Seneca leaned over and poured some wine for his friend Lucilius. Seneca then reclined and reflected. Only after some moments did he look up, observing Lucilius, much in the manner that a learned professor might watch a diligent pupil. Thus spake Seneca: “Crede mihi, verum gaudium est res severa.”
Quite what Lucilius made of this intelligence we do not know, but almost two thousand years after Seneca’s pronouncement, the citizens of Leipzig are still pondering Seneca’s words. “Believe me, having fun is a serious business,” might serve as a translation. Others in Leipzig favour “True enjoyment is hard work.”
In its abbreviated form res severa verum gaudium, Seneca’s maxim pervades the life and soul of Leipzig. These are the words that are inscribed in bold letters above the organ console in Leipzig’s celebrated New Gewandhaus concert hall. It is these words that confronted Riccardo Chailly as he raised his baton on a warm Friday evening in September to open a new Gewandhaus orchestral season with a performance of Gustav Mahler’s ninth symphony.
It was music that brought Italian-born Riccardo Chailly to Leipzig, just as it was music that drew Gustav Mahler to the city in Saxony. Leipzig possesses an extraordinary musical magnetism that has extended across many centuries. In the early eighteenth century, music brought Georg Philipp Telemann and Johann Sebastian Bach to Leipzig, the latter enjoying over a quarter of a century of extraordinary musical productivity in the city.
Bach died in Leipzig in 1750, and his legacy slowly slipped below the musical horizon. There it might have remained were it not for a later generation of Leipzig composers. Among the latter were Felix Mendelssohn and both Clara and Robert Schumann. It was Mendelssohn who gave Bach’s great St Matthew Passion its first performance since the composer’s death. As conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra (from 1835) and as founder of the Leipzig conservatoire (in 1843), Mendelssohn used his position as one of the great movers and shakers in the Leipzig music scene to revive Bach’s reputation.
“Music, you see, is a serious business in this city,” explains Christoph when we meet him at a Leipzig café the morning after that performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony at the Gewandhaus. Christoph works in a factory on the edge of town. “One of the few that have survived,” he says, referring to the decimation of Leipzig industry that followed German unification in 1990. “Fashions come, and fashions go,” says Christoph, as he presents his version of Leipzig history. “Governments come and go, too, but the one thing that endures in Leipzig is music.”
Wandering through the streets of Leipzig on that sunny Saturday morning in September, it is easy to see what Christoph means.