The Solo Traveller's View


David Garrett and the Critics

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 11

David Garrett’s critics put themselves in line with all those who, in the course of history, have made it their business to find fault with artists whose accomplishments surpass or reinvent the norm. It is a risky undertaking to criticize the extraordinary. Of course criticism does not per se oblige anyone to deliver a better performance; and yet it will inevitably draw attention to the critic’s inferior abilities. How can anyone take a swipe at those whose achievements are way beyond their own and hope to look good in the process? It just isn’t possible. Nevertheless, there will always be people prepared to run others down for a thrilling moment of self-importance.

In our media world, thriving as it does on negative opinions and emotions, it seems quite impossible for anyone to be above gratuitous critiques; not even someone as inoffensive, not to say delightful, as David Garrett. How is it that by some commenters his modesty is portrayed as arrogance, his professional commitment as a lack of engagement, his hard-earned self-assurance as vanity? Certain German newspapers seem particularly prone to this; their journalists obviously regarding basic research as unnecessary and wilful misinterpretation as a handy tool of their craft.

Criticism may be rooted in a thorough understanding of a particular subject, yet it sprouts easily from ignorance too. It may express an objective point of view, or sheer, blinkered partiality. How does one tell the difference? The clue always lies in the way such criticism is phrased, for the chosen words are like a double-sided mirror. On the one side they will reflect a view of the subject, but on the other they show the mind that does the reflecting.

Deutschland, deine Künstler 4a

Sadly, this analysis of David Garrett as a musical phenomenon would not be complete if it did not also contain a look at the negative comments to be found on his YouTube material. However, it is fair to say that one has to scroll through acres of acknowledgement, praise and admiration to pick out remarks such as these:

“i don’t like him because he think he is the best when there are a lot of musicians better than him …he is very presumptuous” – “He is soo over rated and banking on his charisma to sell seats.” – “He’s only the fastest violinist because REAL pros don’t really go for titles like that.” –  “Cada vez menos música y mas show” – “why is he so famous? i’m sorry but I have many friends at my music college playing way better than that. really.” – “Even me can play melody on every instrument in an hour if you show me how to use that instrument.” – “Nur weil jetz wieder so´n Pseudogeiger berühmt ist, müssen ihm wieder alle zuhalten und keiner darf was gegen sagen. So wie´s immer ist.” – “Lo siento, pero no me gustó la interpretación y me uno al clamor general: quítenle el violín a David Garret por Dios!” – “Lol, he looks like he’s raping the poor violin and the violin is screaming for help but no ones noticing” – “David Garett is just a buiseness product ! HE IS JUST AN EPIC SHITTY VIOLONIST! He got no credit ! SPIT ON HIM !!!” – “Klassik meets Plastik. Echt Scheiße.” – “what a load of shit. kill the motherfucker.” 

And there is worse; unquotable words, intended to violate David’s integrity before our eyes. But such offensive cruelty must destroy any respect its author may have hoped to gain for his point of view. Instead, we are reminded of a story about a city in ancient times, whose inhabitants had sunk so low in their morals and manners that they habitually threw filth at anyone who stepped out of his house cleanly dressed.

I wish these pop artists would stick to their ‘pop music’ and stop molesting the serious art of classical music by their ‘cute buffoonery’.” – “Bach retourne dans sa tombe. C’est une putain de honte, ce mec ferait mieux de faire des concertos de Viotti.” – “Brahms would be disgusted” – “Ecco secondo me, un buon esempio di come si possa massacrare un capolavoro della musica occidentale.” – Also, das tut mir jetzt leid, aber ich störe mich nicht an seinem Aussehen oder Erfolg (den ich nicht ganz nachvollziehen kann), sondern an der INTERPRETATION. Und die ist einfach in allem over the top.” – “… so, in the end, it seems like playing for the showbiz DOES damage the artist. This is not David Garrett I heard when he was younger. It is good but is so fake and without taste. It is too f”ed up even to speak about style. Lucky I know he is a great violinist, otherwise would put him next to Edwin Marton and Andre Rieu. Pitty!!!!”

That David Garrett is so exceedingly good at what he does and so extremely successful with it just appears to fuel his critics’ anger more.

