If you believed the collective gushing of the multitude of travel articles that have been published about Leipzig over the last few years, you might arrive in the city convinced you were entering a mythical place. A city made of pure light. People seem determined to persuade you that this isn’t just one of the coolest cities in Europe, but that it might just possibly be the ‘New Berlin‘. Even if that was a good thing – and the jury’s still out for some of us – the reality could never live up to the hype.
True, this is a youthful city with an extraordinary history. Yes, it has a cutting-edge art and music scene, and a plethora of trendy galleries and art house places. Undeniably, some people, ‘disillusioned’ with Berlin’s gentrification (and rising prices), have chosen to move here, but that really seems to be the extent of the comparison. Berlin is seven times larger than Leipzig for a start. This fabulous city isn’t well served by the weight of expectation others have created on its behalf.
Leipzig is a fascinating place in its own right, and a weekend can only really serve as an amuse-bouche for understanding the city. One similarity that it does share with Berlin is that, geographically, it spreads out over an expansive area, and we didn’t get to see as much of the city as we’d have liked. Walking between its dispersed neighbourhoods on a day when the mercury was well over 30ºC cannot be recommended. Another visit, or two, will be needed to do it justice.
Unlike Berlin, Leipzig does have a well defined city centre, in which you can find many of its historic sights. The city’s history is perhaps most strongly associated with music and literature. It was here that Friedrich Schiller composed his poem, Ode to Joy, most famously the inspiration for the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The composer, conductor and musician, Mendelssohn, also lived, worked and died here. He founded the Leipzig Conservatory, which is still going today.
Goethe, perhaps Germany’s greatest literary figure, attended university here in the 1760s. Faust, the man who sells his soul to the Devil, would become his finest work. One famous scene is set in Leipzig’s Auerbachs Keller, out of which Faust flies on a wine barrel. A visit is compulsory, especially as this was one of Angela Merkel’s haunts when she was a Leipzig student during the GDR era. The entrance sits in the Mädler Passage, one of several wonderfully ornate arcades.
The city’s two most famous sons though are, without a doubt, the great Baroque-era composer, Johann Sebastian Bach; and, one of the world’s most influential, not to say most controversial, composers, Richard Wagner. Bach was organist and choir director at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche, where he is buried. There is a striking statue of him outside, and a small display of musical instruments inside the church. He seems to be revered in a city where his music can be heard live almost daily.
Wagner, born in Leipzig, and living in the city in the 1820s and 1830s, is more strongly associated with Bayreuth. There is a small museum to him in Leipzig, but it feels like he plays second fiddle to Bach. Perhaps that is to do with his unconventional life – when he wasn’t having affairs, he was on the run from creditors – or maybe his anti-semitism, or because the Nazis embraced his music. The New York Times‘ classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, rated Bach well above Wagner in his top ten composers.
Wagner’s time in Leipzig overlapped with Mendelssohn and coincided with yet another German musical great, Robert Schumann. Incomplete as it is, that’s a remarkable roll-call of creative talent for a city that is seven times smaller than Berlin.