Posts Tagged ‘St. Thomas Church’

Gewandhaus – Garment Hall to Concert Hall

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The renowned Gewandhaus Orchestra performs in a grand structure overlooking the Augustusplatz in Leipzig, Germany. Its name translates into “garment hall” because the city’s first concert hall was located in a textile-trading house. Completed in 1981, today’s hall can accommodate close to 2000 visitors and is known for its excellent acoustics. I had the good fortune of attending a recent concert at the Gewandhaus. It was directed by guest conductor Omer Meir Wellber. The performance of musicians and conductor was truly beyond words. What a treat for ears and eyes!

The current Gewandhaus was an East German cultural project. It is built in the style of an amphitheater. Its organ is the biggest musical instrument ever built in East Germany. The Gewandhaus Orchestra performs in the Gewandhaus, in the Leipzig Opera and, together with the Thomanerchor, in the St. Thomas Church.

According to Claudius Boehm (translated by Tom Greenleaves) the earliest roots of the Gewandhaus Orchestra can be traced to 1479. At that time, Leipzig’s City Council hired three artistic pipers (Kunstpfeifer) to provide musical accompaniment at church services, theater productions and concerts.

First Gewandhaus

Leipzig’s earliest concerts took place in private homes. Then an inn hosted the events. As the concerts increased in popularity, a larger space became essential, and in 1781, the City of Leipzig constructed a concert hall. Because the textile merchants had no use for a substantial part of the upper floor in the Garment Hall between the Gewandgaesschen and the Kupfergasse, the space was converted into a concert hall. It accommodated up to 500 patrons. Mozart played in this hall. So did Carl Maria von Weber and Franz Liszt. Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms, and Richard Wagner conducted here. The popularity of Gewandhaus concerts increased beyond all expectation so that the auditorium was modified several times to increase audience capacity. Unfortunately, the acoustics suffered each time, and a new concert hall was discussed.

Second Gewandhaus

In 1884, the Second Gewandhaus opened its doors on the south side of the Augustusplatz. It was designed by Martin Gropius and consisted of a main concert hall and a chamber music hall. While the City of Leipzig owned the First Gewandhaus, the Gewandhaus Concert Board owned the Second Gewandhaus. Anton Bruckner performed here at the organ, Paul Hindemith on the viola, Igor Stravinsky at the piano. Johannes Brahms, Edvard Grieg, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss all conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra at one time or another. The Second Gewandhaus was destroyed during bombings in 1944. For a while, the Gewandhaus orchestra performed in various halls throughout the city and moved into the zoo in 1947.

Third Gewandhaus

The conductor Kurt Masur initiated the campaign for the construction of the Third Gewandhaus on Augustusplatz. It opened in 1981, two hundred years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra had moved into the First Gewandhaus site.

The amphitheatrical Great Hall accommodates an audience of over 1,900; the Mendelssohn Hall approximately 500. The Great Hall is crowned by its imposing organ, with its four manuals, 92 stops and 6,638 pipes. Today’s Gewandhaus hosts approximately 800 events per year, which include its concert series, organ recitals, various chamber music series, conferences, symposia and lectures.

Inside the Gewandhaus Photo © J. Elke Ertle

Inside the Gewandhaus
Photo © J. Elke Ertle


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


St. Thomas Boys Choir – 800 years

Monday, June 29th, 2015

The  world-famous St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig, Germany, is first mentioned in 1254. But most likely, the choir is as old church itself. The St. Thomas Church came into being in 1212 when Margrave Dietrich of Meissen founded an Augustinian Monastery on this spot. Toward the end of the 15th century, the church’s Romanesque nave was razed and replaced by the late-Gothic “Hall-Church” that we see today. In fact, the architecture of today’s church has not changed much since the end of the 15th century.

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig Photo © J. Elke Ertle

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig
Photo © J. Elke Ertle

Choir Director Johann Sebastian Bach

From 1723 to 1750, the renowned composer and musician of the Baroque period, Johann Sebastian Bach, led the St. Thomas Boys Choir. At that time, the chorus consisted of 54 boys. Today, about 100 boys and young men sing in the choir. Their primary focus is the preservation of Bach’s choral music. For that reason, weekly Friday and Saturday motets have become a permanent musical tradition at St. Thomas. Bach Passion Concerts and the Christmas Oratorio draw thousands of visitors each year. The present leader of the choir is, Georg Christoph Biller, the church’s 36th cantor.