“¿Y este fue alumno de Perlman?, que trabajo perdido.” – “He really is more of a pop violinist so all he has to do it crowd please however he wants (usually by playing things fast) and his fans won’t know the difference because they aren’t classically trained.” – “Anne Sophie Mutter spielt in einer ganz anderen Liga…Oder Sarah Chang…Garret ist einfach ein Kirmesmusikant. Wenig begabt; gutausehend – ja, guter Musiker: NEIN” – “Penoso!! Stonato e tecnicamente impreparato!!  Torni al Conservatorio magari a ripassare gli studi fondamentali del violino.” – “Beethoven rises from his grave to tell this man to stop” – “Flash those lights, amplify those instruments, play it LOUD, play it FAST without an iota of nuance, no feeling other than, LOOK AT ME… ten spotlights on ME….look at how I can bastardize a real work of music. There is nothing going on here other than the lowest common denominator bullshit to make the unwashed think they are hearing Beethoven… And the angels wept.” – “Motherfucker !!!!!! You have no respect for Brahms you son of a bitch”

It is all in the eye of the beholder, the eyes’ view expressed through the mirror of the mind, and that mind reflected in its words … to say nothing of syntax, spelling and punctuation.

In addition, a controversy concerning the cultural value of different types of music – classical versus popular – is rambling on, caught up in a loop that would make Möbius proud. The cultural establishments of Europe, and of Germany and Austria in particular, have long felt maternally possessive of Classical Music (with capitals) and regard themselves as the rightful guardians of this Holy Grail, with all of its attending rites and hallowed traditions. Such ladies and gentlemen of advanced maturity, of venerable lineage and refined education, set in their ways and unshakeable in their beliefs, naturally suspect anyone who does not conform to their exclusive rituals as musically inferior and as having sold out for cheap and dirty “softpornpopclassicjunkfood”. They remain fearful of contact with that strange race of musicians whose sounds and shows might be a threat to the classical tradition.

There is a decided overtone of segregation in those arguments put forward by journalists of the feuilleton, concerning the imperative need to preserve the purity of classical music. But they rant in vain, for it has ever been the way of history and evolution to send outdated notions to the fossil record. In overriding those carefully guarded boundaries, musicians such as David Garrett are helping their demise along, and no wonder the border guards don’t like it.

“He was really an outstanding classical Violinist. A hope for classical music. It´s gone. Now he is a young Andé Rieu. Well, de gustibus non est disputandum.” – “Er bedient die Erwartungen seines klassisch ungebildeten Publikums und hat damit großen Erfolg.” – “What could’ve been if he continued playing classical… I respect his decision to become a pop and rock player but he had such a bright future as a classical musician. It’s kinda sad (to me) listening to this and then seeing how he’s playing now.” – “Er möchte gerne ein ernstzunehmender klassischer Musiker sein, hat aber zugunsten des schnellen Erfolges seinen Tiefgang aufgegeben. Ich glaube nicht dass er diese großartige Form seiner jungen Jahre jemals wiederfinden wird.” – “este hombre no sirve para la musica clasica.” – “Ein absolutes Ausnahmetalent hat sich leider selbst auf Disneyniveau begeben. So schade!” – “I would play it differently. not enough Italian soul . sorry Dave!!!!” – “Als inszenierter Marketing-Zombie erreicht er natürlich die Massen, die für jeden Dreck dankbar und empfänglich sind und einen simplen C-Dur Akkord nicht von einer Autohupe unterscheiden können.”

Kreisler, Baden-Baden 4
While David Garrett obligingly fit the strict mould of the classical soloist as a child and a teenager, they had no problem hailing him as a legend in the making. Now that he has the makings of a legend and his skills are more impressive than ever, these are suddenly seen as lacking. He is perceived as aesthetically vulgarized by his crossover excursions and declared forever ruined by the corrupting contact with pop and rock music, which must necessarily have prevented his maturation as a serious classical musician.

It is a perspective one can certainly choose to assume, though it is not mandatory to express it with spitefulness. Does an offensive attitude really prove journalistic independence of mind? It just makes those who disagree wish they could lay protective wings about David and tell everyone to shut up and leave him alone.

