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Leipzig Illust

 JJ Initials

Interlude: Leipzig



Brühl, Leipzig 1840

The building on the left is the house Zum Roten und Weissen Löwen,
in which Richard Wagner was born.

            …the town in itself… has a quaint, cheerful, and friendly appearance. Within the walls, high richly-decorated houses and old churches seem almost toppling over each other, so thickly are they set. Without, where ramparts were, is an irregular pleasure-ground, spreading out in some places to such a respectable amplitude as to secure privacy for the walker. Beyond this belt is another ring, made up of houses, some of them set in gardens, richly dressed and full of flowers; the prettiest, most inviting residences which kind hearts and distinguished musicians could find. The town is rich in both. There I found that cheerful, simple, unselfish, and intelligent artistic life which many have been used to imagine as universally German. Leipsic has no court to stiffen its social circles into formality, or to hinder its presiding spirits from taking free way: on the other hand, it possesses a University to stir its intelligences, a press busy and enterprising, and a recurrence of those gatherings which bring a representative of every class of society in Europe together. These last can hardly pass over…without disturbing the settlement of that stagnant and pedantic egotism into which the strongest minds are apt to sink when the wheel of life moves too slowly, or the circle of cares is too narrow. [ii]

— Henry F. Chorley, 1844

The town that Goethe had called “a little Paris” that educates its people [iii] would provide young Joseph a rich soil in which to grow. In 1843, the Saxon city of Leipzig was a prosperous middle-class commercial center — a railway hub whose population had grown in the last decade from forty-three thousand to some fifty-six thousand inhabitants.

 Leipziger Messe Scan

Leipzig Marketplace, 1844
The Wittgenstein residence, where Joseph lived,
was just off the picture to the left.

Since the 12th century, Leipzig had been renowned for its trade fairs. Three times a year, at Easter, in September and at New Year’s, it was overrun with foreigners who provided a colorful and diverse theater of sights, sounds, and smells, taxing the town’s facilities, challenging its values, and lifting it out of the parochialism that might otherwise have been its lot. In 1843, the crowds of visitors numbered 40,000, nearly doubling the town’s population. “All this,” wrote an Austrian observer accustomed to the unhurried Gemütlichkeit of Imperial Vienna, “fills us with astonishment and admiration, not unmixed with a feeling of uncanniness at the sight of a busy merchant-world, which is so new to us.” [iv] Reading Henry Chorley’s [1] account of the 1839 Leipzig fair it is easy to imagine the excitement that young Joseph must have felt, himself a picture in his short Hungarian jacket, [v] as he absorbed and was absorbed by his new surroundings:

            I was arrested at every step by the high buildings, with wares of every conceivable quality streaming out of every window, from garret to cellar: — food for the mind in books, pleasure for the eye in prints, Nuremberg toys and that many-coloured Bohemian glass which makes the booths where it is exhibited glitter like Aladdin’s palace; — clothing for the body, in the shape of furs, woollen goods, knitted garments of form and use totally unintelligible to English eyes, and magnificent lengths of glaring calico which “the poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling” may accept, if he be willing, for pageant banners when Day begins to close in. Then the vendors! Here were peasantesses, presiding over their homely wares, in enormous winged caps, with long streamers, or tight forehead-bands of black lace, and every variety of tunic, joseph, petticoat, polonaise, and Hessian boot. There was a man… from head to heel of the colour of mud, with a huge hat, like an over-ripe mushroom in shape, not half covering his long unkempt hair, — who stopped and pressed every one to buy his mousetraps, in a deep melancholy voice that at once put to flight all the notions of brigandage and blackguardism which a first glance excited. Close behind, a couple of Jews, in their glossy camlet gaberdines and high-furred caps, made excellent painters’ figures […]. The next trader, perhaps, was a grave and stately Oriental, in his flowing robes and white turban, sitting patiently behind his stall of pipe waaren, or gliding up — the most courteous of merchants — with essenced amulets and necklaces of black clay, hanging in cataracts over the edge of his pedlar’s box. Among the people I most liked to meet in the Fair, were the Tyrolese… with their steeple hats pranked out with nosegays, and their round jackets, their leather girdles, and their velveteen breeches, displaying clean white stockings and calves… [vi]

In Leipzig, commerce and the intellectual life were intimately entangled. For more than a century, the city had been the unrivaled headquarters of the German book and music publishing trades, which flourished in a community long acclaimed as a center of learning. There had been book publishers in Leipzig since the fifteenth century. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, Leipzig achieved supremacy in the field when severe censorship eviscerated the competition in Frankfurt am Main. Leipzig’s Easter fair, devoted exclusively to books, became the bookmart for the entire continent.

