Letter from abroad – LEIPZIG2:35, 5th June 2017
Walking proudly through Leipzig’s Auerbachs Keller, Moroccan-born Mounir Bakhtari genially switches between his faultless English tour for me and to cheery greetings in German for regular customers. Room after subterranean room offers not only warming wintery north German cuisine, but a treasure chest of history: the room where Goethe’s Mephistopheles took Faust, a staircase where E.T.A. Hoffman complained about the stench of cooking, paintings, bibles, and the very corner where, allegedly at least, Martin Luther took refuge.
It was here, to the safety of Auerbachs Keller, that Luther came in 1519, the year of the Leipzig Disputation – a verbal duel-debate between Luther and his Catholic opponents that lasted several days. It was a turning point in the Reformation and the city, as the German centre of book printing and publishing, played an important role in the distribution of Luther’s writings. Today travellers to Leipzig encounter a far more liberal climate as the city prepares to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the religious, intellectual, cultural and political cataclysm which splintered Catholic Europe.
Luther 2017 events are all over Germany – in particular some 60 miles away in Wittenberg, where Luther is reputed to have nailed his 95 Theses to a church door. There’s even an annual Reformation Day holiday on October 31 in five states. But for music hunters, Leipzig offers the added attraction of the Bachfest (9–18 June) which this year focuses on Luther’s influence on Bach and highlights the role Saxony played in the Reformation.
Bach’s commitment to Lutheranism is well-documented; he frequently incorporated hymns written by Luther in his work at St Thomas’s, and Luther himself described singing as ‘a noble art and exercise,’ stressing the importance of song in the evangelical church. I have shivered outside St Thomas’s in the snow at Easter; in the bitter winds of late January it is difficult to imagine the sunny scenes of summer on these streets, when the Bachfest takes place and the church musicians spill out to listen to jazz outside the Bach Museum. The city’s Reformation Ambassador, the American pastor Reverend Dr Robert Moore, assures me however that it does happen: ‘There is so much going on here both with music and the Reformation events. It’s my job to open the eyes of the world to what we have to offer.’
Leipzig is a compact city, flat and with a good tram network. It is wellblessed with hotels and restaurants, built mostly for the influx of visitors to the trade fairs. Few would tire of the Bach offerings, but the city also has a Mendelssohn House and links with Wagner, who was born here. The Gewandhaus and the opera have much to offer and its position as the catalyst for the Peaceful Revolution, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, adds further layers of interest. There are walking and cycling trails, churches and museums galore, including, from September, a Bach and Luther exhibition at the Bach Museum.
We should not underestimate Luther’s emotional feelings for music, says Rev. Dr Moore. ‘This is a wonderful city,’ he says, ‘and its connections with both Luther and Bach offer an immense wealth of material. For Luther, music was a vehicle to reach the gracious comfort of Christ’s presence and many of the events here this year will illustrate that.’
Rhian Morgan travelled to Leipzig as a guest of Leipzig Tourism. For more details, see www.luther-in-le ipzig.de and www.bachfestleipzig.de.