But David Garrett already carries a magic cloak against revilements. Its fabric is woven of words too, but these are words of understanding, of expert acknowledgement and well-founded praise, and their protective power springs from the indisputable eminence of the musicians who uttered them.

There is Ida Haendel, herself a child prodigy and world-class violinist, whose recording career for major labels such as EMI and Harmonia Mundi now spans nearly 70 years. She is a member of international juries and therefore in touch with the great new talents of the times. Her honours and awards include the title of Commander of the British Empire, an honorary doctorate of the Royal College of Music, and the 1982 Sibelius Prize. For years, she witnessed and supported David Garrett’s development as one of his highly esteemed mentors and so came to know his musical qualities better than most.

Ida Haendel

In her words: “Where he gets his talent from? You’d have to ask God. I believe it is something mystic … something beyond what we know. Either you have it, or you don’t. You can’t learn talent; nobody can teach you talent.” – “You should be allowed to do what your heart tells you to do. If he loves it, let him do it. There is nothing wrong with that. He can be a wonderful classical violinist and do rock music too, if it gives him joy. Why not? Rock is also art, I don’t deny it. If I had his gift, I might play rock too …”

Yehudi Menuhin, pre-eminent violinist of the 20th century, considered David Garrett “the greatest violinist of his generation.”

Yehudi Menuhin

Among his credentials is the founding of the Menuhin Festival Gstaad in Switzerland. He also established the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey and the music program at The Nueva School in California; and, in 1965, he received an honorary knighthood from the British monarchy.

Zubin Mehta is the Music Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and Main Conductor for Valencia’s Opera House, Chief Conductor of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival and former Music Director and Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. He too witnessed David’s development through the years, from child prodigy to established musician, and performed the Brahms Concerto in D major with him and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra as recently as 2013.

Zubin Mehta

In his considered opinion, “David Garrett sacrifices his beautiful tone and his wonderful technique for the work. In the end one hears only the music and does not merely admire the talent.” – “I am really very much impressed by the truthfulness of his playing. I entertain the hope that David will bring all generations to the concert halls of classical music.” – “He plays like a soloist. You cannot hold him back. There are such individuals, sometimes. Not very often, and that is because … it is something mystic, I believe.”

Itzhak Perlman“He is a wonderful violinist with excellent technique and natural musicianship. He will always perform with artistry.”  

Itzhak Perlman 1

Perlman is not only a world-renowned violinist, but also a teacher of wide experience who held a faculty post at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College from 1975. In 2003, he was named the holder of the Dorothy Richard Starling Foundation Chair in Violin Studies at the Juilliard School, and it was mainly this fact that drew David to New York, for the chance to study with him.

All you who attempt to criticize David Garrett: do your credentials match those listed above? If not, you would do well to remain silent. Who are you to know better? Has a highly regarded composer ever said of you, as Eric Ewazen, composition teacher at Juilliard since 1980, said of David: “As a violinist, his spectacular, heartfelt and expressive playing already dazzled – even when he was a student – those of us who had the great pleasure of teaching him, and we recognized his extraordinary gifts and his amazing talent.”

Probably not. For if you had earned such praise, you would not make it your business to lay into someone who did. So, if David Garrett’s playing does not thrill you; if you listened to it with an open mind and found it not to your taste, then of course you must go and seek musical delight elsewhere. But go quietly, because nobody will mistake your sneering for objectivity or your sarcasm for expertise. The double-sided mirror of your words does not make you look superior and well-informed. Quite the contrary. And don’t point out that you are from Cremona and have been playing the violin for thirty-eight years either. Because if you were any good, the world would surely have heard of you. So, for your own sake – go quietly.


To be continued with David Garrett’s Your Song Serenade. If you click ‘follow blog via email’ you won’t miss it.
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(These photographs are either screenshots from YouTube or from Google Image, for the purpose of illustration only. I trust the authors will allow this use of their picture material. No copyright infringement is intended.) 



David Garrett’s Musical Magic

An attempted Analysis of a Musical Phenomenon – Part 3

The question has been asked: What is it that distinguishes David Garrett from other violinists? Those that worked nearly as hard as he did in their childhood and now play almost as well? Those that play in an orchestra instead of centre-stage? – The great conductor Zubin Mehta, David’s long-time friend and mentor, put it like this: “You need to have the sound of a soloist, and the temperament of a soloist … He has both.”

