There were many!  

The staging by Ilaria Lanzino truly hit the mark, Annette Braun’s costumes proved an interesting mix of traditional and contemporary styles, Steffo Jennerich lighting invoked the dark and mysterious side to the overall stage action while Dirk Becker’s sets were amazingly constructed by found materials from an appeal for local citizens to offer the production their unwanted furnishings. A massive collection of tables of all shapes and sizes turned up thus forming the basis of the main set unevenly perched on a massive revolving stage.  

‘We are keen to deliver sensuous and compelling music-theatre and we want to do it in a responsible, climate-friendly way,’ commented Tobias Wolff, Director of Oper Leipzig. ‘Therefore, this production of Mary, Queen of Scots represents a major step forward towards sustainability while offering an experimental challenge for art and trades alike, that’s why as little material as possible has been used in the production. The idea of a climate-neutral production, supported, may I add, by Fonds Zero of the German Federal Cultural Foundation, was, in fact, inspired by operas produced by Icelandic Opera.’ 

A strong and dutiful cast was gallantly led by Chicago-born soprano, Nicole Chevalier, whose first appearance on stage came by a trapdoor dressed as Backpacker with her four ‘ladies-in-waiting’ identically dressed. Get the picture? 

Harbouring a dramatically, rich-sounding authoritative voice with a stage presence to match, Chevalier, who made her début at the Salzburg Festival in 2019, was a member of Komische Oper Berlin from 2012 to 2017 where I witnessed her in action for the first time delivering a resolute and driving performance of Cunegonde in Bernstein’s Candide. Other notable roles at Komische include the title-role in Handel’s Semele, Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni), Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte) and Tytania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). 

The Bavarian-born baritone, Franz Xaver Schlecht, delivered a rich-textured performance of James Stewart, Earl of Moray with Icelandic tenor, Sven Hjörleifsson as James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell and English-born tenor, Rupert Charlesworth (Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley) greatly enhancing the production with truly rewarding performances while South Korean bass, Sejong Chang, cast as the Mary’s ‘lovable’ poet, David Riccio, turned up as a rock guitarist.  

Thea Musgrave: Mary, Queen of Scots - Oper Leipzig (Photo: Tom Schulze)
Thea Musgrave: Mary, Queen of Scots - Oper Leipzig (Photo: Tom Schulze)

And the members of a rather large (and impressive) chorus dressed identically made their mark attired in black kilts with enlarged and accentuated foreheads punctuated by deep-set heavily-mascaraed eye make-up looking menacingly unsettled while Matthias Foremny gained from his charges in the pit some excellent playing getting to grips with Musgrave’s energetic and impressive score to exacting and thrilling effect. 

Overall, my visit to Leipzig with opera, symphony and museums at the heart of the matter was well complemented by some hearty and rich-based meat dishes that kept me a-going. I enjoyed immensely tucking into a large bowl of Leipziger allerlei, a regional German vegetable dish, with ingredients similar to a good-old Norfolk stew (with dumplings) which proved tasty to the extreme! It’s a speciality of the town - so when in Rome! 

A pint of Gose wheat beer also provided the perfect complement to my meal but beer usually does the trick in Germany. Originating in the town of Goslar in Lower Saxony in the 18th century, the brew’s fame spread far and wide and it became so popular in Leipzig that Gosenschänke (Gose inns) sprung up in the city like wildflower. A ‘local’ brew was automatically born! Wunderbar! 

Another dish pertinent to Leipzig sorted me out for dessert - Leipziger lerche (lark). A short-crust pastry lovingly filled with crushed almonds, mixed nuts and strawberry jam. The name derives from a lark pâté which was a local speciality until song-bird hunting was banned in Saxony in the late 19th century. 

What more can I say apart from Auf wiedersehen!  

The journey to Leipzig was comfortably undertaken by Ryanair from Stansted (I didn’t dive in for scratch cards, though!) and I was ensconced in luxurious surroundings at the well-appointed city-centre Marriott Hotel which possessed an excellent kitchen plus their breakfast table boasted everything that you could possibly want to set you up for the day. 

Check out this year’s Leipzig Bachfest (7th to 16th June) celebrates the 300th anniversary of Bach’s appointment as Thomaskantor in a major collaboration between the Thomanerchor, Gewandhausorchester, St Thomas’ Church, St Nicholas’ Church and the Bach-Archiv

Check out, too, the 2025 Leipzig Shostakovich Festival (Thursday 15th May to Sunday 1st June) at the orchestra's website

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