When the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with chief conductor Riccardo Chailly tours seven U.S. cities this February, it will feature a program made up entirely of romantic warhorses: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Asked about it, Chailly suavely deflects the implicit criticism, even as he admits that his own personality might like to have included an element of surprise. “You can understand,” he concedes “that the Gewandhaus Orchestra, in a way the mother of all German orchestras, is demanded to be heard in its ‘Fach repertoire’.”
He has a point. The Leipzig orchestra has an unparalleled history—it has played with every great German composer since Beethoven. The band is most famous for all the big German romantic composers whose music it has helped shape over the last 250-some years. The orchestra isn’t just a purveyor of a great ‘orchestral tradition’… it is the very founder of that tradition. Its history is like a slice of German history.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra’s motto, which has adorned all its permanent homes, is awfully telling: Res severa est verum gaudium – “True joy is a serious matter”. Now that does sound like the 16th century graffiti-equivalent of: “Germans were here”. But then the German tendency to take everything with a very generous helping of seriousness has aided them do things properly and thorough. (For better and worse). And the Gewandhaus Orchestra has been a well functioning, continuously existing musical body for 268 years.
268 years, 230 of them under the name “Gewandhaus Orchestra”, make the band the oldest continuously existing civic orchestra… which is to say: an orchestra founded by burghers, not by the court or the church. This legacy shapes the orchestra to this day, says Riccardo Chailly, Kapellmeister of the LGO since 2005: “The sense of civic involvement with the orchestra, because it has always been a city orchestra, not a court institution, is tremendous. To this day. It’s almost become a habit for Leipzigers… people expect there will be a performance in the Gewandhaus. And in the Thomaskirche. And the opera house. And they attend. It’s part of their system of living. The whole city promotes itself through music and the politicians are very sensitive to our activities… and the ticket prices reflect that.”
The name, “Gewandhaus Orchestra” (Garment House Orchestra), comes from the musicians’ first move into the grand hall of the drapers’ guild headquarters. The name stuck, and every permanent home of the orchestra since has borne the name “Gewandhaus”. The history of the homes of the orchestra tell a German story of a buoyant, highly cultured society that destroyed itself through war, was torn apart by history, partitioned, and eventually, near-miraculously unified.
From their first appearances in a local inn—“The Three Swans”—to the point where the original Gewandhaus became impractical for the growing orchestra’s activities, elapsed 140 eventful years. In those years, the mercantile city of Leipzig had seen the last seven years of Johann Sebastian Bach perform his duty as cantor and music director. It had seen the Battle of Nations (Napoleon’s ‘original’ Waterloo). The Kingdom of Saxony had its northern part partitioned off by Prussia. Leipzig received its first long-distance railway connection and became a European railway traffic hub. Constitutionalist revolutions had come and gone in Saxony, among them the young republican Richard Wagner who fled the state. Germany battled through its three ‘Unification Wars’. The city hit the population mark of 100,000 in 1870, and in 1871 Saxony became part of the brand-new German Empire.
When you think of German romanticism, you think of Leipzig
Throughout, the Gewandhaus Orchestra performed its concerts. Mozart conducted them in his own works, they first performed Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” (and played all his symphonies in his lifetime). They premiered Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony” as well as Schumann’s “Spring Symphony, Brahms’ Violin Concerto, and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. The Gewandhaus Orchestra acquired world fame under its director Felix Mendelssohn who became Kapellmeister in 1835 and formed it into a ‘Philharmonic Orchestra’ in the modern sense, with a repertoire and associated academy for recruitment of talented musicians. In 1840 it became the official city orchestra, acquiring with that title weekly performing duties in the Leipzig churches (hence its Bach tradition) and the opera house, while continuing its concert schedule. As a result of all these activities, the LGO is the world’s largest professional orchestra with 185 full time musicians employed.
Riccardo Chailly isn’t daunted by so much history, he revels in it: “Yes”, he laughs, “spoiled is the right word for it. Yes, deeply spoiled. When you think of the implications of the orchestra’s history... When you think of early German romantic music, you think of Leipzig. From Mendelssohn to Nils Gade to Robert Schumann to Brahms, who never could get his b-minor Piano Concerto appreciated until Clara Schumann lifted it to triumph… there are endless anecdotes in music related to the LGO. You are spoiled—and there is a sense of obligation. But I like that… I really do.”
When the Leipzigers took to the streets in the “Monday Demonstrations” and marked the end of dictatorship in the East, Gewandhaus Kapellmeister Kurt Masur’s involvement was pivotal in assuring peaceful protests which in turn kept the army—always on standby—in the barracks. Twelve months later, the LGO was again a German orchestra without the need for the prefix “East”. The orchestra had survived that period unscathed, too, since like a church, what makes the Gewandhaus are not the bricks, the stuccowork, or glass and steel on the outside, but the pulsing musical beat inside. A musical pulse that has been considerably quickened since the arrival of Maestro Chailly. “If we don’t surprise with the works we play,” Chailly refers to the American tour, “at least I hope we will surprise with the interpretations. Our Beethoven has come a long way and has shook up things a little, here in Leizpig. It was new for the orchestra, but after the initial surprise, the players saw the musical reasons behind it and followed with great believe and courage. That doesn’t mean changing the sound of the orchestra, though. You can’t ‘improve’ that. And it would be criminal to do so.”
Of the Leipzig concert-goers he says: “They’re really a wonderful, a fabulously disciplined audience. Bruno Walter once said that he will never forget the intense silence of the Leipzig audience as the conductor gives the upbeat.” Very serious listening for a serious matter, then. Backstage in the current Gewandhaus, you will find the motto Res severa est verum gaudium emblazoned on the wall again. “Res severa” points to the practicing rooms, “verum gaudium” to the canteen. Whoever said Germans don’t have a sense of humor?