A Day in the Musical Life of Leipzig, City of Music
On any day in the German city of Leipzig, music is in the air. Quite often it’s free. And you can even have a go at making it yourself. From a five kilometre music trail to interactive installations in museums and late night jazz, we grabbed as much music as we could for as little money as possible over 24 hours in this music city. We share our experience of a day in the musical life of Leipzig, plus practical ideas and recommendations to help you compose your own musical break in this post, an advertising feature for Leipzig City of Music….
Quiet please! Maestro at work
Behind every good man is a good woman. It’s as true in the Mendelssohn House as it is in any house.
But Stuart doesn’t yet know this as he confidently strides to the podium. In the ‘Effektorium’ electronic concert hall in the former home of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, my husband engages every available member of the orchestra, and holds up the baton like he’s about to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, despite the fact he’s never really conducted anything before.
You’re not in Kansas now Dorothy
“You have to conduct please like an amateur, not like a professional,” a museum guide who followed us into the room feels the need to jump in. I don’t think that should be too much of a problem in this case, I snort. She explains how he needs to make small movements with the baton to control the speed effectively and stop it switching from glacial creep to rollercoaster ride. She points out he needs to stay within the lines of a diagram on the digital page, showing him how to turn individual instruments on and off on 13 digital pillars that transmit the sounds of the various sections of the virtual orchestra.
Behind every good man there’s a good woman. But Stuart still hasn’t realised that, as he selects tunes that might make his orchestra sound more consistent, and deselects instruments that might make his musicians sound more obedient. The guide disappears as quickly as she came and two tourists wander in. They don’t speak English but it takes only a few seconds for them to clock that he is waggling a stick in the air, randomly turning on instruments and being a bit rubbish at conducting. From behind him, one of them slowly beats out a rhythm, her body rocking in time, willing him to pick up her beat. He subtly and slowly relaxes, and so do the two women. By the end, they give him a round of applause.
“Are you a pianist?” one of them asks.
“Yes I am,” he beams, happy she has spotted his musical talent.
“But not a conductor, clearly.” I quietly add.
Want to see a maestro at work? Watch this and learn. Or weep with laughter.
The woman behind the man
Behind every good man is a good woman. We see it everywhere in the Mendelssohn House, especially on the third floor, with the introduction of a new permanent exhibition of the letters of Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny Hensel. And a beautiful reproduction of her music room where I feel very at home apart from not being able to play anything.
As I read some of the letters I am reminded of Dorothy Wordsworth, who kept a household going, managed her celebrity brother, wrote poetry and diaries and still managed to notice the particular sway of daffodils. Fanny was instrumental in the concerts her brother Felix performed with Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner who were his contemporaries in the city. For a small fee you can still attend a Sunday chamber concert in the same room they played in; it must be an intimate and atmospheric experience.
On the trail of the musical greats
In Mendelssohn’s short life (he died aged thirty eight) he conducted Leipzig’s famous Gewandhaus Orchestra, set up the Leipzig Music Conservatory, wrote more than 170 scores and made Bach’s work accessible and recognised. You can learn much more about the extraordinary talents of the famous Leipzig composers on a free music trail of the city, the Leipzig Notenspur. The trail was the brainchild of local community members and it can be accessed with the help of an app and/or a map.
“You can stop wherever you want to stop.” says our guide, Gitta Peri. “Stainless steel inlets on the floor show us the way. The inspiration came from Schumann’s song spring…let the blue ribbon move through the air. The blue ribbon will not be a straight line, always a curved line. This is the reason for this shape. Then you come to 23 signposts that tell you information. Number one is the new Gewandhaus concert hall.”
In Kretschmann’s Hof arcade we pause to hear Bach’s Sonata for violin and harpsichord no 4 in C minor, which is accompanied by city sounds of the first half of the 18th century. There’s also a mini trail for little ones and if you are feeling more energetic you can do a 37 km music trail for cyclists.
275 years of classics
Follow the music trail for any distance and you will undoubtedly wind up at the city’s great performance spaces on Augustusplatz. The Gewandhaus Concert Hall dominates one side of the square and the world famous Gewandhaus Orchestra based there are celebrating their 275th anniversary. After a long search they have brought in the world class conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons, to work with them and he is drawing in international crowds.
There are four different venues in the building so if you are on a tight budget or the main auditorium is sold out you may still find something to suit your interests and budget. Alternatively if you visit after dark as the concerts are ending (around 9.30-10.30pm) you may hear buskers playing for the audience as they leave. You can also get a glimpse of the building’s amazing murals inside. They show up much better when lit up at night.
Augustusplatz is also home to the the Leipzig Opera House. These two musical giants stand opposite one another on the square. Opera has a long history in Leipzig too, dating back to 1693 and people still come from all over the world to hear opera performed here, especially productions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The first complete performance of the Ring outside of Bayreuth took place here and Oper Leipzig continues to draw international crowds to see performances of Wagner’s Ring repertoire.
Buskers seem to position themselves at every street corner in this musical city. You can catch musicians in the churches and various halls around the city. I stumbled into organ practice very early on a Sunday morning in the summer in St Thomas Church.
There are plenty of festivals too; the A Cappella International Festival for Vocal Music has been plucking tunes out of the air for twenty years. In June the Gewandhaus Orchestra plays free concerts in Rosental Park and in July and August there are Monday concerts in front of the Bach Memorial outside St Thomas Church. There’s a huge jazz festival later in the year as well as an annual Bach Fest. Even the 20,000 goths who visit the city each year have been known to boogie to a band or two.
