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A Bach Christmas - Diary from Leipzig

    Thomas Kirche
    Thomaskirche - Leipzig


    A great prelude to the Leipzig trip was Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach cello suites at the Barbican. Astonishing that a single performer and instrument can hold 3000 people (including my 13-year-old son) entranced. And to anyone who thinks of Bach music as mechanical, please think again: there are great melodies, infinite subtleties, and differing textures and colours. It is all achieved with great economy of means - a single cello.

    Off to Stansted early, boarding a Ryanair flight to Altenburg - the residence of our own Saxe-Gotha family. Managed to glimpse the wonderfully preserved city from the airport bus, and was reminded that Bach is fairly ubiquitous in these parts. Though he never travelled far, he acted as an organ consultant in his native region. Bach was consultant for the organ in the Palace Chapel in Altenburg, and his pupil Krebs later became organist there.

    Germans do Christmas very well!  Most of Leipzig when I arrived was full of the Christmas Market, which sprawls over the streets in the centre. Lots of Gluhwein, doughnuts and Bratwurst on offer, some of which I resisted. And where there was no Christmas market, there was building work, smartening up the city for the World Cup next year, including an ambitious tunnel under the historic centre! My shoes still bear the marks of sliding through the mud of an archaeological excavation between the Outside Broadcast van and the church door.

    People come to Leipzig as part of a Bach pilgrimage, indeed I had done it for the first time myself in my student Fiat in 1978, when entering the German Democratic Republic required enormous amounts of paperwork, endless queues to be inspected at the borders, and strict instructions that only certain roads were open to foreigners. It was great to walk into the church almost 30 years ago and hear an organist playing the Bach Toccata in F.

    There was an evening organ recital in the St Thomas Church - Bach's principle church - on the Monday evening, which I decided to attend. Martina Böhme (wife of the Thomasorganist) played a varied programme starting with Bach, using the new Bach instrument installed in 2000 for the 250th anniversary of his birth. But then we had music by other composers, and it did seem to me rather unnatural to have travelled all that distance to hear Franck, Karg-Elert, and other organ composers. It was a reminder that the locals cannot only listen to Bach, wonderful though his music is!

    Having written the Bach A-Z entry on Zimmermann's coffee house, where Bach directed music on Friday evenings, I set off to do some serious research on coffee houses (not the most taxing moment in my career!). One cannot visit Zimmermann's since it no longer exists, but the Katherinestrasse, still contains a number of substantial ancient houses, perhaps giving some impression of the scale of the place - don't think of a coffee house in terms of what we find on every city street corner! 
    The oldest surviving coffee house in Leipzig is Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum, the Arabian Coffee Tree. It also is in a large house and is rather a maze. In the picture below, you can look enviously at my delicious coffee and Stollen. 
    Schumann was definitely one of the regulars, and the Coffee Tree was certainly there in Bach's time - surely he needed a break from his patronage of Zimmermann's occasionally.

    Another great thing about having a few hours free in Leipzig was being able to attend the rehearsal of the Christmas Oratorio in the Thomaskirche, the main city church which now contains Bach's grave. This was the orchestral rehearsal, and I should mentioned that the punctuality was an example to any orchestra - the first notes literally sounded simultaneously with the sounding of the church bells for 10 o'clock! I should also say that hearing the Herr wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben without voices was unusual, but a really moving experience in the Thomaskirche. At the risk of offending purists, it is a really good piece, even without the voices. We have a family tradition of playing a CD of the Christmas Oratorio at home every Christmas morning, and to hear great moment from such a favourite work while perched on a ledge next to Bach's grave was truly unforgettable.

    Now to the recording of the organ, with the Thomasorganist Ullrich Böhme, the actual purpose of my visit. This was the perfect combination of composer, performer and instrument. Though the instrument is new, dating from 2000, it has been made with full awareness of the principles of organ building from Bach's time, and it has an astonishing range of timbres as well as matching the church acoustic extremely well. I will not say more - you should just make sure to listen! One of the great things about working with other broadcasters who are members of the European Broadcasting Union is that one has ready-made colleagues across the world. The guys from MDR made the recording were great: they knew the church, having worked there countless times, and quickly achieved a great sound. So thanks to everyone involved for producing something memorable we can share with Radio 3 listeners on the evening of Saturday 17 th December at 1900.

    Returning to the airport, I had heard marvellous music by Bach, drunk Glühwein and historical coffee, but still not visited the castle at Altenburg . Perhaps some time, I will have the chance to follow the journey from Eisenach , his birthplace, through to Leipzig , with the other Bach places in between. The whole journey of his life only 193 kilometers - some people commute that nowadays.

    In conversation with Ullrich after his performance I was telling him about our Beethoven experience in July, and we wondered what the great masters would say to hear that we were dedicating whole days to their works. Beethoven, we thought, would have been unsurprised and said, 'Well, of course", but we thought of Bach as a master musician and craftsman writing not so much for posterity, but for the circumstances of his employment. He might well have said, 'Surely you are not still performing my music, haven't things moved somewhat?'. Well, we certainly are performing it, and it is as engaging and immediate as ever. 

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