The Mendelssohn House in Leipzig turns 20 | Music | DW | 06.11.2017
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The Mendelssohn House in Leipzig turns 20

Fanny Hensel and Kurt Masur are celebrated in Felix Mendelssohn's last residence in Leipzig, just around the corner of Leipzig's famous Gewandhaus.

"And where is Fanny?" – that's the question asked by many visitors of Leipzig's Mendelssohn House as they walk through an exhibition on the life and work of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a significant conductor, pianist and composer of romanticism.

Now, 20 years after the foundation of the Mendelssohn House, the sister of the composer, Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), who was also a highly esteemed pianist and composer herself, is honored with a permanent exhibition devoted to her.

Leipzig, Mendelssohn House (DW/Gero Schließ)

Fanny Hensel's study room in Berlin illuminated by modern technology in the Mendelssohn House in Leipzig

'I miss you, dear son'

Among the exhibits in Leipzig are a collection of more than 1,000 letters she wrote to her brother, an illuminated reproduction of the music room of her Berlin apartment located on Leipziger Strasse, an animated film on Fanny's famous Sunday concerts that were attended, among others, by Franz Liszt. 

Also part of the exhibition is an original portrait of the musician painted by her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, as well as items of daily life such as silver spoons.

"You cannot tell the life story of Felix Mendelssohn without mentioning his sister Fanny," explains Jürgen Ernst, director of the Mendelssohn House, while he leads the visitors through the new permanent exhibition on the third floor.

As the letters from Fanny to Felix demonstrate, the siblings were involved in a symbiotic relationship: "I miss you early in the morning and late at night, dear son," wrote Fanny on October 29, 1821, to her four-year-younger brother. "And without you, the music just doesn't go smoothly."

The two of them were their best mutual advisers when it came to composing music. Nevertheless, it took a long time until Felix started to support his sister's wish to publish her works.

Read more: British premiere of 'lost' work by Fanny Mendelssohn

Leipzig, Mendelssohn House, a portrait by Wilhelm Hensel of his wife Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn-Haus Leipzig)

The last portrait of Fanny Hensel drawn by her husband, Wilhelm Hensel

Masur and Mendelssohn

The fact that the Mendelssohn House still exists in its original form is anything but a given, underlines director Jürgen Ernst. Especially towards the end of World War II, the building in late classicist style was jeopardized.

After the war, when one looked towards the south from the Leipzig main train station, it was the first building that came into sight that had withstood the devastating bomb attacks of the Allied Forces from December 3 to 4, 1944. 

All other buildings located between the train station and the house of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had been demolished by bombs.

It was German conductor Kurt Masur who secured the maintenance of the cultural monument in the mid 1980s when Germany was still divided. Later on, he made sure the building would not be torn down in order to make space for new buildings. In 1997, the conductor initiated the foundation of the museum. 

Masur and Mendelssohn Mendelssohn's significance beyond Leipzig

Entering the building located at Goldschmidtstrasse 12, in the vicinity of Leipzig's Gewandhaus, one immediately notices the original dark wooden staircase. That's where Mendelssohn climbed up the stairs to his lavish apartment where he lived until his death.

So far, the apartment and the floor below it were the centerpiece of the museum containing paintings, scores and a media center providing information on Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's 750 works.

Leipzig, Mendelssohn-Haus (DW/Gero Schließ)

The electronic concert hall enables you to become a conductor like Felix Mendelssohn

The exhibition clearly shows that Mendelssohn was far more than just a composer, as he played an extremely significant role for the city of Leipzig, as well as the music world.

He founded the Leipzig Music Conservatory, back then the first of its kind in the world.

And without Mendelssohn, it's unlikely that concerts would now be given in the way that we're used to, meaning that the conductor usually stands in front of the orchestra during musical performances. That habit did not yet exist before Mendelssohn's time.

In the so-called "Effektorium," a kind of electronic concert hall, visitors can now experience how it feels to conduct an orchestra. With the help of motion sensors, just about anybody can turn into a conductor of famous works, such as the "Midsummer Night's Dream."

A new Masur institute

Throughout his life, Masur felt closely connected to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, his famous predecessor as the bandmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. That's why a new Kurt Masur Institute was founded right next to the permanent exhibition on Fanny Hensel on the third floor.

Read more: Kurt Masur, conductor and 'Leipzig's Savior,' dies aged 88

The institute's foundation was initiated by the late conductor's last wife, Tomoko Masur, who, next to her domiciles in New York and Tokyo, continues to live in Leipzig as well. In her view, it's important to explore and to document not only Masur's musical oeuvre accomplished in Leipzig, New York and Paris, but also his involuntary role as a politician before and during the dramatic days of the "Peaceful Revolution" of 1989. She was the one who loaned almost all related documents and exhibits on show. Among them is also a bust of her husband created by east German sculptor Jo Jastram, that hitherto embellished the entrance hall of her house in Leipzig.

Leipzig, Mendelssohn House, bust of Kurt Masur (DW/Gero Schließ)

Jo Jastram's bust of Kurt Masur that formerly stood in the conductor's house, now embellishes the institute devoted to him in the Mendelssohn House

While Masur's widow celebrates the exhibition opening, his only son, Ken Masur, now Associate Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, continues to uphold the legacy of his father. "My father did not want a monument," Ken Masur told DW. He was rather concerned about fostering music and conversation in the spirit of humanism.

That's the message that the organizers of the archive and the exhibition in the small Leipzig-based institute intend to spread into the world.

What would he advise people to do in the present world? "Sing together, make music together, radiate love and go to concerts. Then you're living in peace for two hours during a concert," says Ken Masur.

There will be plenty of opportunity for that in the upcoming week, as the program of the 20th anniversary of the Mendelssohn House includes many festive concerts.   

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