68 Bach Sonata No 2 - Andante

But there is also David’s ability to take any hackneyed tune you hoped never to hear again – O sole mio, O Tannenbaum, O whatever – and to make it shiny and new, like the spinning of straw to gold in a fairytale. His heart, head and hands mark the boundaries of that force field in which a joyous rebirth of any – yes indeed, any – piece of music occurs before our astonished ears, takes place in the close-up transmission of cameras before our wondering eyes.

YouTube fan comments: I never get tired of watching this musical genius.” – “It always makes me happy to watch David Garrett play.” – “Maravilloso … simplemente encantador!” – “Many thanks for the magical music!”

There is such conscious clarity in every note and interval, and his playing is never overly sweet, never sentimental. The hint of edginess about the strings and the masculine vigour of his performance work equally well with contemporary and classical music: Beethoven and Brahms, Metallica and Nirvana, Tico Tico and the Czardas, Yesterday and Summertime, even Chopin and Schubert (being all about the piano) can rarely have sounded more enthralling.

“Have you ever heard anything more beautiful?” – “Como llega a mi corazón! Excelente!” – “… an extremely gifted and sensitive musician.” – “His tone is amazing.” – “Every touch of magic, perfect!” – “He adds so much to the song with his own style. Every note played with such clarity.” – “I doubt that anything he touches doesn’t transform to gold.” – “Thank you, dear David Garrett, for your fantastic music and the happiness it brings to us all!”

61 Ode to Joy, 2013

David Garrett can afford to be fearless in his choices, for tags like ‘classical’, ‘crossover’, ‘cover artist’ and suchlike melt to insignificance in this, his particular process of witnessed, conscious creation in music’s universally understood language: A sequence of notes in faultless timing, a progression of harmony, a rhythm … and David’s individual phrasing that expresses a specific emotion in the most beautiful way this moment in time and his outstanding skill affords.

It seems to me that this particular alchemy – this process of turning something too-well-known into something worth listening to – is David Garrett’s unrivalled ability, seasoned with his infectious joy and musical passion. And like a magician he conjures this enchantment for our delight, time and time again, with unfailing commitment. But what he conjures is never illusion. It is truth, pure and sweet.


To be continued … Our next topic is David Garrett and the Violin. If you click ‘follow blog via email’ you won’t miss it.

(All photographs are screenshots drawn from YouTube, for the purpose of illustration only. I trust the authors will allow this use of their picture material. No copyright infringement is intended.) 

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Saturday, 22 February 2014

Today’s excursion to Leipzig begins with a walk through silent pine woods to the tiny local train station, where a ticket vending machine snatches my twenty-euro bill with unexpected vigour, as if to prevent me from changing my mind. The slogan “GEGEN NAZIS!!!” (against Nazis) catches my eye. The large letters of this forceful statement have been drawn carefully with a broad brush and lime green paint, underscoring the station’s name panels. It is just before nine o’clock, and a peaceful Saturday morning until a scruffy youngster comes along with a device in the pocket of his trousers that are hanging at half-mast, emitting blaring sounds that can be called music only in the loosest sense of the word: they resemble a cacophony of hammers striking metal planks and give the impression that a clanking factory accompanies his strides. All eyes on the platform follow as he huddles in the shelter opposite the tracks.

The train is scheduled for 08.54. Cold wind and the youth’s intrusive machinery-noises make the wait unpleasant, but it is of short duration. At 08.53 precisely, the train from Wittenberg glides into the station. Five people board, and exactly on time we depart, heading for Leipzig, leaving the youngster and his sound factory behind. I study the German passengers – their faces, their dress, their gestures – and my impression is that, unless they speak, they are pretty much indistinguishable from the population of Britain. Each type, every temperament and expression could be matched with an exact counterpart somewhere in the soggy kingdom, I’m sure.

