The J.S. Bach Tourist

12. Leipzig

Both my father and I grew up in Delft, The Netherlands, at walking distance from The Hague and at only 8 miles from Rotterdam. Both Rotterdam and The Hague were bombed during the Second World War. Rotterdam lost its old center by a German terror bombardment that terminated Dutch military resistance. My parents were just about to get married and lost the furniture that they had purchased in Rotterdam (many people lost more). But also The Hague lost a complete neighborhood later on during the war. In the late 1940s, whenever my father took me to the beach in Scheveningen (at the North Sea near The Hague) you normally would pass the ruins of that neighborhood. Those signs of Apocalypse always scared the hell out of me, so, my father was so kind to make a substantial detour to avoid my site of horror. He did that for several years, till I was used to the facts of human life.

The facts of human life are hard to avoid in Leipzig. As an industrial center, it was bombed to powder during the war and after the war it had the bad luck to be rebuilt by tasteless and megalomaniac communist bureaucrats. Not only in Leipzig, but also in Rotterdam and West Germany, the scars of war were covered as soon as possible by new buildings in the 1950s, which was unfortunately not the most glorious period in European architecture. For me at least, such 1950s architecture amidst the scarce remnants of old city centers does not cover the past, but is, on the contrary, the very symbol of a city that was bombed.

From the pictures you see on this page, you might get a very different impression. That is because I just forgot to take pictures of all the ugliness and shabbyness you see in Leipzig. Like all bombed cities, Leipzig has a few older buildings which partially survived and which were carefully restored. It is those buildings that you see on this page. Therfore, it is an imaginary Leipzig, the Disney World version of the city where Bach used to live.

Perhaps the best way to start your exploration of Bach's Leipzig is a visit to the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall) at the market square (picture on the left). It has a nice historical museum with a large scale model of the city as it was in 1823. You get an impression of the relative locations of the various churches for the music of which Bach was responsible: the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche, the Neue Kirche, the Peterskirche, and, with certain qualifications to be found on the first Leipzig biography page, the university's Paulinerkirche. You also get a good impression here of the horrible fate bestowed on Leipzig during this century. One of the museum's big rooms is the old Ratsaal, in which Bach's contract was signed. In this room, you also find the famous Haussmann portrait of Bach.

From the Rathaus you can walk to Bach's Thomas church in only a few minutes (picture with yours truly on the right). You can see the church from the Rathaus (and vice versa), which was not the case in Bach's time, when houses blocked a direct mutual view of the two buildings. Unlike what you see on older pictures, the Thomas church looks white now and very much restored. In fact, it is perhaps restored a little bit too well, which gives it a somewhat harsh, Disney World-like aspect. But the church is still very recognizable, and a first encounter gives the Bach tourist a pleasant emotional shock.

We entered the church from the back, which looks more 19th century neo-Gothic than authentic Gothic. To some extent, the same can be said about the interior, which looks rather different from the interior of Bach's time. The main structure has, nevertheless, been preserved and there are still some attributes from Bach's time, such as the baptismal font used for several of Bach's children. At the choir, you find Bach's grave (bones transferred from the original burial ground near the Johanniskirche) and a Bach memorial window. The church is rather small and, with its two opposing choir galleries, it looks well-suited for church music. Somebody was playing the organ (Reger rather than Bach), and we sat down for a while to enjoy the atmosphere. There were several tourists, even a group with a guide, so, for the first time since Eisenach, we were not the only Bach tourists.

Next to the church is a little square with the famous Bach statue. The Thomas school was torn down in 1902, long before nazis or communists had a chance to ruin the city. This would, of course, have been the natural Bach house/museum, and one wanders why it was replaced by an arbitrary and ugly building. The actual Bach museum is the former Bose house at the same square (Bose was a jeweller and friend of Bach). The house is not only the home of the museum but also of the archive of the Neue Bachgesellschaft, the world headquarters of Bachforschung. To our great surprise, the museum was closed due to reconstruction works and said to be open again in September 1995. It is hard to understand why such an important museum should be closed in the middle of the tourist season. It is just another indication of the fact that Bach tourism is hardly a concept yet. Fortunately, the bookstore of the museum was open so that, together with one other disappointed Bach tourist, we could buy books and postcards.

