The Musical History of Leipzig, Germany

St Thomas Church

vxla/Via Flickr

Tomorrow (April 11) is the anniversary of the day in 1727 when the Premiere of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion BWV 244b was performed at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. This fascinating Saxon town is rarely visited on tour, but if you find yourself there then here are a few sites you might want to discover.

Begin at the St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirchhof) which is the main landmark of Leipzig, the church where Bach worked as a cantor and where his remains currently lie. The church is a Lutheran church and goes back to the 13th century. In its present architectural form it is a late gothic building, the tower is a 16th century addition. The roof of the church above the gothic rib vaulted ceiling is one of the steepest in Germany. The remains of Bach were originally buried in the Johanniskirche (St.John’s) of Leipzig. After this church was destroyed in WWII, his remains were reburied here in 1950.

Walk around the church to find the monument to Bach which was unveiled in 1908. Close by is the new Bach Museum of Leipzig. The Thomanenchor (Choir of the Thomas Church) was founded in 1212 and is one of the oldest and most famous boys’ choirs of Germany and Europe. Bach was the head of it between 1723 and 1750.

If you turn around from the statue of Bach, behind you will see what used to be the Zimmerman Coffeehous, in the left corner of the building. Today it is called “Apothekencafe”. In this famous coffeehouse the first “coffeehouse-musicians” (such as G.P. Telemann or Mendehlsson) entertained the elegant crowds of the Saxon metropolis. Bach used to frequent this place twice a week – at his time, in the 18th century this was the biggest coffeehouse in Leipzig, with a real concert hall.

With the church to your left, walk straight and you will arrive in the centre of Leipzig onto the pedestrian only Peterstrasse – the main shopping street of the city leading out to the south. Keep a bit to the right on it – you will find an opening next to the H&M store, this is one of the famous shopping passages of Leipzig, the Maedler Passage (It says Peterstrasse 1-13 over it). This shopping arcade was built between 1912 and 1914 in its present form but its origin goes back centuries. It is 465 feet long and has 4 stories.

Originally constructed in the Renaissance style between 1530-38 as a passage and market (messe), it would later be known as Maedler Passage arcades. In 1525 a very fashionable wine bar opened here. The notoriety of the Auerbachs Keller is due to the Keller (cellar)-scene from Goethe’s Faust, which takes place here. Goethe was a regular in this wine bar in 1765/66, when he was studying law in Leipzig. Bronze figures of Mephisto and Faust by Leipzig’s sculptor Matthieu Molitor effectively flank its entrance. It is in the second arm of the arcade going eastward – this means that when you reach the elegant, accentuated octagonal centre of the arcade you must turn left. Auerbach’s Keller will be on your right, well; actually the entrance stair case to the cellar will be there with the giant aforementioned bronze sculptures.

Maedler Passage arcade is the most magnificent city arcade in Leipzig. It interconnects Petersstrasse (where you went in) with Neumarkt and with Grimmaische Strasse to the north. Leave the arcade towards the north and enter into Grimmaische Strasse. In front and a bit to the left of you will have the Markt (Market) with the beautiful Old City Hall. The Markt is the geographical middle of Leipzig. A rectangular square where weekly food markets and the famous Leipzig Christmas markets are held. Today the square is surrounded mainly by modern buildings – due to the serious damage Leipzig suffered in World War II. On the north perimeters of the square you can see a number of reconstructed baroque patrician houses. Today the only significant building on the square is the Old City Hall (1556) in the Renaissance style – it is one of the oldest and largest in Germany. Look for the elaborate clock tower set a bit to the left from the axis of the building and the six renaissance gables.

Take the arch in the middle of the Old City Hall and walk through it. You will come out at a lavishly decorated grey-white building. It is really striking, you can’t possibly miss it. It is the Old Leipzig Stock Exchange from the heydays of the city in the mid-18th century. Turn your attention to the building next to the Old Stock Exchange, to your right and ahead of you. This is the Steigenberger Department Store (Old Messehouse) and one of the few remains of the turn-of-the-century (19/20th) architectural substance of Leipzig. Built in 1906-08 it is also a pioneer in using iron/concrete structures for such a function.

Walk on a bit – ahead of you is another architectural gem, the Cafe Riquet built in 1745, today’s look is Art Deco. Notice the characteristic giant elephant head and tile work over the entrance and the shop windows. This is a great place for “coffee and cake” (Kaffee und Kuchen) for later on – you can try the original Leipziger Lerche here! For now, take the little street on your right and go into (left) yet another shopping/market arcade. You are in the Specks Hof (court) and Hansa House. The style is the same as on the Steigenberger Department Hall: beginning of 20th century German classicist. Walk straight through it but keep pointing out the architectural details: tiled arcades, Art Noveau and Socialistic interior decoration. Specks Hof is the oldest surviving passage arcade in Leipzig and is one of the most architecturally outstanding business premises in Leipzig. Also worth mentioning are the restored Kupfer Passage arcade and the art-deco chandelier. These truly enhance your stroll along the two dozen shops.

You will now arrive to the second most important remaining landmark of Old Leipzig, the Nicholas Church. The Saint Nicholas city and parish church which was founded about 1165. The church was situated at the intersection of two important north-south, east-west trade roads. It was dedicated to Nicholas, the medieval patron saint of merchants and wholesalers. The church went into the more modern history of Germany as one of those symbolical sites where peaceful demonstrations against the socialist regime started in East Germany in 1989. Go in, if it is open, or walk around it completely (on the left of it is the square where the demonstrations where held), but make sure that you go out to your right when facing the west entrance. On your left the “Loewenapotheke”, on your right an old, renewed Saxon renaissance style covered balcony (17th century) on the corner of an otherwise completely renewed building.

You have now returned back at the east end of the Grimmaische Strasse. This will lead you out to Augustusplatz, turning left as you walk out from the Nicholas Strasse, where the Nicholas Church is. This is where your walking tour is going to end. Until 1940 this used to be one of the most beautiful urban squares of Germany. Even today, it is one of the largest. The architectural origins of the square go back to 1785 – at that time this was the east end of town. After the destruction of the historical Augustusplatz the East German government decided to completely rebuild it. On your left (the north side of the square) you will see the Leipzig Opera House (1960). In front of the opera the large fountain (only works in the summer months) is the “opera-jet-fountain”. It is a popular meeting place for the locals in warm weather.

You cannot miss the MDR Tower (1972). Also called City-Hochhaus (literally: City High-rise), at a height of 465 ft, is the tallest building in the city. It was originally part of the University of Leipzig. The roof is equipped with a viewing platform – and I do suggest you take the elevator up there – you will not regret it.

(Now if you turn back and you walk down towards the west always straight on Grimmaische Strasse, you get back to Thomaskirche, passing by the Markt once more.)

Readers, what have been the highlights for you walking through this great area?

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(Editor’s note: Paul Mattesini’s posts appear Tuesdays on Following the Equator. If you have a travel question for our resident expert tour director, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Paul here, and he will answer readers’ questions in future posts.)

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