Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Travel: Leipzig ~ The music plays on


(Note: originally published in 2000)

FLASHBACK in time for an instant to the Nikolaikirche (St. Nikolas Church) in Leipzig, with its 75-metre tower topped with a Baroque cap. The stirring church services here led to the first demonstrations against the autocratic regime of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1989. The upshot? Conscientious protesters filled the main thoroughfare of the city by the thousands every Monday until the reunification of Germany a year later.

Cut to the autumn of 1999. Ten years later, the city has resumed its avatar as Germany's musical heartland. Yet, it recalls its recent turning point through display boards in the central Augustusplatz (formerly Karl Marx Platz), between the Neues Gewandh aus with its spectacular 700 sq. metre painting by Sighard Gille, inaugurated in 1981, and the stately Opera House opposite it.

The stark boards that zigzag through the plaza stop me in my tracks. I read the stories of dozens of common men and women in the heroic saga of German unity. Take Claudia Thiele, a student of 24 at the time of the protests, photographically captured for posterity in a sea of faces on the march. Today, she recalls, ``I remember being there every Monday. After a while, my ears heard something different. I realised we had stopped chanting: We are the people! Instead, the cry now was: We are one people!''

I feel the tears sting my eyes, moved by the fact that history can be within touching distance in this `city of heroes', as the Germans now call it. I can identify with the depth of Claudia's emotion, despite the distance from Bangalore to Leipzig.

I'd like to touch base with the music in the city's veins and the history in its cobblestones. For Leipzig lies at the heart of German history in myriad ways. Situated in Saxony in central Germany, 181 km southwest of Berlin, it was once the hub of Germa n trade and culture.

Commerzbank in a restored art nouveau building

Culture reaches out to me first. An evening at the monumental Opera House, unveiled in 1961, is unalloyed joy! I opt to watch the Leipziger Ballet's production of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, set to Tchaikovsky's music, preferring it to a concert by Greek po p star, Demis Roussos at the Neues Gewandhaus. The local troupe recreates the magic of the original production by South African-born director John Cranko, 30 years ago. The ethereal prima ballerinas are French and Spanish, the sets weave optical illusion s of ballrooms and verdant landscapes through wondrous netting, and the orchestra is impeccable. During the interval, we line up with the immaculately dressed audience in queues (a relic of the GDR mindset?) for a drink at the bar by the dazzling light o f chandeliers.

History swims into focus sharply when I dine at Auerbachs Keller, Leipzig's best-known restaurant and wine cellar, below the steel-and-glass mall at Madlerpassage. Local people tell me that a letter once addressed to `Auerbachs Keller, Germany' was deliv ered without much ado. As I wind my way down to a traditional dinner of veal and white roots in a pepper sauce, washed down with kirsch, my escort draws my attention to a dazzling example of Saxon craftsmanship in a mall showroom -- probably the world's most expensive hand-crafted watch, a Lange and Sohne masterpiece priced at DM 40,300 in pre-Euro 1999!

Auerbachs Keller is studded with romantic wall and ceiling paintings illustrating scenes from the poet Goethe's Faust. Its separate Goethe room contains the original used for the legendary ride on the wine cask. It was here that the student Goethe often shared visions that he put to literary use and revelled with his peers, after his family in Frankfurt sent him to Leipzig to study in 1765 at the renowned university founded in 1409. `You can't beat my Leipzig! It's a little Paris and educates its people ', he wrote in Faust.

Mephisto and Faust

At the entrance to the famed cellar stands a bronze statue of three larger-than-life Leipzig students scrapping with each other, while on the other side, one finds Faust and Mephistopheles! A folkloric touch is lent by the subterranean passage that leads to the university to protect drunken professors from prying eyes on their way home. No one knows if it is still in use today!

As for the musical legends of Leipzig, they revolve around a galaxy of greats. To the fore is Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who conducted the world-famous Gewandhaus Orchestra for over a decade from 1835. The orchestra was named after the cloth merchant's guild where it played every week. It made Leipzig the musical fulcrum of Germany. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is justly lauded for reviving the neglected music of Bach, thus restoring him to a pedestal in Leipzig.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy also founded the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater (College of Music and Drama) here in 1843, the oldest music school in Germany, primarily to train musicians for his orchestra. It is housed in a monumental building with sweeping sta ircases by the old Gewandhaus, destroyed in World War II. The college is perfectly in tune with its origins. Its magnificent organ chamber brings the classical impetus alive to the sound of music. Today, as its corridors teem with young talent, nurturing South Korean, Japanese and Russian youth with free training alongside European whiz-kids in its practice rooms, the college is in the throes of a campaign for a new concert hall to replace the earlier one, destroyed by bombs in 1944.