We also caught Freestyle, the Street Art Show – a stunning acrobatic and dance show in the KrystallPalast Variete Theatre. Leipzig has long been a home of cabaret theatre. And if you visit the Christmas Market as we did on our Find me a Bauble tour, you might get to meet the singing Santa. He’s from Finland (of course) – not all musicians are locally born and bred.
One unmissable feature of Leipzig music is the boys’ choir. The St Thomas Church boys choir (Thomanerchor) has existed for 800 years. Children audition from across Germany for a place in the choir and its most famous choirmaster was Bach himself. The St Thomas Boys choir performs regularly on Fridays and Saturdays in the Thomaskirche . We didn’t manage to see them but instead stalked the streets outside their campus (on Sebastian Bach Strasse, naturally) on our bicycle tour. Sadly we didn’t even catch a note on the wind. They clearly hadn’t been tipped off that a new conducting talent was in town!
It will come as no surprise that numerous cafés and bars in Leipzig have a musical backstory. At the oldest café in the city I take our exhausted conductor for tea and cake. Cafe Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum (Arabian Coffee tree) was first mentioned in 1556 and is one of Europe’s oldest coffee shops. Coffee has been served since 1711 and regulars included Robert Schumann, who had his own seat. Bach, Goethe, Liszt, Wagner and Mahler all popped in for a brew or two as well. Stuart raises his fork in the air in a 2/2 rhythm in the Schumann Room and snaffles the local speciality deserts Sachsische Quarkkeulchen (a kind of apple strudel) and Leipziger Rabchen mit heidelbeer (deep fried plums fried with marzipan.) At least here he has no access to violins.
Jazz and the dark side
Later on we find ourselves at a jazz night in Tonelli’s bar which hosts live music in a different genre six nights a week. The sounds are free, you just pay for your drinks. A member of the audience joins in on the drums at one point and I glare at Stuart in case he has any thoughts.
When wandering back to our hotel we hear a pianist in Mephisto Bar, part of one the most famous kellers in town. This city may sing with the angels, but the devil has a few good tunes too.
A Musical Day in the Life
Leipzig may be famous for its classical musical history, world class concert hall, boys choir and orchestra but there is so much more to this city of music than that. The free musical moments and vibe around the city are the real draw for me. Check out this video we produced of our day in the musical life of Leipzig today.
There are various ways to get to Leipzig, which is in Saxony in Central Germany. If you are travelling from Europe, the easiest way is by train. Leipzig is on the DB network with good connections to other European cities and Leipzig Station is an architectural delight to visit and a shopping destination of repute too.
If you are flying, there are direct flights to Leipzig from Vienna, Istanbul, Zurich, London/Stansted and Moscow and connecting flights from the German cities of Frankfurt, Munich, Dusseldorf, Cologne/Bonn and Stuttgart. We flew from Manchester to Dusseldorf, had lunch in the city and then took a connecting flight to Leipzig on the way out, and returned via train and a flight from Berlin. It took under two hours to get to Leipzig from Berlin on a fast, comfortable Intercity train.
A good way to get around the city is by buying a Leipzig Card, which provides free and unlimited access to trams, trains and buses within the Leipzig City travel zone, as well as big discounts on museums, guided tours, concerts and restaurants. Prices start at EUR 11.50 depending on whether you want a one day or three day card and there are single and group tickets. The tram network is extensive, one of the biggest in Germany.
Walking, biking, boating
The city centre is very walkable and pedestrianised. It’s small and hard to get lost; if you reach a green leafy border then as a general rule you have reached the old city wall and the ring road that bounds the inner city centre.
Cycling is a good option too. Leipzig and the surrounding area is very flat and there are good cycle lanes. We hired bikes from Lipzi bike tours to get out into the arts district and visit the football stadium and other areas out of the inner city centre. There are also city bike hire schemes from Nextbike and other companies.
From the city harbour and other stops you can also take a boat trip or rent a canoe to travel through the city on a network of waterways. On a sunny day it’s a glorious experience. If you do this on a weekday off season you might get the water to yourself apart from the riverboats.
Live music and museums
When they aren’t touring, the St Thomas Boys Choir performs three times a week in Bach’s former workplace. A good time to catch them is for their hour of Motets at 6pm on Fridays. On Saturdays at 3pm you can listen to Bach Cantata performed by the city’s choir and orchestra. It costs two euros and admission is on the door. See the choir’s website for events and tickets.
The Mendelssohn Haus is open 10-6 and the Sunday musik-salon concerts start at 11am. Here’s the current calendar of events and concerts.
You can also enjoy interactive displays at the Leipzig Bach Museum, and seek out and play some of the 5,000 instruments collected by the Grassi Museum in its innovative sound lab at the Museum of Musical Instruments. If you want more ideas then there’s a great ‘Experience Music’ leaflet available in the city’s Tourist Information building, which has suggestions for other museums and memorials and a potted history of music in the city.
Disclosure Note: This post is a paid collaboration with Leipzig Tourism and Captivate. All words, opinion, photography, videography, waving batons and sprinting around trails in search of tunes was all our own.
This post has been added to the #citytripping linky run by Cathy Winston at MummyTravels