During a recent visit, I was able to enjoy a Friday motet with the St. Thomas Boys Choir. The church was packed, and we were not disappointed. Music and setting succeeded in linking us emotionally to a long-forgotten time period.

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach in front of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig Photo © J. Elke Ertle

Statue of Johann Sebastian Bach in front of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig
Photo © J. Elke Ertle

The Bach Organ

The organ from Bach’s days no longer exists. In 2000, for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, St. Thomas acquired a new organ. This new instrument, with its 61 registers and 4 manuals with pedal, looks and sounds similar to an organ of the 18th century.

Historic events at St. Thomas

The Lutheran St. Thomas Church has a long and eventful history. Not only has the St. Thomas Boys Choir sung here for the last 800 years. Many other important events took place in this church as well: In 1409, the University of Leipzig was founded in the monastery. In 1539, Martin Luther preached at St. Thomas, introducing the Reformation to Leipzig’s citizens. From 1723 until his death, Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor of the Thomas school. In 1789 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played the organ here. Mendelssohn performed at St. Thomas, and in 1813 Richard Wagner was baptized here. Since 1950 the St. Thomas Church is the location of Johann Sebastian Bach’s remains. Originally buried in an unmarked grave outside the Johanniskirche in Leipzig, Bach was moved to his final resting place at the foot of the church’s altar.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Leipzig Lark – A Tart With a History

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

During a recent visit of the 1000-year-old city of Leipzig, I stopped by a cafe one afternoon. When travelling, I enjoy giving unfamiliar delicacies a try. This time, I spotted a tray of unusual-looking pastries in the window of Cafe Kandler, located across from the St. Thomas church. Leipziger Lerchen (Leipzig Larks), the sign read. Of course, I had to try one.

Leipziger Lerche, Cafe Kandler © Photo by J. Elke Ertle

Leipziger Lerche, Cafe Kandler, Photo © J. Elke Ertle, 2014

What is a Leipzig Lark?

At first glance, a Leipzig Lark vaguely resembles a cupcake, but it really is a marzipan-filled shortcrust tart. The small pastry is then topped with two crossed strips of dough. But it is the story behind this treat that intrigued me.

History of the Leipzig Lark

Larks, the songbirds, are 5-7 inches long and can be found across much of Europe. They are streaked brown above and pale below and have a short, blunt, erectile crest. They live in open habitats and sing in flight. In the 18th century, local Leipzig merchants hunted these little birds and sold them to the wealthy who plugged, roasted and ate them with herbs and eggs. Boxes of bird carcasses were also shipped around the continent, from Spain in the southwest to Moscow in the northeast. The Leipzig Lark quickly became a culinary specialty of the city and business boomed.

The practice of hunting for larks became so prominent that over 400,000 specimens were killed in one month – October 1720 – alone. Nature lovers began to condemn the practice and tried to stop it in order to preserve the species. It took more than 100 years, but aided by a devastating storm that killed thousands of the birds, nature lovers finally prevailed. In 1876, King Albert of Saxony forbade lark hunting. Business in Leipzig suffered. A substitute had to be found.

An astute baker saved the day when he created a sweet treat that was visually vaguely reminiscent of the stuffed bird. He came up with a marzipan-filled shortcrust tart, made from pastry dough and ground almonds. By placing two strips of dough across the top of the tart, he tried to simulate the string that tied the stuffed body of the lark together. At last, the baker placed a cherry inside the confection to represent the heart of the bird. And so, the Leipzig Lark was born. It quickly replaced the traditional meat delicacy in popularity.

Surprise your friends

It only takes about 30 minutes to create a handful of Leipzig Larks, using ordinary muffin cups. If you allow an additional hour to allow the batter to rest, voila, you have your own assortment of Leipzig Larks. For recipe suggestions, visit


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.