The Jewish musician lived his last years in Mendelssohnhuas on Goldschmidtstrasse, a dwelling opened to the public just two years ago. Its homely atmosphere makes the bearded Mendelssohn-Bartholdy come alive -- in the music room with its striped carpet, reconstructed from an aquarell painting in the exquisitely painted wooden travel case in a corner, in the soiree room where the elite of Leipzig gathered of an evening.

But Leipzig has other musical claims to fame, too. For Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara, spent some years in the city in 1840, while Franz Liszt, Carl Maria von Weber and Gustav Mahler came together here in the nineteenth century.

Music apart, Leipzig was once known as the world's premier trade fair venue, with a giant complex of 50 trade fair halls built in the 1920s. But the end to free trade during the GDR regime sounded a death-knell for Leipzig. It lost its publishing to Stut tgart, its fur trade to Frankfurt, its trade fair to Hannover and the German Supreme Court to Berlin. However, the new Leipziger Messe for trade fairs, built on a 1.8 million sq. metre green field in 1996, with 5,200 reflective panels of clear glass over head, has staked this claim anew for Leipzig.

Since reunification, over 100 banks have set up business in Leipzig, creating 20,000 new jobs in just a few years. They include the Commerzbank, housed in a perfectly restored art nouveau building, adjacent to the Thomaskirche.

Mendelssohn's last residence
Historic Leipzig is incredible because, unlike Berlin or Dresden or Hamburg, only 60 per cent of the city centre was lost to World War II bombs. It still has uniform, almost intact streets built around the turn of the century, a rarity in German cities! Given the benefit of meticulous restoration work, its Alte Rathaus (Old Town Hall), built in the Renaissance style and crowned with a Baroque cap in 1556, stands in the market square. It is a two-storeyed longhouse with a handsome saddle roof, where the town pipers once played on the balcony under the clock. Built of limestone from the River Main region, the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) has an ornate facade and distinctive, 115-metre high tower. Another architectural treasure is the Gohlis Schlossen, a charming Baroque and Rococo building on Menckestrasse, built in 1756.

The population of 5,30,000 Leipzigers (in 1999) have worked another miracle. They have sanitised their previously polluted air by controlling manufacturing industries and cutting down on open cast brown coal mining to the south. Today, potable drinking wat er runs out of most taps and pleasure boats often sail on the natural waterways. Where there's a will, there's a way in Leipzig.

Statue of JS Bach

As you leave Leipzig, there's more to wonder at. Its Hauptbanhof, or main railway station, is the largest railhead in Europe today. Built between 1901 and 1912, it led to a tussle between the Saxon and Prussian railways -- and a marked dualism in the gra nd station layout resulted. Today, despite the elegant shopping mall over several floors that caters to every possible tourist taste, the station is still distinctive for its two main entrance halls, two waiting rooms, two side exits and two staircases, all equal in size. What a tug of war over a station!

Celebrated yesterday, making great strides forward today, what does tomorrow hold for the city? It is tempting to cheer along with the citizens of Leipzig in their current campaign slogan on the city's billboards, which proclaims: `Leipzig is coming!'

Coffee capers 

If Munich has its beer gardens and wurst, Leipzig boasts of its coffee houses. The cosiest of them is the Kaffeebaum, with its scrubbed wooden tables, located in a Baroque patrician house in narrow Fleischergasse. Even Emperor Napoleon is said to have patronised it in his day!

However, it is on Katharinenstrasse leading to the market square that one finds over 30 coffee houses and quaint pubs, with milling crowds to match.

Johann Sebastian Bach, while he was a meagrely-paid choir master at the local Gothic Thomaskirche between 1723 and 1750, often gave public concerts at a cafe, and even composed a coffee cantala, `Schweight stille, plaudert nicht' (Be silent, talk not).

Leipzig citizens love to tell of the Seven Years War, when Saxon soldiers dodged their Prussian adversaries, saying, `We won't go to fight without coffee!' That's when the Prussian Emperor, Frederick the Great, dismissed them as `Kaffeesachsen' (coffee Saxons), a term which still endures.

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What to see:

~  Mendelbrunnen fountain in Augustusplatz
~ University Library
~ the monument to the Battle of the Nations
~ Zoological Gardens
~ Opera House
~ Neues Gewandhaus
~ Mendelssohnhaus
~ Deutsche Bucherei or German Library
~ Thomaskirche
~ Nikolaikirche
~ Alt  Rathaus
~ Neues Rathaus
~ Madlerpassage
~ Alte Borse or old stock exchange
~ the Old Weighbridge
~ German University of Physical Education
~ Gohlis Schlossen
~ Hahnemann monument on Richard-Wagner-Platz (memorial to the founder of homeopathy)
~ Iskra memorial that marks Lenin's six visits to Leipzig
~ the Krochhaus
~ the market square.

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