Tripping the Leipzig fantastic

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Tripping the Leipzig fantastic

Leipzig before the Great War was an impossibly romantic place. The author's mother went

there for the music, art and exuberant social life. Today, the city's spirit lives again

NOT LONG before the First World War, my mother - in the innocence of her girlhood - arrived at Leipzig to study at the Konigliche Conservatorium der Musik, founded by Mendelssohn some 70 years before and by then one of the most celebrated music schools in the world. So happy were the three years she spent in this old Saxon city, and so affectionate her memories of it, that I grew up myself with a vague but indelible reverence for the place that coloured my childhood and was permanently to affect my attitudes.

What a place it always sounded! Leipzig's university was among the most influential in Europe. Its trade fairs had thrived since the 12th century. Schiller wrote his Ode to Joy in Leipzig, Bach composed the St Matthew Passion, Wagner was born there, Goethe and Schumann were students, Mahler conducted the civic theatre orchestra. And there were giants about in my mother's time, too. Arthur Nikisch was Kapellmeister of the great Gewandhaus orchestra, with its world-famous concert hall next door to her Conservatorium, and Robert Teichmuller was her professor of the piano. Hardly had Richard Strauss conducted the first performance of Salome along the road in Dresden than he came and conducted it in Leipzig (my mother, forbidden to go to an opera so unsuitable for maidenly minds, climbed out of a window and went anyway).

Oh, she had heard the chimes at midnight! There were glorious parks in Leipzig, she loved to remember, and delightful cafes in ancient squares, and there was music everywhere. Not least, there were the charming Saxon people. Some of the friends she made in Leipzig remained her friends to the end of her life, through two wars against the Germans that killed her only brother and fatally gassed her husband.

BEFORE I came to Leipzig myself, for the first time in my life, reading around the subject made me perceive that my mother's view of Leipzig had been, in its girlish enthusiasm, partial. She had not made it clear to me that in her day, Leipzig - like the rest of the Second Reich - must have been in a ferment of militant pride, as even the charming Saxons progressed towards that clash of vainglories, the Great War. She never told me that the Reichsgericht, the Imperial Supreme Court of all Germany, sat in an immense palace a few hundred yards from her Conservatorium, or that the city was the headquarters of the 13th Army Corps. She never mentioned the War Monument in the market square, with the Emperor Wilhelm I in front of it and Germania triumphant on top.

Perhaps she herself did not realise that Leipzig was a showplace not just of German art, music, literature and scholarship, but of the burgeoning German materialism too. On Blucherplatz they were about to build the biggest railway terminal in Europe, if not in the world, 26 parallel tracks beneath a colossal shell of steel and glass. The tram network was a model of efficiency and modernity, and while my mother liked to recall long merry evenings with fellow students in picturesque outdoor eating places, she forgot to tell me about the three Automatik Restaurants, forerunners of Manhattan's Automats, already operating in the city. She'd come to Leipzig as a pilgrim to a purely artistic grail. German culture was all the rage among her kind of Britons then; when, halfway through her course, my proud grandfather went out to visit her, he brought a brace of Monmouthshire pheasant as an oblation to Professor Teichmuller.

THE GREAT Hauptbahnhof is busier than ever. The Heinrich Heine express from Prague to Paris was just leaving from Platform 16 when my train came in from Berlin - and almost the moment I stepped into Willy Brandt-Platz (ne Blucherplatz), a spanking red tram-train swept in to take me to my hotel. Old Leipzig was shattered in the Second World War, and at first sight the genius of the contemporary city seemed to me distinctly more materialist than artistic.

The centre of civil life nowadays is Augustusplatz, mostly wrecked in the war and rebuilt during the years in which Leipzig was the second city of Communist East Germany. My mother would have preferred not to notice it. It is brutally dominated by the 34-storey tower of the University, which has emerged from its ignominy as Karl-Marx University, but still presents to the world the usual drab pomposity of Communist academia. At the north end of the square is a lovelessly restored Opera House. At the other end is the modernistic new Gewandhaus. Gigantic Moscow- style apartment blocks stretch away to the south, and there is the usual parade of nasty curtain walling. It all looked pretty bleak to me that day, but I soon cheered up; only a few steps out of Augustusplatz I was in a Leipzig my mother would instantly have known and loved.

Some of it would have been physically familiar to her, because many relics remain from the bombed and bombarded Altstadt, and have been lovingily restored. The Renaissance Old Town Hall looks as good as new beside the market square; there are lavish burghers' houses here and there; church steeples stand as they always stood above high-pitched roofs and little squares; the Haus zum Kaffeebaum serves coffee just as it has served it since the 16th century. More to my point, within the circuit of the vanished city walls there flourishes still the Saxon gemutlichkeit that so seduced my mother long ago.

I took to eating my suppers along there, al fresco at a self-service restaurant in the Naschtmarkt. The baroque Old Bourse looks genially down upon this little piazza, and my evening meal generally consisted of mushrooms, potatoes, strawberries and white wine. The place was full of people to talk to, the wine went down very nicely, I habitually indulged myself with second helpings of strawberries, and what with the music of a busking accordionist around the corner, and the evening sunshine warming the back of my neck, I soon began to feel myself agreeably among friends. (The only unpleasant Leipziger I encountered during my entire stay was a man who brazenly crashed a queue for concert tickets: and him I successfully tripped up, pro buono publico, as he swaggered away.)

SO DESPITE all that has happened to Leipzig since my mother's time, her rosy half-dreams of the city were confirmed for me. The German Empire had come and gone, the nightmare of the Nazis had passed, the Americans had stormed through with fire and chewing gum, the chilly Communists had clamped their dogmas on the place, and only five years ago did liberal standards return to the grand old city. Yet I was unexpectedly at my ease there, even in the bleak Stalinist quarters where skateboarders clattered over concrete paving stones, and graffiti proclaimed "The Universal Zulu Nation".

