Leipzig brushes up its Wagnerian heritage | Music | DW | 01.03.2013
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Leipzig brushes up its Wagnerian heritage

Leipzig has never had an ideal relationship with Richard Wagner, who was born in the city and spent many years there. But to honor his 200th birthday, Leipzig is pulling out all the stops.

An exterior view of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (c) picture alliance / Bildagentur Huber

Leipzig's famed St. Thomas Church

To start things off: a bitter herb soup topped with crayfish and croutons - it's a dish that could easily have been on the menu 200 years ago in the small inn. Next comes poultry and various side dishes, followed by a dessert - beer foam topped with sweets. It's 30 euros ($39) for the three-course Wagner Menu in Weinstock Restaurant at a Leipzig market square. The food, including some of Wagner's favorite dishes, isn't just unusually good. It's also the perfect warm-up for a city tour that traces Richard Wagner's past.

City of music

A city of trade fairs, commerce and students, Leipzig is also proud of its musical heritage. In the 19th century, it was even considered the capital of musical Romanticism. The world-famous St. Thomas Boy Choir celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2012, while Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert and Clara Schumann have their own museums there.

An illustration shows the landmark St. Thomas Church in 1820 (c) picture-alliance/akg-images

An illustration shows the landmark St. Thomas Church in 1820

Born in the eastern German city, Richard Wagner went to school, learned the basics of music theory and premiered his first compositions there. But one might notice a bit of local ambivalence about Leipzig's famous musical son. As tour guide Brigitte Haage-Hussein explained to DW: Wagner lived well beyond his means and seldom paid his debts back on time. "In a trade hub, there's nothing worse than not being able to deal with money," she added.

There's also the matter of how Wagner conducted his private life. He had two children with his second wife before they were ever married - a hard fact to swallow for Leipzig's provincial and very moral-minded culture at the time.

Leipzig's own…

As 2013 marks two centuries since the composer's birth, the city has finally decided to pay its debt to Wagner. Under the slogan "Richard ist Leipziger…" (Leipzig's own Richard…), a variety of events are planned as is a new Wagner museum and a path of relevant sites in the city and its surroundings. A pamphlet is provided allowing visitors to stake out on their own. Going well beyond Wagner's personal history, it explores the ups and downs of the city's past.

A plaque marks where Richard Wagner was born in 1813 Photo: DW/Silke Bartlick

A plaque marks where Richard Wagner was born in 1813

Richard Wagner was born on May 22, 1813 in house number 3 on Brühl Street, once the city's longest avenue, full of inns, taverns and horse stalls. Visitors in search of 19th century flair may be disappointed, though. Honoring the place where Wagner was born is a plaque, attached to what's now part of a newly-erected shopping center.

A saga begins

A stone's throw from where the composer was born is where his grandparents lived. Nearby was Leipzig's first theater, a municipal theater after 1817. The young Richard Wagner was a frequent visitor. His sisters Rosalie and Luise took the stage occasionally. It there that Wagner first heard the singer Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, singing in the opera "Fidelio" in 1829. The experience inspired him to become a musician.

Outside Germany's oldest coffee house, Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum (c) picture-alliance/dpa

Outside Germany's oldest coffee house, Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum

On the lookout for Wagner memorabilia in Leipzig's historic district, the long since vanished walls and gates seem to take form. It's a step back into the world of 19th century traders. Amidst romantic archways, stylish passages and beautiful stone pathways, one can almost imagine encountering philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the Brockhaus publishing family, composer Felix Mendelssohn or the revolutionary writer Heinrich Laube.

Then and now

In Germany's oldest coffee house, Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum (Arabian Coffee Tree), writers Johann Christoph Gottsched and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and artist Max Klinger were regulars. With his passion for coffee, Richard Wagner might have stopped in too. But the only thing known for sure is that he attended a school called Alte Nikolaischule, after his family had spent a number of years in Dresden. The young Wagner didn't like Leipzig and felt humiliated after having been set back a year in school. Recalling the period, a new permanent exhibition called "The Young Richard Wagner, 1813-1834" will open in the school on May 21, 2013.

The base of the Richard Wagner monument designed by Max Klinger (c) DW/S. Bartlick

The base of the Richard Wagner monument designed by Max Klinger

Much of the city is spending the year wrapped up in Wagner and would like to use the occasion to make up for some of the decades in which he was overlooked there, said Andreas Schmidt, a press officer with Leipzig Tourism and Marketing. Leipzig Opera Director Ulf Schirmer is beginning a new production of the "Ring" cycle this year, while also presenting Wagner's early works "The Fairies," "The Ban on Love" and "Rienzi."

Still provocative

On May 22, the composer's 200th birthday, the city will unveil an enormous Wagner monument. The design was drafted at the beginning of the 20th century by artist Max Klinger. Only the massive base was realized at the time, and not the four-meter-high (13-foot) figure of Wagner intended to rest atop it. Located in a park, the monument was all but forgotten for years.

2011 brought a contest to take a new stab at commemorating Wagner. Artist Stephan Balkenhol won it - a decision that divided Leipzig residents. Certainly not everyone is pleased with his design, set to go up at a popular and visible city square. Balkenhol's creation is a colorful, life-sized sculpture of the young Richard Wagner, standing in front of the immense silhouette of a shadow.

Proof that Leipzig can still fall prey to provocation. It seems safe to assume that Wagner would have been happy about that.

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