Outside the windows the wide plain flies past, punctuated by marshes, copses of birch and fir woods, fields and raised deer-watching hutches, and also by artificial lakes that filled up the open pits of former brown-coal mines. Glades of wind turbines and acres of solar panels can be seen at times. Run-down and bricked-up station buildings, redundant in this age of ticket machines, are covered in colourful sprayers’ tags. Long, bleached grass grows over abandoned tracks; brick walls crumble. A bleak look of neglect hangs about these small, rural settlements and makes our arrival at the terminus, nearly an hour later, all the more stunning. For Leipzig’s main station is one of the largest in Europe; a magnificent stone edifice dating from the turn of the last century, its interior elegantly modernized. Below the tracks, shopping arcades are lined with international brand names. Spotless public toilets, supervised by a friendly cleaner on duty, stand to attention for one euro.

It is not immediately apparent which exit will take me towards the old town, so I approach a young couple to make enquiries. They interrupt their private conversation willingly and point me in the right direction. It strikes me anew that whenever I have dealings with members of the German public, be they shop assistants, museum staff or strangers in the street, their manner is always a touch more genuinely pleasant than is commonly expected and strictly necessary. Their educated friendliness, their heartfelt desire to be helpful surprises and moves me every time. This is totally unlike the German image as it is commonly portrayed in the Anglophone world.

Now I walk along wide, cobbled city streets into the peaceful pedestrian zone, taking care not to collide with the cyclists that sometimes zoom noiselessly around corners. Leipzig is indeed a grand old town, its inner circle stuffed to the brim with things of historic interest. My first goal is the Nikolaikirche, a Protestant church with several claims to fame: Luther, Bach, the ‘Monday Demonstrations’ …

Church of St Nicholas

I take advantage of the guided tour that is about to begin. A fair-sized group of visitors has come together to learn about this church, and we are fortunate in our guide who has a witty and well-informed mind. From him we learn that Leipzig began around the year 900 as a Slavic settlement on a slight elevation in the difficult and unattractive swampland of three rivers, but owed its quick rise to importance to the fact that two Roman main roads, the Via Regia and the Via Imperii, crossed here and linked the four directions of the compass to a centre of brisk trade. In 1165 Libzi, ‘Place of the Linden Trees’, was granted the state of a free market town, and at the same time the city fathers dedicated their new parish church to St Nicholas, patron saint of traders. This church of the citizenry soon acquired a rival in the Church of St Thomas, built as part of the local Augustinian Monastery, and their uneasy relationship became tenser still during the time of the Reformation, when the Church of St Nicholas welcomed Luther’s ideas and embraced the new Evangelical faith in 1539. The pulpit Luther preached from is preserved and can be seen in a side chapel.

The Church of St Nicholas underwent the same sequence of transformations that characterizes so many important edifices of the times: It grew from Romanesque beginnings and eventually was extended as a Gothic hall church. For the time span of a generation, the citizens of Leipzig only knew their church as a building site, and they worshipped inside a tent-like structure while the church walls around them were removed and remodelled. Almost three thousand people are said to have attended the first mass once renovation was complete. (Our guide points out that Sunday Service in those days lasted from half-past seven to eleven o’clock in the morning.)

Then the 18th century came along, eager to leave its baroque mark. The prosperous and independent-minded citizens of Leipzig wished to demonstrate their high cultural standard and invited their master town architect Dauthe to remodel the entire interior of their church to prove it. From 1784 to 1797 St Nikolai was once again a building site, until the nave emerged as one of the most original creations of German classicism; light and fresh as a piece of exquisite confectionery, richly ornamented with floral motives and decorated in icing sugar colours: white, signifying innocence; pink for the apple blossom; and light green – symbolic of the Garden of Eden. Its double row of pillars was designed to resemble palm trees, with fronds and fruit growing freely from their tops. Nothing Gothic remained.

Church of St Nicholas

Interior of St Nicholas Church

Among churches, St Nikolai is unusual in other ways too, as our guide now explains: The building sits level with the ground, inviting anyone who passes in the street to step inside without making him climb to a symbolically higher level via the habitual series of steps. Inside, one meets the opposite of the hushed atmosphere in catholic churches, dimly illuminated by colourful stained-glass images; for these tall windows let in the clear, rational light of day unaltered, as befits the Age of Enlightenment. No statues of saints, no worship of the Madonna either – only a beautifully crafted candle stand of wrought iron in the central aisle, bearing forty lights. According to our guide, in a biblical context the number forty always points to the difficulties of achieving communication with God: Forty days in the desert, or even forty years … In harmony with Luther’s impulse, it is a building dedicated to the conscious responsibility for one’s faith, to the word of the scripture and to music that elevates the soul, and it had the outrageously good fortune to be the place where several of Bach’s great works were performed for the very first time.

