Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bach and the Goths

The Leipzig Bach Festival coincides this year with the Leipzig International Gothic Festival which is 20 years old and attracts a vast international crowd. So does the Bach Festival but the devotees do not make themselves known by wearing black fancy dress. Some are attired for the nineteenth century, the golden age of Gothic literature, with corsets, crinolines, and parasols. Transvestism is popular. Some men wear skirts or long cloaks and look like Darth Vader, or worse, National Socialists. The SS thought black shirts were sexy too. The Goths are all ages; some bring their families. A few have coffin shaped back-packs. Everyone is well-behaved polite. None mind having their photo taken: that is what they have dressed up for. Many attend events in the Bach Festival, though they also have their own programme with the Brahms Requiem on the bill. 

I meet my son who is not a Goth. He wears Oxfam and sports a beard because he is a student teaching at St Thomas's School, Bach's employer, for a year as part of his German course at Leeds University. We attend the opening concert of the Bach Festival. The Thomaner are in robust voice for the selection of Bach cantatas plus Vivaldi Gloria and Magnificat. The festival is themed around the Italian influence on the master. They sing from the gallery behind and above the congregation so it doesn't matter that we are stuck behind a pillar beneath them.

The next night, I go to an Early Music concert given by L'Arpeggiata in the Michaeliskirche beyond the Leipzig zoo. The performers are in black like the Goths, although they do not have make-up or coloured contact lenses. Led by lutenist Christina Pluhar, they make the Renaissance dance with sensuous rhythms and dazzling virtuosity. Soprano Nuria Rial is a mesmeric presence, weaving a passionate stream of consciousness melody over the stuck-record ostinato of Merula's Hor ch'e tempo.

The Thomaner are singing with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the 9.30am Sunday church service at the Thomaskirche, but the hour's time difference confuses me and my son and I arrive an hour early. We take pictures of Bach's memorial in the chancel. He was previously buried at the Johanniskirche. The Nazis thought it appropriate that his bones should be moved to the Thomaskirche but his guardians would not be bossed around.  The decision to move him was taken only when the Johanniskirche was destroyed by Allied bombing.

After the service I bump into the pharmaceutical engineer Sir Ralph Kohn who has arrived in Leipzig not only for the Bach Festival but also for a private ceremony at the Altes Rathaus to award him the city's Medal of Honour. Officially this is for his financial support of the Bach-Archiv over the years, but between the lines it is another reparation for the damage done to the Jews. Kohn was born in Leipzig in 1928, but left with his family when the Nazis took power. A plaque in the Thomasschule commemorates the fact that in 1938 the school was the midnight assembly point for 220 Jews who were to be deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.