Why Leipzig? Bach, the Music Trail, and a Great Downtown

Between Berlin and our next “Great Capitols of Europe” tour stop of Prague, lies Leipzig. Why Leipzig? When I told Diana I wanted to visit Leipzig she asked “why?” To me, it was a good choice for a few reasons. First, it broke up a long train ride from Berlin to Prague, our next stop. Dresden was another option, but I knew it had been leveled in WW2 and I thought Leipzig would provide cool old buildings (it did).

Second, I knew it was Bach’s home, so I figured there would be some interesting stuff related to him and music. Right again, and how? Finally, I wanted to visit some smaller, more intimate towns during our travels. Leipzig fit that bill, too.

Getting There

Frankly, you could hit Leipzig from Berlin as a day trip or short stay since it is only 75 minutes by train. We stayed longer since the relaxed pace is often better for our nomadic lifestyle. Our train was delayed a bit, but we rode in style in 1st class for not many euros and arrived at the beautiful main train station.

We then dragged our bags to the Marriott Hotel, which had a small exec lounge we enjoyed using. The hotel is only 400 meters from the train station, making it fairly easy and quick to get there. The location also helped us use public transit with the 9€/mo card we bought in Berlin.

Downtown

The downtown area is oval-shaped, with the train station in the northeast area. The center is mostly pedestrian and you can walk from top to bottom in 15 minutes. The size makes everything in town very accessible. As expected, we found many interesting buildings in styles like Baroque, Classical, Art Deco, Art Nuevo, and Modern.

One surprise to us was a large number of shops and restaurants in a city center this size. Many people seemed to be out and about enjoying the area every day of the week. The volume of stores seemed out of proportion to the size of the downtown. When we asked why there were so many stores and people in downtown we were told a few things. First, Leipzig is bigger than we thought with most people living out of town on one of the tramlines. Second, the locals like to come into town to shop and dine out, supporting all the vendors.

It was fun to wander through numerous “passages”, basically interior hallways that function both as a way to move around town and as a shopping mall. Many of them date back 100+ years when these buildings were being built. They can be elaborate and ornate in style. Overall, this burg has a lot to offer and did not seem over-touristed.

Ah, Bach

For Leipzig and music, it all begins with Johann Sebastian Bach. He was the cantor at St. Thomas church from 1723-1750. For the first 18 months of his tenure, he composed and performed a new cantata weekly. In all, he wrote over 300 cantatas in his first 3 years in Leipzig. Even that was just a small fraction of his oeuvre, given his many fugues, canons, concertos, etc…

Despite his fame, fortune didn’t really favor him. He complained about his salary often. Even the statue of him outside the church depicts him with an empty pocket. Eventually, he supplemented his income by inspecting organs all over the country. He was considered an expert.

The nearby Bach Museum is in the house of a former neighbor, Bach’s abode being demolished long ago. There are many interesting items contained within. Diana especially liked a room where you could listen to various compositions and choose which instruments to play louder so that you could hear their specific contribution. Really cool.

Churches and Concerts

The two main churches in Leipzig are St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. Martin Luther preached in them during his visits to Leipzig. They both display a Protestant modesty in decoration as compared to, let’s say elaborate, Catholic churches.

We were able to attend a couple of concerts during our stay. One afternoon, we enjoyed organ music by Bach in St. Thomas Church. The organist and acoustics were great, but I must admit Bach’s organ music is often too complex for me to follow and my mind drifted for part of the performance. Perhaps that’s why the Organ Music Program has never popped up in my playlist.

Another evening, we caught a concert of finalists from the 2022 Bach-Archiv Competition. Talented artists of all ages treated us to performances on violin, piano, and harpsichord, with each more impressive than the last. My curiosity was piqued, and I learned the piano was invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori around the year 1700 because he found the harpsichord insufficient. In particular, the piano hammer mechanism allows it to be played at varied loudness, e.g. softly.

Harpsichord strings are plucked and all notes have the same strength. Interesting, no?

The Leipzig Music Trail

Leipzig really is a Classical Music Town. The city has even created a free Music Trail, which winds all around town. Following metal musical notation on the streets, the trail takes you to houses and museums associated with Bach, Mendelssohn, Schuman, Beethoven, and Wagner. Plaques along the way help put the sites in context.

One notable stop is in the publishing district. Music publishing was a significant industry in Leipzig in the 18th and 19th centuries. I especially liked a display on how watermarks were placed by sewing wires onto the surfaces of molds used to make paper. This left an imprint of the image sewn in.

RB Leipzig vs. Liverpool

I’ve been wanting to catch a football (soccer) match in Europe for a long time and the opportunity finally presented itself in a game between RB Leipzig (sponsored by Red Bull) and FC Liverpool. We took the tram from town and then walked pretty much around the entire stadium. It seems I made a mistake in buying tickets in the visitor section. The visitor section is surrounded by plexiglass walls to prevent hooliganism. Liverpool fans filled every crevice in the section, even sitting on the stairs. Definitely not what the fire marshal would have approved.

These two teams belong to different leagues, so this was a “friendly” match where nothing but pride was riding on the game. It was literally all fun and games, which may not have been a bad way to experience my first match, given how we were packed in. BTW, Liverpool crushed Leipzig 5-0, with the last four goals coming from one striker, Devin Nunez. Aside from the long hike around the stadium and the smoking in the enclosed visitor area, the game was fun.

Sex and Fine Art

Across from our hotel was the Fine Arts Museum, the main local art museum that was a huge hollow cube. It was a nice collection of mostly local artists. The art was well presented and explained, definitely worth a look. There was also something quite different…

A fairly evocative performance piece of numerous artists slowly interacting in various stages of relationships. The first one we encountered was a couple basically embracing very intimately for over an hour, often rolling intertwined on the floor. All of this is accompanied by periodic chants echoing through the spacious halls.

The couple rolling on the floor made me uncomfortable at first like I was watching them make love WHILE I was in the room. Not really the experience I expected at the museum. After a long time of trying to ignore them while I looked at the more conventional pieces, I began to contemplate the feelings the couples were evoking in me, which I guess was their performance art purpose. In the end, I came to appreciate what they were doing, but I probably would not seek out similar experiences.

More German Food

Our German food faves tour continued in Leipzig. Sausages, pickled cabbage, stewed meats, potatoes. Beer, of course. It was fun to mix with the locals in the main square on market day.

One regional dish is called Leipziger Lerche, a pastry made of shortbread, marzipan, and jam. Lerche in German means lark, which was used in the original version of the pie until King Albert banned hunting larks in 1876. Diana appreciated the updated non-bird recipe.

One notable restaurant we visited was the 500-year-old Auerbach’s Keller. It is housed in a cavernous basement, accessible via Mädler Passage. The establishment plays up its history as the location of a scene from Goethe’s play Faust, where the protagonist rides a wine barrel with devilish help. The food is decent, but not exceptional. In fact, we didn’t dine anywhere exceptional in Leipzig, but it all tasted pretty good.

Which music town do you recommend?

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