Leipzig is a fine place to be, even now. In the 1990s, as in the 1900s, it is a great thing to walk into the Thomaskirche (having knocked off an ice, perhaps, in the cafe immediately opposite its main door) and to feel oneself instantly in the company of its mighty organist and choirmaster, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach stands in effigy outside, sternly surveying the ice-creams. Bach sounds tremendously in the music of its organ. Bach lies forever (we hope - he has been moved once already) beneath his monumental slab in the chancel. And in the Leipzig of today, who could not be moved by the nearby magic of the Nikolaikirche, the very church where the massed will of the Leipzigers, expressed in prayer and candle-lit vigil, led directly to the fall of the Communists, the collapse of the whole dread system and the re-unification of Germany?

As to the little cottage where Schiller wrote the Ode to Joy (in Beethoven's setting, the anthem of the European Community), it stands in a particularly joyless quarter of the city, one of the streets that still speaks gloomily of Honecker and the Stasi, surrounded by drear red-brick blocks with bombsites, broken windows and sagging lintels; but upon it there is a commemorative plaque done in such a gloriously festive Baroque, all gilded high spirits, that the house stands there like a defiant declaration of happiness, come what may.

MY MOTHER'S Leipzig was most particularly the academic Leipzig to the south of the Old City, where every kind of intellectual institution sprang into existence in those heady days of Wilhelmine confidence. I had no idea how much of it had survived the war, but I knew that the Conservatorium still existed somewhere as the Hochschule fur Musik Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, so I set off one morning to find it, guided by the splendid maps in my 1913 Baedeker North Germany - splendid, but alas now largely useless. In that part of the city, whole areas have been transformed. Where was the Anglo-American Episcopal Church ("Plan4, B4: Chaplain - Rev JHM Nodder"?) What had happened to the Konig-Albert Park? One of the few things I could find was the Schreber-Strasse Swimming and Bath Establishment ("Plan 1, B4"), and there I asked at random, among the sunbathers by the pool, where everything else was. A young man volunteered to guide me to the Conservatorium, where he happened to have been a student himself. I put my Baedeker away, and we set off across my mother's landscapes.

Here was the Johanna Park, very dear to her memories, where she had once seen small frogs (or was it fish?) falling out of the heavens during a sweet Saxon shower. Somewhere over there, across a weedy wasteland, must have been her lodgings, whence she escaped to see Salome, and where my grandfather no doubt buttered up her chaperone during his visit of inspection. Over the road was the school house of the Thomaskirche boys' choir, Bach's own choir - frequently in my mother's mind, I do not doubt, when she went home to play her own organ in Monmouth Church.GETTING THERE: Trailfinders (0171-937 5400) is offering midweek return flights to Leipzig/Halle airport from pounds 132 until the end of October (on condition that one Saturday is spent in Leipzig). For the return leg, buses back to the airport depart every 45 minutes from Leipzig Station.

To travel from Britain by train may be adventurous, but it will take a marathon 24 hours to arrive in Leipzig. The International Rail Centre (0171-834 2345, Platform 2, Victoria Station) recommends the Ostend ferry route. Return prices from London to Leipzig are pounds 177 for under-26s, and for those slightly older (and no doubt slightly wiser) pounds 216.

STAYING THERE: The numerous trade fairs that take place in Leipzig make accommodation hard to find if it has not been pre-booked. Hotel/pension rooms without breakfast start at around DM55 (pounds 25) per night.

FURTHER INFORMATION: In Britain, contact the German National Tourist Office, 65 Curzon Street, London W1Y 7PE (0171-495 3990). In Leipzig, try the Verkehrsamt (00 49 341 7104265) - the national travel office - which provides local information and can suggest suitable accommodation. Above: Jan Morris's mother (fourth from left) in Leipzig before the Great War, when it was the showplace of German art, music and literature. Below: her music professor, Robert Teichmuller. Main picture: Leipzig's marketplace today

My guide turned out to be one of the Thomaskirche choirmasters, in line of descent to Johannes Sebastian himself, and as we walked through the city together I began to feel I had achieved some sort of apotheosis, and really was back in the Leipzig of Nikisch and Teichmuller. My companion, give or take a T-shirt and a pair of trainers, was just how I imagined the students of my mother's nostalgia. No frogs fell from the skies, but the Johanna Park was still green and full of young life. Horn music greeted us faintly from somewhere out of sight, and when we came to a big green space, and my companion announced it to be the site of the old Gewandhaus concert hall, bombed in the 1940s, we stood for a moment in properly reverent silence, thinking of Mendelssohn and my Mum.

And here at last was the Konligliche Conservatorium itself. It looked to me just as it does in the engraving on my mother's diploma: the very image, acme and epitome of a music conservatoire. In we went, and there were the statutory bearded busts of eminent musicians. Students hurried past with cellos and music cases, and notices of recitals or rehearsals fluttered from noticeboards as they had doubtless been fluttering constantly since my mother's day. "We shall enter," my guide courteously announced, "the Piano Department": and there, up a winding staircase, we were back in the Conservatorium of the 1900s. Nothing had changed, so far as I could see or feel; nothing was missing. Beside each door was a list of the Herr Professors, and I would not have been in the least surprised to see the name of Teichmuller among them. And when we went into one of the practice rooms, where a student was hard at it with a Chopin prelude, just for a moment I thought it really was my mother, young and smiling in a lacy dress, looking up at us expectantly from her keyboard.

On the windowsill, I am almost certain, lay a brace of pheasant - and I'm sure they were wrapped in a copy of the Monmouthshire Beacon. !