Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Leipzig: Music, Repression and Rebellion

I'd like to take a detour from the grim topic of holocaust to an interesting visit that could be called a quintessential German city that reflected Germany's genius and its travails under Stalin's jackboot. Leipzig is little over an hour away from Berlin by train. This city is where Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn lived and worked. Goethe studied in Leipzig. Leibniz discovered calculus there. It is in Leipzig that the Stasi, the East German Secret Police, unleashed a regime of terror leaving behind 180,000 kilometers of documents. The grass roots movement that finally brought down the Berlin Wall came to a boil in Leipzig.

The recurrent theme of Germany seems to document and face up to its past ghosts whether they be of its own creation like Nazism or imposed from without like Communism. Though Berlin has a STASI museum too it is the Leipzig museum that's more famous.

If we think Orwell predicted the repressive nature of communism we are wrong. Orwell did not even scratch the surface. Here is East Germany the state controlled every aspect of a citizen's life. A spouse or boyfriend could very well be an informer. Children were encouraged to tell on their parents. Here in this museum one comes face to face with an array of exhibits that were the tools of Big Brother. Most exhibits do not have English descriptions but the handheld audio guide comes handy.

The movie 'Lives of others' depicts the STASI vividly. A STASI interrogator would describe the art of interrogation. The suspect is made to sit on a chair upon an yellow cloth and questioned for hours together. After completion of questioning the yellow cloth, suffused with the suspect's body odor, would be sealed in a glass container and indexed clearly. When a subversive pamphlet turns up a police dog sniffs that paper. Depending on where the paper was apprehended bottles of yellow cloth collected from suspects in that area would be given to the dog to sniff and match a cloth. Here at the museum I saw such original glass containers with yellow cloth. At the GDR Museum in Berlin I saw notebooks that East German households had to maintain to register guests staying for more than 3 days.

The taping system was pretty extensive and thousands of phones were bugged. The tapes, the transcription system, vaults for safekeeping of tapes were all on display. The Stasi had elaborate equipment for breaking into houses that included counterfeit machines to duplicate eye, bugs, portable copiers to copy incriminating documents, polaroid cameras. As the movie 'Lives of others' depicts how mail was opened and read the steaming equipment used to steam and open envelopes was show cased here. Just 2 weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall a Stasi official wrote on Oct 31st 1989 to monitor a suspect.

After nearly 2 hours of a depressing peek into the nature of communism I then headed for Johann Sebastian Bach's museum next to St.Thomas church (Thomas Kirche).

Bach symbolizes the Baroque era of western classical music. He lived in Leipzig between 1723-50 where he taught at the Thomasschule, St.Thomas church. The museum is a gem for music lovers. The visitor starts of by getting acquainted with the Bach family tree of musicians stretching back into the 16th century. Music is played softly over the display and as each piece plays the respective composer on the genealogy tree is highlighted. Another room has a map on the floor with markings of what Bach composed in each location. Stunning. A virtual orchestra helps us understand orchestration in Bach's period. An instruction manual for the boys in the dorm tells them not to urinate from windows. At a suitably lit room original scoring sheets by Bach are displayed. Bach was contracted to compose for weekly church services. No church in history ever had in its employ such a prolific composer whose music spoke across ages. What is a Bach museum without a piano? We see how Bach enjoyed learning and playing different instruments. The cafe adjacent to the museum served delicious thin pancake layered with warm crisp thinly sliced apples dusted with nice sweet sugar.

From Bach's home I headed towards Mendelssohn's home. Mendelssohn's 'wedding march' is the most played bridal march. A map tells us of Mendelssohn's travels hither and thither in Germany and even to Edinburgh. In an earlier blog I had wondered about the impact of traveling wide and imbibing wider learning on Bach's music compared to the provincial life led by Thyagaraja, the patron saint of carnatic music.

Architecture is a key aspect of museums in Germany. The museum for East German life is dark and evokes the repressive nature of that era. Unfortunately not a single exhibit had English descriptions.

Recently Wall Street Journal had an article that said the fall of Berlin Wall could possibly be due to a miscommunication amongst the police and rulers. Many who are unfamiliar with the communist history think that some strange catalytic event crystallized in the fall of the evil empire. No. Not at all. Come to Leipzig to understand how a people's movement brought a regime to its fall.

Leipzig city of Bach, Wagner and Goethe was enslaved for four decades. I wondered how could a people with such intellectual history be enslaved. How long could any machinery, even the one as brutally repressive as the communist machinery was, hold down a people? In US we often read about Reagan and Pope John Paul II combined forces to combat the Red terror. In Leipzig I learned of how the church played a central role in anti-communist protests.

St.Nikolai church in Leipzig was the womb of many protests including the string of protests starting in the fall of 1989. Tens of thousands milled around the church and challenged the might of the Soviet empire.

Just before I decided to head to the train station for return I figured out that mathematician Liebniz is honored with a statue at the University of Leipzig. Leibniz invented Calculus but was cheated from being recognized by Isaac Newton. Newton also had invented the calculus but as head of Royal Society Newton indulged in pettiness to rob Leibniz of due credit. Today historians recognize both as having independently inventing calculus and changing how we live for centuries to come. 

No comments: