Mendelssohn and Schumann in Leipzig

By February 2, 2013History, Music, Other, Theatre

A few years ago I achieved a long-desired goal, and spent a week in Leipzig. It was my first visit to the former East Germany, and exciting for that reason. But the main reason was music, or rather, the history of music. Leipzig was the final home of Johann Sebastian Bach, and his church of St Thomas is still there, a pilgrim’s site for many, including me. But I’ll leave Bach’s Leipzig for another day.

The city was also, three generations later, the home of Mendelssohn and Schumann, and their houses have been preserved as museums. Mendelssohn arrived there in 1835, as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, whose antecedents included the scratch band, ‘Collegium Musicum’, that Bach had used in Zimmermann’s coffee house to present some of his orchestral music. Mendelssohn was appointed to the music school in Leipzig in 1843. It was Kurt Masur, the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, who ensured that the Mendelssohn house would be restored after years of neglect, Mendelssohn and everything about him having been excoriated during the Nazi regime.

Schumann was also appointed to the Leipzig music school in 1843, though the city was familiar to him, because he had studied law there, and it had been the home of Friedrich Wieck, his later piano teacher and the father of Clara, who would become his wife. For a few years the two composers lived within a few hundred metres of each other. Both the Schumann and Mendelssohn houses contained performance salons, and Felix, Clara and Robert were given to performance as well as composition.

In some respects we had arrived at the wrong time for music. In June the Gewandhaus was closed, the Opera was closed, the St Thomas choir was on holiday, and the major musical events that were going to be on while we were there, or in Weimar, or Dresden, or anywhere we could get to easily, had been booked out for months. But the music school put on some concerts in which their staff and students showed their talents, and one of these was in the performance salon of the Mendelssohn house.

The room took about 60 people, and as we waited for the concert to begin I felt the hairs on my arms rise at the thought of others who had been in this room, and played, and been part of the audience. They included just about everyone of importance in the musical world in the mid 1840s, among them Berlioz, Spohr and Wagner, as well as the great three, who lived there. A grand piano of the period (French, from memory) was the instrument, and the first pianist was a young woman studying at the music school. She was technically perfect, and musically empty. She was followed by a teacher at the school, who showed us what musicality was in a piece by Debussy, but then showed us also that he could be just as facile as the student, and just as boring, in another virtuoso piece. Well, it was still a great experience just to be at a performance in the salon.

We did not have the luck to go to a similar event in the Schumann house, which was  a detached two-storey house, darker and not as pleasant as Mendelssohn’s full-length, well-lit apartment on the floor of what had been a brand-new building — like Schumann’s, just outside the city walls (long gone, they provide space for the city’s tram system, at least in part).

On our walks between the two residences we could not but notice a large derelict apartment block, several stories high, from the second top floor of which was growing a large tree. After one such walk I asked the helpful staff at our hotel why the house was in that state. They knew the one. ‘It is one of several,’ the girl explained. ‘It was taken over in the recent past [= the Communist period] and it is in that state because it is not yet possible to determine who were the owners and where they are now — or their heirs,’ she said. Until that could be done, she went on, it would not be possible to rebuild it. I asked her her long that process might take. She shrugged.

That night we had dinner in Auerbachs Keller, a restaurant that is described in Goethe’s Faust and has operated there since at least the early 15th century, and on the way back to our hotel we walked past, once again, the most impressive old town hall, built in nine months in 1556 at the direction of the new Mayor. At one point we were equidistant between the two remaining of the four churches that Bach was responsible for, and I remembered that we owe to Mendelssohn the rediscovery of J. S. Bach.

It was the former who put on, in Berlin in 1829, the first performance of the Matthew Passion since Bach’s death, and then repeated it in Leipzig in 1841, this time without the cuts that had been thought necessary in Berlin. Mendelssohn revered Bach, and to live in the same city must have been a profound experience for him. Schumann wrote six fugues on the name Bach, and also arranged the Johannes Passion for a modern orchestra.

I would love to go back there. But next time, if there is one, I would plan to be there in November when everything seems to be on!

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Fay Thomson says:

    I did not realise that Felix Mendelssohn was jewish and that Nazi regime had destroyed him or was it just his work? I read somewhere that Felix was also an artist but have never seen his art.

  • donaitkin says:

    Yes, he came from a Jewish family, well-placed and wealthy, who converted to Christianity, and added the hyphenated surname ‘Bartholdy’ to distinguish themselves from the other Mendelssohns. The statue of Felix that adorned Leipzig was taken down and melted (now replaced). He enjoyed painting and some of his watercolours are on the walls in the Mendelssohn house. I’m no judge, but they looked pretty competent to me.

  • Frances says:

    Thanks for the interesting read. I hope you manage to go back when things are actually open so you can experience more of the musical history of Leipzig. Such an amazing city which was home to some amazing men!

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