© Tourism Leipzig
© Tourism Leipzig

Sooner or later, anyone who truly loves Johann Sebastian Bach has to make a pilgrimage to Leipzig, the city where he created most of that wondrous music. No one would claim that it is the prettiest place. The combined efforts of Allied bombers in the Second World War and then efforts to rebuild by unimaginative communist town planners turned what was once an elegant city into what local people remember as a depressingly grey example of civic pride, East German style.

But things are changing rapidly. Those utilitarian buildings are being replaced with modern glass and steel; new hotels, restaurants and shops have sprung up. And, most important to the music lover, Bach’s great churches, the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche, survive to still bear witness to the genius of their Kantor.

To step inside these buildings is to feel immediately closer to the man. And hearing his music performed in its original settings (though re-ordered since his day) is especially revelatory: imagine seeing colour photography for the first time after a lifetime of monochrome. The unique acoustic of St Nikolai in particular allows singers and instrumentalists the space and air in which to bloom, and to create a remarkable intimacy between soloist, continuo and obbligato players.

Concert at the Nikolaikirche © Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes
Concert at the Nikolaikirche
© Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes

Central to musical life in the city is the BachFest each June, a hugely enjoyable jamboree that celebrates Johann Sebastian, his forbears, contemporaries and successors in both formal concerts and relaxed, free, open-air performances. The 2018 festival innovation was to perform what was dubbed the Ring of Cantatas – 33 of the “best”, encompassing the whole Christian year – in just one weekend. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, president of the Bach Archive, drew together fellow Bach interpreters – Ton Koopman, Maasaki Suzuki and Hans-Christoph Rademann – to join him in that marathon series of concerts.

But, of course, Bach is not the only reason to visit Leipzig. Felix Mendelssohn lived and worked here, as did Robert and Clara Schumann. Wagner was born and educated here. It’s the home of the famous St Thomas Boys Choir and the great Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, which celebrated its 275th anniversary in 2018. Music publishing and printing were created here. In fact, it’s very heaven for anyone who loves music.

Here are ten top things to tempt you to Leipzig:

1 Leipzig Bach Festival

Every June, the town celebrates its most famous citizen with some 160 concerts, lectures and performances in churches, salons and the streets. The main Market Square is the focus for free performances; for instance, in 2018 the Gewandhaus Youth Choir and the Boston Symphony Youth Orchestra performed Bach’s Magnificat and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Jazz and funk also feature, along with beer and sausages, of course… Get planning early. Tickets to the major Bach concerts get snapped up very quickly.

Leipzig BachFest at the Thomaskirche © Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes
Leipzig BachFest at the Thomaskirche
© Bachfest Leipzig | Gert Mothes

 

2 Thomaskirche

Bach’s body lies buried where he was in charge of the music from 1723 to 1750. Along with Nikolaikirche, it is the focus for formal festival events but there is music here all year round. In addition to concerts, the St Thomas Boys Choir, founded in 1212 and once one of Bach’s many responsibilities, sing here most Fridays and Saturdays.

The Thomaskirche © Leipzig Tourism
The Thomaskirche
© Leipzig Tourism

Thomaskirchof 18

Daily 9am-6pm

Admission 2 euros.

 

3 Nikolaikirche

Beautiful classical interior with a fine acoustic. Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions were first performed here. Another major focus for the BachFest concerts but there is a large music programme here throughout the year. The car-maker Porshe, a big local employer, paid for the latest restoration of Bach’s organ, insisting that the blower switch be placed on the left side of the console, like the start button for its cars. A hugely significant building, it was the site of the Monday Peace Prayers, a weekly gathering where Pastor Christian Führer invited the congregation to discuss politics, a dangerous thing to do in the 1980s. These discussions spilled out on to the streets. Tanks were sent but the people refused to budge and instead held candles and chorused “No violence”. Conductor Kurt Masur, a hugely respected figure in the city, broadcast a plea for calm on both sides and the old communist system finally collapsed in 1989 through peaceful protest.

The Nikolaikirche © Leipzig Tourism
The Nikolaikirche
© Leipzig Tourism

Nikolaikirchof 3

Mon-Sat 10am-6pm

Service, 9.30am, Sunday

 

4 Bach Museum/Bach Archive

The life and work of Johann Sebastian and his family are presented in an interactive multimedia exhibition, which features a treasure trove of original Bach manuscripts and other precious objects. Housed across the road from the Thomaskirche, in the graceful former home of a close friend of the Bach family. Highly recommended.

Thomaskirchhof15/16

Tues-Sun 10am-6pm

Admission 8 euros, with concessions

 

5 Gewandhaus

The concert hall takes its name from the clothmakers’ guild, where merchants set up an orchestra in 1743, making it Europe’s oldest civic ensemble. The present Gewandhaus dates from 1981, built on the initiative of Kurt Masur, after Mendelssohn’s hall was destroyed in the Second World War. (Leipzig suffered hugely in 1943 when the Allies tried to halt production at the Junkers aircraft factory here.)

Augustusplatz 8

The Gewandhaus © Leipzig Tourism
The Gewandhaus
© Leipzig Tourism

 

6 Leipzig Music Trail

A metal motif set in the pavement guides visitors around the city, stopping at all the significant musical sites. Pick up the leaflet or download the app and discover that Telemann and Grieg share associations with Leipzig, alongside the Bachs and Mendelssohns.

 

7 Mendelssohn-Haus

Wonderfully imaginative restoration of Mendelssohn’s last home, much aided by his own watercolours of the rooms in his apartment. He moved here just after the première of the violin concerto in 1845 and was to die just two years later, six months after the sudden death of his sister, Fanny, whose music is also celebrated here. Have a go on the “Effektorium” and conduct a virtual orchestra in one of several of Mendelssohn’s works. It’s much harder than you think!

Mendelssohnhaus © Andreas Praefcke | Wikicommons
Mendelssohnhaus
© Andreas Praefcke | Wikicommons

Goldschmidtstrasse 12

Daily 10am-6pm

Concerts, Sundays 11am

Admission, 7.50 euros

 

8 Schumann-Haus

Clara and Robert moved in to this elegant apartment days after they married in 1840. Leipzig-born pianist Clara Wieck, whose 200th anniversary falls in 2019, was then far more celebrated than her new husband, who came to recognition through her promotion of his music. Robert composed his Spring Symphony here and the first movement of his delightful Piano Concerto, dedicated, of course, to Clara.

Inselstrasse 18

Tues-Fri 2pm-6pm

Sat-Sun 10am-6pm

Admission: 5 euros

 

9 Auerbach’s Keller

Goethe spent far too much time here, drinking and womanising and avoiding his law studies at Leipzig University. He did, however, hear the legend of Dr Faustus in this very cellar and worked it into his Faust, which Berlioz reimagined in his dramatic Damnation of Faust. Now you can follow in Goethe’s tipsy footsteps and enjoy generous quantities of good food and excellent service.

Auerbach's Keller © Leipzig Tourism
Auerbach's Keller
© Leipzig Tourism

Mädler Passage

Grimmaische Strase 2-4

 

10 Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum

Founded in 1694, this coffee house was a favourite with Bach and later with Schumann, Wagner and Grieg. It became a haunt for radical artists in Seventies, who met upstairs to discuss politics – while the secret police listened in on the floor above.

Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum © Appaloosa | Wikicommons
Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum
© Appaloosa | Wikicommons

Kleine Fleishergasse 4

 

Stephen's trip to Leipzig was partially funded by the Barbican