Saxony: State of the Art in Germany

The German state of Saxony makes its cultural landscape a focal point of its tourism

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The centuries-old St. Thomas Boy’s Choir, conducted by Bach during his tenure as choirmaster at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, still exists today and performs regularly for church services and weekly concerts. (Saxony Tourism/Dirk Brzoska)
The centuries-old St. Thomas Boy’s Choir, conducted by Bach during his tenure as choirmaster at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, still exists today and performs regularly for church services and weekly concerts. (Saxony Tourism/Dirk Brzoska)

Follow the Music Trail in Leipzig

Leipzig, the other big city in Saxony, has for centuries been an important trade and publishing center. It’s also a city where music has always called the tune. More than 500 composers have made their home here, including some of the biggest names in music history, like Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Richard Wagner, all of whom both composed their works and resided at various sites around the city.

To make it easy for visitors, Leipzig has put together a 5-kilometer-long Music Trail connecting the most important sites. The sites associated with Bach are especially impressive.

From 1723 until his death in 1750, Bach served as choirmaster of St. Thomas Church, an 800-year-old Gothic church not far from the city’s Market Square. He directed the centuries-old St. Thomas Boys Choir, still in existence today and performing regularly during church services and weekly concerts.

A memorial to Johann Sebastian Bach stands outside the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the 800-year-old Gothic Church where he worked from 1723 to 1750. (Saxony Tourism/LTM-Beck)
A memorial to Johann Sebastian Bach stands outside the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the 800-year-old Gothic Church where he worked from 1723 to 1750. (Saxony Tourism/LTM-Beck)

Bach’s tomb is in the church’s sanctuary, and just a short walk away is the Bach Museum with multimedia stations to hear his magnificent music and a “Treasure Chamber” containing original manuscripts and other rarities.

Besides St. Thomas, Bach also served as cantor at Leipzig’s St. Nicholas Church, in more recent years associated with the 1989 “Peaceful Revolution” that helped bring an end to the communist German Democratic Republic. With new music regularly required at both churches, Bach produced a prodigious output during his tenure in Leipzig, including several cantata series, the St. John and St. Matthew Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, and the Art of the Fugue.

Also on the Trail are a monument to Richard Wagner, born in Leipzig and still known locally as somewhat of a “bad boy”; the Grassi Museum of Musical Instruments; the Schumann House; and the Zum Arabishchen Coffe Baum, the oldest coffee house in Germany and the meeting point for centuries for the city’s musicians and writers.

The “Effectorium,” inside Leipzig’s Mendelssohn House, a museum where the composer lived and worked, allows you to stand and conduct a virtual orchestra playing Mendelssohn’s music. (Saxony Tourism/LTM-Andreas Schmidt)
The “Effectorium,” inside Leipzig’s Mendelssohn House, a museum where the composer lived and worked, allows you to stand and conduct a virtual orchestra playing Mendelssohn’s music. (Saxony Tourism/LTM-Andreas Schmidt)

My personal favorite was the Mendelssohn House. Even if you have to wait in line, it’s worth it to visit the “Effectorium” where you can stand and conduct a virtual orchestra playing Mendelssohn’s music. You decide which piece will be played and whether it will be performed on modern or historic instruments. Want a crescendo in the strings? Or does the brass section need a bit toned down? You’re the conductor, so you decide!

All year long, concerts of live music abound in Leipzig. The Bach Festival in June is especially popular with more than 100 events across the city. We heard a concert of organ and choral music in St. Thomas Church itself — with the composer’s tomb just steps away, it was almost as if he were listening along with us.

But plentiful other celebrations include festivals for Wagner and Schumann, a festival of a capella vocal music, and even the largest “Goth” festival in the world. This year marks the 275th anniversary of Leipzig’s famed Gewandhaus Orchestra, which had its beginnings in a trade hall associated with garment merchants, and it’s also the 325th birthday of Leipzig Opera.

The “Alte Spinnerei” in Leipzig is a huge complex of artist studios and galleries in a complex of old industrial buildings that once housed the largest cotton mill factory in continental Europe. (Saxony Tourism/LTM-Peter Hirth)
The “Alte Spinnerei” in Leipzig is a huge complex of artist studios and galleries in a complex of old industrial buildings that once housed the largest cotton mill factory in continental Europe. (Saxony Tourism/LTM-Peter Hirth)

But by no means is Leipzig living on its laurels. It still has a vibrant arts scene, and in fact, you may well hear the city referred to as “the new Berlin” since the creative class is being lured by the hundreds to Leipzig, not to Germany’s capital, due to Leipzig’s cheaper cost of living and über-hip vibe. Ground Zero for this arts scene is the city’s Plagwitz neighborhood, where a must-see is the “Alte Spinnerei,” once the largest cotton mill factory in continental Europe.

Nowadays, the 23 massive brick buildings on a 25-acre site, complete with towering smokestacks, have been transformed into a vibrant artists’ colony where more than a hundred artists in every medium have set up studio space. There are also a dozen galleries featuring rotating exhibits of contemporary art in the cavernous rooms of the former industrial complex, an art library, a cinema, and a café.

You may well rub elbows with internationally known artist Neo Rauch during your visit to the Alte Spinnerei. The famed member of the “New Leipzig School” was the first to set up his studio there.

But I couldn’t have been more surprised by the person I ran into during my own visit. Our guide, Elizabeth Gerdeman, opened our tour by announcing she was from Columbus, Ohio, the city where I live! She had spent a year on an artist’s exchange in Dresden, Columbus’s sister city, and was so impressed with Saxony’s arts scene that she returned to be part of the creative ferment in Leipzig.

We visited Elizabeth’s studio and some of the exhibits in the huge galleries, all the while listening to her infectious stories about the exciting arts scene in Leipzig. This was our last stop before heading out for other sites in Saxony, and it definitely made me loathe to leave. I resolved to make a point to return someday soon to the “New Berlin.”

More Destinations in Saxony

Outside Saxony’s big cities, you’ll want to visit to Meissen with its famous hilltop castle, Germany’s oldest, and the adjacent cathedral. But don’t miss a visit to the world-famous Meissen State Porcelain Manufactory where artisans can be watched creating and hand-painting exquisite tableware, figurines, and other decorative objects.

Elsewhere in the facility, a grand exhibition hall showcases 300 years of Meissen porcelain with dazzling examples in room after breathtaking room complete with grand staircases and ceilings with elaborate murals. Of course, there are also opportunities to shop, and there’s even a café where you can dine on Meissen porcelain.

Torgau is another small, unspoiled city with 500 Renaissance and Gothic structures clustered in the city center. The most spectacular is Hartenfels Castle with a stunning outdoor spiral staircase that puzzles architects to this day how it’s supported. Nearby is the small chapel that historians deem as the first Protestant church.

On my next trip to Saxony, I’d return to any of these places in a heartbeat, but I’d also head for the town of Görlitz on the Polish border with 4,000 buildings of many architectural styles. So well-known, it has come to be known as “Görliwood.” I’d also head to the Erzgebirge Mountains, famed for its artisans creating Nutcrackers and other Christmas ornaments. There are also castles galore to explore throughout the entire state.

If You Go to Saxony, Germany

The website www.saxonytourism.com gives overviews of the tourism potential for the entire state of Saxony. For more specific views of Dresden and Leipzig, go to www.dresden.de/en/tourism/tourism.php and http://languages.leipzig.travel/en/Home_110.html.

Author Bio: Ohio-based travel writer Rich Warren travels the U.S. and the world looking for offbeat and off-the-beaten-path stories. He is a graduate of the Elf School of Reykjavik and can tell you what the Amish wear to the beach in Florida.

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