Unusual, however, doesn’t end there: A cycle of thirty large paintings by Adam Friedrich Oeser (town architect Dauthe’s teacher) depicts scenes from the New Testament, showing Christ as teacher of mankind and miracle-working Son of God. Images of this kind are certainly not part of other Evangelical churches. Unusual is also the fact that the altar space is not out of bounds to the public. One may wander freely in this hallowed area, otherwise strictly reserved for the clergy, and view the fine artworks displayed there.

Altar of St Nicholas Church

A roughly fashioned, large wooden cross stands to one side of the altar. Although it is built according to the original Roman pattern for such instruments of torture and looks ancient, we learn that it was commissioned only at the beginning of the 1980s by the pastor and used in his regular meetings with young people. This cross was laid on the floor of the altar space, and everyone sat around it in gatherings that grew steadily over time. Here, the young citizens of the German Democratic Republic – deprived, restricted, patronized and spied on by their one-party state – could for once freely express their thoughts and feelings and not be met with a brusque “Halt’s Maul!” – Shut up! Those same two words were uttered habitually by nearly all their concerned, frightened or subdued parents and teachers, for in the ‘Socialist Paradise of Workers and Farmers’, speaking one’s mind was dangerous and not encouraged. But in the unusual sanctuary of this church (barely tolerated by the state), they could speak out after having placed a lit tea light on the beams of the cross, and here their voices were heard. Darkness fell outside as the evening wore on, but inside the light grew on the beams of the cross in their middle.

All during this decade, the peace prayers in the Nikolaikirche increased in momentum. The congregation was swelled by many who would never normally have attended a service. Yet in the troubled last days of the GDR, this church became the centre of their peaceful protests. Despite blocked access streets, random arrests and vicious brutality by the state police, the Monday Demonstrations continued and grew in size. On October 7, 1989, the GDR celebrated its forty-year anniversary with great pomp. While the ruling party admired a parade of their proud class of workers, TV channels of the West showed crowds of GDR citizens chanting, “Wir wollen raus!” – We want to leave! The Russian president Michail Gorbatchov, attending the celebrations, made it clear that the Red Army would not get involved. The Hungarians had already cut a hole into the Iron Curtain along their border with Austria, and now Germans from the East used it to escape. Hundreds of others were holed up in embassies, demanding the freedom to travel across the barbed-wire border. The eyes of the world were focused on Erich Honecker’s dictatorial regime, and all waited with bated breath for the bloody massacre that was to come. Only five months earlier, the Chinese government had crushed an uprising of its young people on Tiananmen Square, and the images were still in everyone’s mind. But then something unexpected happened. What could have led to a civil war became Die Wende, the turning-point.

A former member of the Central Committee admitted before his death: “We had planned everything. We were prepared for everything. But not for candles and prayers.” – Although articles in the press had threatened the ruthless use of armed forces to put out this ‘counter-revolution’, more people than ever assembled in the Nikolaikirche on that Monday evening, October 9, 1989. Among them were a thousand party members and state security forces with orders to fill up the church and crowd out the congregation. Thus they too heard the words of the gospel, the message of peace, the Sermon on the Mount … The bishop ended with his blessing and the urgent call for non-violence; written messages of solidarity from the director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and others were read out. There was an atmosphere of intense calm and focus. In the words of Pastor Christian Führer: “And as we, more than two thousand people, were leaving our church – I shall never forget the sight – there were ten thousands waiting outside in the square. They had candles in their hands. And to carry a candle one needs both hands. One has to shield the light, protect it from extinguishing. One cannot carry a stone or a club at the same time. And the miracle happened. The Spirit of Jesus, of non-violence, took hold of the masses and became a peaceful force. Members of the army, the combat groups and the police became involved, engaged in conversation and withdrew. (…) Not a single shop window was smashed. An incredible experience of the power of non-violence.”

