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Philanthropy is not merely an American virtue. The history of the city of Leipzig in eastern Germany shows how an enlightened mercantile class can support a strong musical tradition.
Bach in Leipzig
Subscription concerts were a feature of the Leipzig cultural scene as early as the 1740s. Even then, the city had great musical assets, among them a celebrated choir school founded in the early 13th century (where Johann Sebastian Bach worked from 1723 until his death in 1750).
But it was the textile merchants of Leipzig who were critical in giving the city its first dedicated concert hall. The hall of the textile guild was called the Gewandhaus. (Gewand is a slightly archaic German word that refers to robes or outer garments).
The 1981 Gewandhaus
The Gewandhaus building was Leipzig’s first concert hall. Before long there was a resident orchestra — called the Gewandhaus orchestra.
Today Leipzig’s premier concert hall is still called the Gewandhaus — the original concert hall and its immediate successors are long gone, and the present building dates from 1981. It’s worth a visit in its own right, being a superb piece of East German design (yes, the country really did get some things right). The ambitious interior fresco by Sighard Gille is stunning.
Roll-call of musical talent
A Latin inscription above the organ console in the main auditorium recalls a quote from Seneca: res severa verum gaudium ‘True pleasure is a serious business’. And music in Leipzig is most certainly a serious business.
The roll-call of illustrious musicians with Leipzig connections is hugely impressive. Richard Wagner and Clara Wieck (later Clara Schumann) were both born in Leipzig. Felix Mendelssohn had two spells as music director at the Gewandhaus, using his time in Leipzig to revive the reputation of Johann Sebastian Bach (whose work slipped from visibility in the decades after his death). Throw in Georg Philipp Telemann, Edvard Grieg and Gustav Mahler and you begin to see why Leipzig cuts a dash in the musical stakes.
New Gewandhaus Season
We were in Leipzig last month for the opening of a new Gewandhaus season. Gustav Mahler was on the menu. Not any Mahler, but Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, an extraordinarily powerful work. At times ethereal and mystic, elsewhere almost terrifying, this is a work on a grand scale. A piece appropriate to Leipzig, the city that has long recognised that true pleasure is a serious business.
The 233rd Gewandhaus season runs on thru winter to early summer 2014. This article is the third of a series of four on Leipzig. The previous two pieces looked respectively at the Festival of Lights (held on 9 October each year in Leipzig) and at the Memorial to the Battle of Nations in Leipzig. That decisive battle in the Napoleonic Wars took place 200 years ago this month.