The citizens of Leipzig had a mania for reading, and, with the recent popularity of the parlor sofa, they had a comfortable new item of furniture upon which to enjoy it. In 1789, an observer noted: “there are probably few places in Germany where there is as much love of reading, and where everyman has such a good opportunity to satisfy it, as in Leipzig.” “The hunch-backed woman reads behind her cheese-basket, as does the lady at her toilette; the market apprentice reads his master’s books as soon as his back is turned, maidens get their books from the book-lender; children read, people in their dotage read; mothers stand at their ironing boards while their daughters sit at the window and read. Everyone reads. … The barber doesn’t even find a warm soup when he comes home; his wife has been sitting over the fourth volume of Aesop. The shoe repairer lets his customers go barefoot, and reads and starves.” [vii] In 1834, Karl Julius Weber noted: “Nowhere does one read more than here, a fact that one notices especially among the women.” In 1839, Leipzig had 116 booksellers. [viii] In 1815, it had six lending libraries; in 1820, ten, in 1840 sixteen, and in 1845 twenty-four. [ix] At the time of Joseph’s arrival, the Leipziger Lesegesellschaft (Leipzig Reading-Society) subscribed to more than two hundred scientific and literary periodicals, as well as nearly a hundred political journals. [x]

Leipzig Abendseite 

Leipzig from the “Abendseite”

The production of books and periodicals eventually expanded to include the printing of music by such important, pioneering firms as Breitkopf & Härtel (from 1807 to 1872 also a manufacturer of pianos), C. F. Peters, Friedrich Hofmeister and C. F. Kahnt. Breitkopf & Härtel’s house journal, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, under the editorship of Johann Friedrich Rochlitz, with contributions by E. T. A. Hoffmann, set the standard for German music criticism until 1834, when Robert Schumann founded his path-breaking Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, published twice weekly in Leipzig. When Joseph arrived in 1843, Schumann was nearing the end of his association with the journal, which he subsequently sold to historian and critic Franz Brendel. Under Brendel’s editorship from the first day of 1845, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik would become the highly contentious mouthpiece for the “progressive” music of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner.

Discourse, disputation and dissent were in Leipzig’s blood. Its renowned university, the alma mater of Goethe, Klopstock, Jean Paul Richter, Fichte, and Schelling, was founded in 1409 by a group of dissident students from Prague. Leipzig’s Pleissenburg citadel had been the scene, in 1519, of Luther’s debate with Johann Eck. Twenty years thereafter, Luther preached the Whit Sunday sermon under the massive, steep roof of St. Thomas’s church, as the city embraced Protestantism.


Originally Augustinian, the Thomaskirche, together with its choir school, became an important center of Lutheran church music, employing a long line of distinguished cantors, among them Calvisius, Schein, Kuhnau, Hiller, and, from 1723 to 1750, the great Johann Sebastian Bach. The choir of the Thomaskirche was founded in 1212; its choir school, the Thomasschule, was established shortly thereafter. With the embrace of Protestantism in 1539, the school administration was annexed by the city, and the Thomaskantors became municipal employees. Thereafter, the municipal control of artistic institutions remained, for good or for ill, one of the distinguishing features of Leipzig’s cultural life. Protestant choral music emerged as a vital element in the constitution of the town’s social order. In the Biedermeier era, the city’s many secular choruses, [xi] including the Singakademie (founded in 1802), and the Liedertafel (founded in 1815), took on a social significance commensurate with their musical merit, as Leipzig’s belle vie extended outward from its salons to its choral societies.

