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May 2013

Germany 2013: Music in the Thomaskirche Leipzig

Thomaskirche, LeipzigAs much as Leipzig has been celebrating its native son Wagner this week, it is J.S. Bach—who lived in Leipzig for the last 27 years of his life—whom they hold dearest to their hearts. Bach wrote thousands of works while he served as Thomaskantor at the Thomaskirche from 1723-1750, including the Mass in B minor, both the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, hundreds of cantatas, and numerous organ works. 

The Thomaskirche still stands exactly where it has since 1212, on the eastern end of the old city center. If you visit, you'll find a large monument to Bach standing outside the east door; inside, you'll find Bach himself laying under a huge bronze slab in front of the altar. But, the Thomaskirche is no museum—it is a living memorial with three weekly services featuring Bach's music, performed by members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Thomanerchor, who celebrated their 800th anniversary last year. Just as the Bayreuth Festpielhaus is a mandatory destination for any Wagner devotee, in order to truly appreciate Bach's music, you have to hear it performed in this church. 

So on my way out of town yesterday, I stopped by the afternoon service, which was so packed by the time I arrived that I had to sit on the stone floor beneath the pulpit. There was no view to speak of, but the music soared through the high white nave. On this occasion, Wagner's music featured prominently, with Thomasorganist Ullrich Bohme playing Liszt's transcription of the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhauser, and the Thomanerchor singing "Da zu dir der Heiland kam" from Die Meistersinger, as well as Wagner's early motet, "Dein ist das Reich," written in 1832 while studying with Thomaskantor Theodor Weinlig.

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Germany 2013: Leipzig


I may have done things in reverse, but after all of the concerts this week in the Wartburg, Dresden, and Bayreuth, I've finally found myself in Leipzig, where Wagner was born 200 years ago, in a small row house in the old city center. Leipzig has worked overtime to play a leading role in this year's Wagner birthday celebrations, just as Salzburg did for Mozart in 2006 and Bonn will surely do for Beethoven in 2020. Mind you, none of these composers wanted anything to do with their hometowns once they reached adulthood, but the Germans have always attached a sort of mythic status to these birthplaces, as if they left behind some kind of magical vortex.

To be sure, Leipzig's place in music history has always been dominated by Bach, who spent the last 27 years of his life here as Cantor of St. Thomas Church, where he's buried directly in front of the main altar. By contrast, all that's left of Wagner's birthplace is a plaque attached to the outside of a shopping mall, where the teens and moms inside couldn't care less about who once lived there.

Wagner spent his formative years in Leipzig, where he enrolled at the University of Leipzig (where he persistently skipped class) and took private lessons with Thomaskcantor Theodore Weiling, who was so impressed with Wagner's ability that he refused any payment. It was also in Leipzig where Wagner would first hear Beethoven's symphonies (performed by the Gewandhaus Orchestra), and where he heard a performance by the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, whose "profoundly human and ecstatic performance...kindled an almost demonic fire in me." He would later say that her performance inspired him to become an opera composer. 

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Germany 2013: Interview with Sven Friedreich, Director of the Wagner Museum

Haus Wahfried, Bayreuth

After all of the Wagner-related concerts and historic sites I've been to this week, it felt like an oasis of calm to spend my last hour in Bayreuth yesterday with Dr. Sven Friedrich, Director of the Wagner Museum and Archives, and Haus Wahnfried, the stately home Wagner built for himself in the 1870s. As you can see from the picture above, Wahnfried is currently undergoing renovations, and isn't expected to reopen until 2015. Dr. Friedrich spoke with me about that, and a whole host of other Wagner-related topics. Check out some highlights after the jump:

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