Touristically, Bach is no competition for Mozart. I had the good fortune to spend two beautiful summers as a faculty member of a summer school in Salzburg, so that I know what I am talking about. Although Mozart hated Salzburg, the city lives on him. You find his name everywhere, from Mozart Kugeln to concerts, and the Mozart house in the Getreidegasse attracts large crowds during the summer. It is just inconceivable that anybody would dare to close it during the tourist season.

Apart from the Nikolaikirche (picture on the left), most other Bach churches have disappeared. The most dramatic case is the university's Paulinerkirche, which survived the war's bombings but which was blown up by the communist regime in 1968, to create room for its glorious Karl Marx University.

From the Thomaskirche to the Nikolaikirche is hardly more than a five minute walk. Since the two churches were practically at opposite city walls, it is surprising to realize how small big city Leipzig really was (it grew from 21,000 to 33,000 inhabitants during Bach's time, which makes it a village by any modern standards). The Nikolaikirche is very well preserved and is in several respects more spectacular than the Thomaskirche. It has a very remarkable classicist interior (created after Bach's time) with a very wide organ front. It has a fine ceiling, with pillars ending in huge leaves of grass (or palm leaves, I'm told), of a kind I have never seen anywhere else:

The Nikolaikirche is almost as important in the history of Bach's music as the Thomaskirche. Bach's first (successful) cantata performance in Leipzig, for instance, was in this church (Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75). Also, the St. John's Passion, BWV 245, had its premiere in this church.

It was a great pleasure to visit all these Bach monuments in this time-stricken city. After our visit to the Nikolaikirche, we enjoyed the best part of Leipzig at the sidewalk cafes around the Altes Rathaus in the bright sunshine of that first week of August, 1995. Leipzig looked almost charming for a while, Leipzig where the very best and the very worst of European culture had met.

That night, we did not sleep well. The hotel room was too hot and the traffic too noisy, and my father even had some minor heart trouble. We had come here in search of the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach. What we had found were the crossroads of history: Sebastian Bach for sure, who, with all his dying children lived in the first century of modern history that the European population started to grow; but also the ravages of the nazis and the communists, who got Bach's Leipzig effectively destroyed. Not to speak about the British and the Americans who also destroyed Bach's beloved baroque city Dresden for no reason whatsoever in 1945. And who bombed the Bach house in Eisenach and even the innocent Michaeliskirche of Ohrdruf while forgetting to bomb the railroads to Auschwitz? I cannot remember if I slept at all that night but I know that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach easily survived all these European nightmares, including the nightmares of his own city, and that it continues to be a medicine of hope and joy for humankind, but also for the sleepless Bach tourist.

Copyright (1995, 1996) pictures and text: Jan Koster, Haren, The Netherlands.
Last modified: October 28, 1996

Practical Information

Addresses: Bach museum and Bach archive (Bosehaus), Thomaskirchhof 16, Leipzig (open again as of September 1995, April-September, daily 10:00 - 18:00, October-March, daily 9:00 - 17:00). Thomaskirche. Open: 9:00 - 17:00. Nikolaikirche. Open: 9:00 - 17:00. For further touristic information, see the home page of the city of Leipzig. If you want to become a member of the Neue Bachgesellschaft, you find some information here.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 2. Eisenach 3. Ohrdruf
4. Lüneburg Heath 5. Lüneburg 6. Lübeck 7. Arnstadt
8. Dornheim 9. Mühlhausen 10. Weimar
11. Köthen 12. Leipzig

Further information:

Go to the map or Bach's biography (Leipzig).

Go to the J.S. Bach Home Page