Nobody could have foreseen the speed with which the Socialist One-Party State crumbled, turned to dust and blew away on the winds of history. The most fiercely guarded border in the world was dismantled in record time and Germany became one nation once more. – An exact replica of one of the church’s pillars now stands outside in the square, its startling appearance a fitting reminder of these events.

Memorial Pillar

A short walk takes me to the Church of St Thomas. What does it have to offer, in terms of historical events, to equal its great rival? Quite a bit, it seems: The famed University of Leipzig, second-oldest of German universities after Heidelberg, was founded in 1409 in the Monastery of St Thomas. From 1723 to his death in 1750, Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor in Leipzig, and though the city fathers employed him chiefly for their Church of St Nicholas, he lived and worked at St Thomas and led the boy’s choir. In 1789, Mozart passed through Leipzig and played the organ in this church; oh, to have been a fly on the wall then!

Church of St Thomas

In the following Napoleonic Wars, St Thomas was used first as an ammunitions store and then as a military hospital. In the meantime, Bach’s music had sunk into oblivion and he was remembered mostly as a great player and teacher of music. But in 1829, the young Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy initiated a revival of Bach’s reputation with a performance of the Passion of St Matthew in Berlin. A performance of the same work was heard in this church in 1841, and the inauguration of a Bach Memorial followed two years later. His coffin had lain in an unmarked grave of the Old St John’s Cemetery for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but was found in 1894 and transferred to a vault inside St John’s. When that church was destroyed in the Second World War, Bach’s remains were moved for a second time.

Bach's Epitaph

They lie under a bronze epitaph in the sanctuary, his name now firmly wedded to the church of St Thomas, while a simple bust of the great composer is all that marks his link to the Church of St Nicholas. In 2008, Mendelssohn’s memorial was restored, the original having been destroyed by the Nazis. (They had also done away with the exceedingly large and prosperous Jewish community of Leipzig, historically connected with the city’s fur trade of international renown and a close rival to that other centre of the fur trade, London.)

I emerge into daylight, holding my quota of research fulfilled. There is still so much to see and study, but one would need more than a brief day-visit to do it all justice. At every crossing, sign posts offer new attractive suggestions, but now I just amble along in the splendid sunshine and view the buildings.

Market Square

City Skyscraper

Bold, modern architecture intermingles with impressive historical styles. On the one hand, there is the opulent Ratshaus, the city hall, a Renaissance castle looking like something out of fairy-tale or legend. On the other, there is a mountain of glass facets, a crystal-like edifice that is in fact the venerable University of Leipzig in its newest incarnation.

Ratshaus, the City Hall

University of Leipzig

Another eye-catching piece of modern architecture, rising phoenix-like from a former bomb site, is the Gewandhaus, home to the orchestra of international renown.


In the square a great teacher, cast in bronze, raises his hand in a lecturing pose, and in it some spirited student (I assume) has placed a drinks can which fits perfectly between his fingers and connects him effortlessly to the present day.

Past and Present

This irreverent spirit seems to thrive amongst the august historical monuments of Leipzig. I detect no sign of stuffiness, of careful clinging to the weight of a great past. A double-edged advertising slogan illustrates this: “Für jeden Arsch ‘ne Hose,” it shouts gleefully and concisely – for every bum the right pants!

With tired feet and limbs nipped by the cold wind I make my way to Auerbachs Keller. The subterranean vault is decorated with fresco scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’, and in the foyer its story is told across several illustrated pin boards. A hot drink and a piece of ‘Mephisto Torte’ are most welcome at this point.

Auerbachs Keller

I ponder that as tourists we are happy enough with an approximation in the experience of historical events, locations and remains; that names, and the mental image of events linked with them, are usually sufficient to conjure up a feeling of having stepped into a magic circle of the past. It is certainly the case here, in this restaurant that – although it still bears the same name – is not the actual site of the drinking hole the young Goethe frequented as a student and commemorated in his epic play. Nor is it entirely certain that the mortal remains buried in St Thomas’s Church are actually those of Bach himself: the experts are only ‘highly’ certain. But does it matter? It seems to me that these memorial places serve as springboards to their significance, as points of connection charged with an energized interest that remains unmatched by Wikipedia.

Goethe as a Student in Leipzig