Within Leipzig’s university, as in its salons, the singing of Lieder was a century-old local tradition. The initial flowering of the German Lied took place during the 18th century. Stirred by the simultaneous publication in Leipzig, in 1736, of Georg Christian Schemelli’s (1676-1762) Musical Song-book [2], and the immensely popular song collection Singing Muse on the Pleisse[3] by “Sperontes” (Johannes Sigismund Scholze, 1705-1750), Germany experienced a rebirth of native song, long held in abeyance by the prestige of Italian opera. Most of Sperontes’ “odes,” as they were called, were originally instrumental dances of a type popular among Leipzig’s university students and musical amateurs. Scholze collected them and supplied them with his own texts. The simplicity of their forms, phrasing and harmonic vocabulary, as well as their relation to galant dance music, contrasted strongly with the ornate, formal style of the contemporary Italian aria. Despite the occasionally awkward instrumental intervals that confronted singers (which came to be known as “Sperontisms”), these songs quickly made their way throughout the German-speaking lands, inspiring many imitators. What began with a trickle ended with a flood. According to Arnold Feil, nearly 900 collections of Lieder appeared by century’s end: thirty-seven by 1750, some 200 by 1775, and more than 600 thereafter. [xii] By the 1840’s, Leipzig sang as Leipzig read — for edification, for pleasure, and for convivial Geselligkeit (sociability).

Public concerts were a long-standing Leipzig tradition, growing out of the performances of the municipal Stadtpfeifer [4], which date to 1479 (“to the glory of the city, and to be of use to all its citizens”). They grew, as well, from the university’s student collegia musica, which, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, met in the coffee houses that had sprung up as a consequence of the Turkish military campaigns in the south. The distinction and reputation of the collegia musica grew in the eighteenth century when their directors included such eminences as Telemann, Fasch and Bach. The city’s professional orchestra grew directly out of another of these amateur collegia: the Grosse Concert-Gesellschaft, organized in 1743 by an association of merchants, and headquartered in the Hotel Zu den drei Schwanen (“At the Three Swans”). In 1781, the Grosses Concert took up residence in it’s own concert hall in the old Clothiers’ Exchange, or Gewandhaus. To this day its ensemble is known as the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Fifty-four years later, with the appointment of the 26-year-old Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy as director, the orchestra came into its own as one of Europe’s great musical institutions.

Gewandhaussaal big


Hall of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, 1845

 Under Mendelssohn, the Thursday evening orchestra concerts became the focal point of Leipzig’s elite musical and social life. Since the Gewandhaus hall had a capacity of barely 500 (or 250 couples), only one in Leipziger in a hundred could have been a regular subscriber. Most of the Gewandhaus patrons were personally acquainted, and many were friends. Subscriptions were hard to come by: it was a contemporary witticism that if a father signed up his newborn daughter, she might become eligible for a subscription by the time she was a grandmother. [xiv]

Gewandhaus concerts were typically of modest length, but Gewandhaus Geselligkeit did not end at the Gewandhaus door. Chorley observed:

Very pleasant were those concerts, and very pleasant — though any thing but English — the suppers which sometimes succeed them, — when parties of nine or a dozen ladies and gentlemen would repair to one of the hotels, to do justice to the good things of its speise-karte; and the animated scene of the dinner was more gaily repeated, from the ladies being in evening-dress. To be sure, I could not help lamenting over the fresh and pretty toilettes that must have gone home, in some cases, saturated with tobacco-smoke; and it was sometimes difficult to hear a word that passed in the midst of the noise of the service of the table — the explosion of champagne corks — and the diapason of a violent and busy band of music, playing Strauss and Bellini and Auber with an untiring industry hard to sympathise with when the ears are full with Beethoven and Mozart. Such a Babel of mirth and good-fellowship, such a mingling of many odours, I never encountered elsewhere. I cannot wish that such a Leipsic fashion should be brought home to us, [together] with the Leipsic style and conception of what orchestral music means. But there it was natural, and hearty, and pleasant. Jean Paul speaks of a “crumpled soul”: a better scene for the straightening of the same could not be devised than those merry and obstreperous finales, especially if the favour of the misanthropist is to be propitiated by a dish of larks. Those delicate birds are nowhere to be found in such perfection as upon a Leipsic supper-table: and Music, as all the world knows, is a most potent sharpener of the appetite! [xv]

