Leipzig: Musikstadt

I decided quite early on in the planning process that I wanted to use my year abroad to do a “proper job”, by which I meant something in an office, with deadlines and working hours and spreadsheets. At that point, I was determined to make the year as different as possible to anything I’d done before, and so neither a university exchange nor a teaching placement in a school qualified as a sufficient challenge. (Retrospectively, I think the whole moving-to-a-new-country-and-trying-to-make-friends bit probably would have sufficed on the challenging front – but I’ll cope). Anyway, my search for a “proper job” conflicted a little with my reluctance to do anything (ever) that wasn’t at least a little bit creative. And so, in what I proudly thought of as a flash of inspiration, I sent CVs and letters to orchestras, concert halls and opera houses all over the German speaking world. Wiener Philharmoniker, Oper Köln, Dresden Staatskappelle, Bayerischen Rundfunks Symphonieorchester, Berliner Philharmoniker, many, many more, and, of course, Leipzig Gewandhaus. I’d have been ecstatic to accept internships from any, really, but Leipzig’s reputation as an up-and-coming city (it’s been nicknamed Hypezig, don’tcha know), its large student population, its low cost of living, and its perfect location for exploring Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and the wonderful saxon countryside in between made me particularly keen to come here.

The other thing that I, rather ignorantly, didn’t know about Leipzig until I arrived here four weeks ago is that it’s known as the Musikstadt: the city of music. This is evident from a five minute stroll in virtually any direction in the city centre. It seems impossible to escape the sounds of buskers – which, when they’re playing so exquisitely, is no bad thing – and there are even streets named after the likes of Chopin, Beethoven and Mahler. You can visit the house where Mendelssohn lived, or the Schumanns, or gaze up at a statue of Bach in front of the church where he worked. The Gewandhaus, where the orchestra plays, stands at one end of Augustusplatz, opposite the Opera House. It’s everywhere. And I love it.

I’m writing this on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. This morning I went to my third (free) Gewandhausorchester concert – third in four weeks, that is – and it was quite simply divine. I’m lucky enough to be here for the duration of the orchestra’s Strauss cycle. In my humble opinion, Strauss’s orchestral work comes second only to Mahler (and okay, maybe he can share that spot with Wagner’s opera overtures), so it’s rather wonderful to be able to hear so much of his music over the next few weeks. (It’s actually a Strauss-Mozart cycle, and while Mozart has never really been a particular love of mine, I’m hoping to discover him in a new way while I’m here. We’ll see).

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The Gewandhaus main hall

I read this brilliant article a few days ago, and a few bits in particular made me want to write about some of the wonderful music I’ve heard here so far. “Classical music has been, for me, the single most inspiring, most moving, most magical thread running though my whole cultural experience…I’m aware that it’s easy to fall back on quasi-mystical, pretentious language when trying to talk about one’s experience of classical music, but that shouldn’t stop us trying…After a concert, I want to grab people by the lapels and tell them how lucky we are as a species that, out of all the hundreds of billions of us who ever lived, one of us managed to come up with the Goldberg Variations. But I don’t, because that’s not the done thing. So instead I mention that the cafe downstairs does some fabulous chocolate éclairs.I’m always amazed by how quietly people leave a concert hall, or if they talk to each other, it’s chatter about if they can remember where they’ve parked the car, or wasn’t the soprano wearing a nice dress. I think this is because what music does to us is such a private thing, we feel it’s not quite right to voice it.”

