Enthusiasm can come in surprising forms. Two days away from the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner, the atmosphere in Leipzig wasn’t exactly one of jubilation. In fact the Eurovision Song Contest was bigger news than the bicentenary of arguably the 19th-century’s greatest musical genius. It made me wonder whether Wagner’s dubious opinions, difficult personality, and the espousal of his music by the Third Reich, had taken their toll on the composer’s reputation in his home town.
Then I began to see the signs. A passing tram bore the unmistakable profile of Wagner’s proud forehead and aquiline nose, and the slogan “Richard ist Leipziger!” A patisserie window had chocolate figurines and my hotel, the Park, on Richard Wagner Strasse, was selling commemorative ashtrays. The birthday programme could hardly be accused of half-heartedness, what with four or five exhibitions, multiple opera productions, tributes in dance, film, cabaret, jazz and techno, a Ring des Nibelungen for children, and a crossover extravaganza featuring Finnish goth-metal band Apocalyptica.
This handsome city has long since shrugged off its Eastern Bloc grimness and become again what it always was historically: a lively commercial hub with a cultural mass out of proportion to its physical size. Goethe, Nietzsche, Leibniz and Nikolaus Pevsner are Leipzig’s literary names to conjure with. For music-lovers, however, this is simply one of Europe’s unmissable destinations. Bach spent the latter part of his life here as cantor at St Thomas’s church, while Mendelssohn and Schumann were also based here (and their homes can be visited). The Gewandhaus orchestra is among the world’s top dozen, while Oper Leipzig is one of Germany’s A-list opera companies.
But in this year of all years, the biggest draw is plainly Wagner. The city’s tourism department has pulled out all the stops, and the good news is that the birthday itself, on May 22, was only Act I of the opera. Most of the special exhibitions are open until the autumn, and visitors at any time can enjoy a new walking route (“Wagner Ways in Leipzig”) taking in 25 relevant sites around the city.
The composer was born here in a house on the Brühl, went to school at the Alte Nikolaischule, and saw his early Overture in D minor performed at the old Gewandhaus in 1832. His mother and sister are buried in the Johannis cemetery, a short walk from the mid-century modern opera house.
Keen to follow the trail, and intrigued to see how enthusiastically Leipzig would celebrate the birthday of its most controversial son, I had booked myself on a tour with Travel for the Arts, a specialist in musical tourism. Mine was one of the 10 Wagner-related trips the company has planned for this year, including Ring cycles in Bucharest, Riga, Hamburg, Milan, Lucerne, and Longborough.
Something about the civilised, democratising nature of classical music revealed itself in the varied composition of our 24-strong group. There were Americans and South Africans, music lovers from Thailand and the UK. Professor Michael Trimble, a distinguished neurologist, was a writer of learnt papers on abstruse Wagnerian themes. Jim and Carolann Slouffman, from Cincinnati, Ohio, were self-confessed Wagner freaks whose passion was tempered with a mischievous sense of humour.
Over a first-night dinner of schnitzel with mushroom sauce, the anecdotes flowed as fast as the Weisswein. I’d fancied myself as a wannabe Wagnerian but soon realised I had nothing on these guys. The talk was of productions past and present, singers of note, and musical journeys all over the world. One of them confessed to me that when the four nights of a Ring cycle came to an end, he often wondered what to do with the rest of his life. (The solution: book another Ring.)
On the eve of Wagner’s birthday we toured the city, stopping at points of interest on the trail. Leipzig is a beautiful mix of traditional buildings, which survived Allied bombings and Communist demolitions, and shiny 20th-century structures filling in the gaps. The city centre’s streets are cobbled and nearly traffic-free. Wagner’s birthplace at No 3 Brühl was knocked down three years after his death – but no matter, we took pictures of each other in front of a plaque. At the city’s History Museum, we let our fingers drift over a piano played by Wagner, frowned disapprovingly at the issue of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in which he gave voice to his anti-Semitic theories, and giggled irreverently at a bust in inflatable rubber, which said something about the puffed-up egocentricity of the man.
At the opera that afternoon, laughter turned to respect. Oper Leipzig’s production of Parsifal, Wagner’s last completed opera, was hauntingly beautiful. Loving Wagner requires you to sit still for five hours while the waves of sound engulf you like a slow-motion waterfall. By the end, I was recalling what the composer Sibelius had written after seeing this “total artwork” for the first time: “Nothing in the world has made so overwhelming an impression on me. All my innermost heartstrings throbbed.”
Finally the big day dawned, and with it the beginnings of a festive atmosphere. At 9am, under a light drizzle, a monument was unveiled: a vision of the young Richard in blue coat-tails and white trousers. Then came the main event – a grand birthday ceremony at the opera house, with the Leipzigers in their finery and the top brass out in force. Nike Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, gave a short speech, the mayor of Leipzig gave a much longer one, and the Gewandhaus orchestra gave a stirring performance of the overture from Die Meistersinger – surely the greatest expression of municipal pride in musical history.
Afterwards our group convened in the lobby to raise a glass or two of sekt, half in jest, to the “holy German art” of Richard Wagner and the city that nurtured it.
“See you all back here in Leipzig for the Ring in 2015!” said someone merrily. Only I don’t think she was joking.
Paul Richardson was a guest of Travel for the Arts (www.travelforthearts.co.uk). It still has availability for its Wagner-themed trips to Bucharest (September 15-23) and Dresden (November 14-18). For details of the Wagner Ways walking tour of Leipzig, see www.richard-wagner-leipzig.de