The orchestra concerts were but a part of the seamless fabric of musical activities — church music, choral music, chamber and salon music, street and restaurant music, band music, opera and theater — that were patronized by a citizenry brought up with an implicit faith in the Bildungsideal of the time: the idea that human progress was possible through the education — or, more properly the edification — of well-socialized individuals; that through creative engagement with books and music and art, to say nothing of convivial conversation over a meal of larks and champagne, mankind could establish a better, more prosperous and just social order.

At its root, the verb “improve” means to make profitable. In the swelling optimism and bustle of entrepreneurial Leipzig, the capitalist’s confidence in growth met the philosopher’s belief in human perfectibility. In Leipzig, this long-cherished ideal flourished in a climate of affluence and freedom, at a halcyon moment poised between war and revolution in which everything seemed possible.

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013

Next Post in Series: Leipzig and Mendelssohn  

[1] English journalist Henry Fothergill Chorley (1808-1872) had wanted to become a musician in a place and time, as he said, when “a musician was hardly a man.” After reading the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann, he settled for the next best thing: to become a writer. “That is what I can do, and what I will do,” he wrote. In thirty-eight years of writing for the Athenaeum, Chorley reviewed nearly 2,500 books, and penned countless musical reviews. His books Music and Manners in France and Germany (1841), and Thirty Years’ Musical Recollections (1862), provide a priceless glimpse into the musical and social life of northern Europe at mid-century. q. v.: Robert Bledsoe, ‘Chorley, Henry Fothergill (1808–1872)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 7 Sept 2005]

[2] Musikalisches Gesangbuch, Leipzig: Breitkopf, 1736.

[3] Singende Muse an der Pleisse in 2 mal 50 Oden, Der neuesten und besten musikalischen Stücke mit den darzu gehörigen Melodien zu beliebter Clavier-Uebung und Gemüths-Ergötzung. The Pleisse is Leipzig’s river.

[4] In 1843, the town musicians still performed three times weekly from the balcony of the City Hall.

[i] Private collection.

[ii] Chorley/MUSIC pp. 85-86.

[iii] Faust–line 2172: “Es ist ein klein Paris, und bildet seine Leute.”

[iv] Krones/KAISERFELD, p. 27. “all dies. . .  erfüllte uns mit Staunen und Bewunderung welche jedoch nicht ohne Beimischung von Unheimlichkeit blieb bei dem uns so neuen Anblicke einer geschäftigen Kaufmannswelt.”  (Moritz von Kaiserfeld, 1844)

[v] Polko/MENDELSSOHN, p. 93.

[vi] Chorley/MUSIC  pp. 88-92.

[vii] Schmidt/LEIPZIG, p. 5. m.t.

[viii] E. Littell, Littell’s Living Age, Vol. 5 (1845), p. 407.

[ix] Schmidt/LEIPZIG, pp. 5-6. m.t.

[x] Ringer/ROMANTIC, p. 155.

[xi] By 1862, Leipzig possessed no fewer than 44 choral societies. [Hiltner/JADASSOHN, p. 13.]

[xii] Arnold Feil: Franz Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin—Winterreise, Portland: Amadeus Press, 1975, p. 14.

[xiii] Leipzig Illustrierte Zeitung, Vol. 4, No. 94 (April 19, 1845): 253.

[xiv] “Man scherzte, daß, wenn ein Vater seine neugeborne Tochter einschreiben ließe, sie einst als Großmutter vielleicht Hoffnung hätte, an die Reihe zu kommen.” Quoted in Seidel/REINECKE, p. 49 from Gustav Wustmann, “Die Gewandhauskonzerte 1884,” in Aus Leipzigs Vergangenheit, Gesammelte Aufsätze, Neue Folge, Leipzig- 1898, p. 459.

[xv] Chorley/MUSIC, p. 107-108.