So, with that in mind:

The first concert of the season happened to contain two of the pieces that, out of all of the music in the world, are closest to my heart. My friends’ teenage enthusiasm for One Direction (yes, really) may have completely passed me by, but fifteen year old me was completely infatuated by Tod und Verklärung, Strauss’s wonderful tone poem that, in short, recounts the thoughts of a dying man as he reflects on his life from his deathbed. It starts, audibly, with his heartbeat, and takes you from his innocent childhood, through the struggles of his adulthood and his eventual worldly achievements, through to his final, glorious arrival in heaven. Anyway, I first discovered this piece on a music course with the National Schools’ Symphony Orchestra when I was fifteen, and I suppose it was the perfect piece to bring out the emotional sensibilities of a group of hormonal teenagers. We all wept a little bit as, just as the first violins soared up to our final high note, the sun came through the window. For a long time afterwards, I’d refuse to listen to the piece unless I was anywhere other than lying on my bed, in a dark room, free to contemplate life. I’d like to think I’ve left those teenage pretensions behind, but hearing the Gewandhaus play it last week really did make me shiver. It was exciting and stirring and emotional, and I felt myself grin at moments and almost blush at others, and my eyes welled up for most of the last section.

The second Strauss piece was Metamorphosen, which is a rather incredible (and, i think, rather unique), piece for twenty three solo strings. I first heard it played at a concert at Birmingham Symphony hall, and my prevailing memory of that concert is that, having sat with my mouth wide open in awe for all twenty-four minutes, I might have dribbled a little as the applause started. Of course, my teacher found this absolutely hilarious and proceeded to mock me about it for at least the next term (Mrs B, if you’re reading this, I’m looking at you!).  It was wonderful to be able to hear it live again without making any kind of fool of myself.

So, along with Also Sprach Zaruthrasa, MacBeth, and Till Eulenspiegel, my Strauss-themed welcome here has been really quite brilliant. I’ve also heard two Mozart concertos, both with completely captivating soloists. Martin Frost and his clarinet reminded me rather of an illustration of the Pied Piper of Hamelin from my childhood, as he danced around cheekily, flirting with the leader. Or so it seemed. This morning’s violin soloist, Christian Tetzlaff, couldn’t have been more different. He was poignant and introspective, and watching him play felt rather as if I were being invited to share in a very personal experience. Perhaps my “Mozart is dull” stance is starting to change slightly?

Well-deserved applause!
Well-deserved applause!

I spent my first two weeks of work helping with arrangements for a BIG bi-annual event, which Sam and I attended last weekend. It’s called Klassik airleben – and anyone who knows a little German will appreciate the pun – and is essentially a huge, free, open-air concert. I even spent three hours on Saturday working in a tent in the city centre, wearing the closest thing to any kind of stash I’ve ever had, handing out leaflets and answering visitors’ questions. My cynical side wonders whether an English city could ever fill a square the size of Augustusplatz with people genuinely interested in hearing two hours of orchestral music. We sat with a picnic of falafel and salami and cheese, sipping on beer and wrapped in blankets. Perhaps the rattle of trams isn’t the ideal accompaniment to delicate string playing, but it was still pretty fun. Next to us, two little boys aged five or so danced for the duration of the Mozart third movement. Cuuuuute.

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As interesting and rewarding as my internship is – when it’s not folding 500 letters and putting them in envelopes, because that happens too! – my secret favourite part of the week is when I have a reason to wander around the corridor that surrounds the stage. I’ll be putting things up on the noticeboards, but around me there are beautiful instruments and abandoned pages of music, and through the thin wall I can hear rehearsals. I’m still quite excited that when I scroll through the contacts on my work email account, I see Riccardo Chailly, whose Mahler recordings I fell in love with a few years ago. It’s all very exciting. I’ve even joined a choir, and can’t wait to sing Bach cantatas with them in the Thomaskirche, and to join up with other choirs from Berlin and Dresden for a huge performance of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius next month. I feel very lucky to be here!

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  1. I love what you say about people not really talking about the music when they leave a concert hall. I’ve always been terrible about going to concerts because the way I experience music is so private; having that experience with or even just next to other people is unusual and feels intimate in a way that isn’t always comfortable. Music in particular, I think, suffers from the assumption that art should comfort us. (In an even wilder tangent: another former Exonian Englishist recommended some heavy metal to me on similar grounds. It really scared me to listen to, not because of the shouting but because the music seemed genuinely sinister and furious, and it occurred to me then that maybe we should push ourselves to have the terrifying or thought-provoking experiences with music that we seem more happy to have with film and TV and books.)

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