A festival with long tradition
Since 1904, festivals to honour Johann Sebastian Bach have been held in Leipzig from time to time. Firstly initiated by members of the Neue Bachgesellschaft (New Bach Society), the city of Leipzig gradually took over the organisation after 1908, when the »First Leipzig Bach Festival« took place to celebrate the unveiling of the new Bach monument on St Thomas’s Square. Karl Straube (1873–1950), who became cantor of St Thomas’s later, was the man of the first hour and the driving force in the first years.
By the year 1989, 26 festivals had taken place under several names: »Bachfest Leipzig«, »Bach Days«, »Bach Festival« or »Bach Week Festivals«. The fact that certain ideologies tried to incorporate the festival shows most clearly in names such as »Reichs-Bach-Fest 1935«.
In times of dictatorship, the ideologies even determined the programme of the Bach Festival. The Nazi propaganda showed Bach as a German national hero; in the GDR, since 1950, there had been attemps to emphasize only on the secular works of Bach. The Leipzig Bach Festivals however remained widely unaffected by this, due to the fact that they had been arranged by the »Neue Bachgesellschaft« which was still a pan-German organisation.
The city of music
The slogan »Leipzig, city of music« has repeatedly appeared from the 1920s on. However, at least from the mid 1990s, it is about more than simply giving the city a well-sounding byname. It was officially decided – applying the marketing strategies of Salzburg with its most famous citizen Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – »to represent Leipzig as city of Bach and apart from that as a city of culture and music.« The city council followed that line with its resolution to establish an annual Bach Festival from 1999 on. The organisation and realisation of the festival was entrusted to the Leipzig Bach Archive.
Bach Year 2000: Leipzig as the centre of the music world
The »new era« of the Leipzig Bach Festival began in 1999, when approximately 15,000 visitors attended the about 30 events. This was quite a pleasant outcome, but completely outstripped by the following year’s success. The year 2000 was a Bach memorial year, so more than 70,000 visitors poured into the city to enjoy many excellent concerts. A lot of renowned artists performed in Leipzig, each of them honouring Bach in their own personal way. Leipzig was the centre of the music world. For three months, a 54 by 54 metre portrait of the composer was put up above the city centre; St Thomas’s Church with the new Bach organ was re-opened after a restoration made possible by numerous donations; a 24-hour multi-media event was broadcast all over the world to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death; more than 90 concerts delighted the audience; many museums took part in the festival by organising special Bach exhibitions.
In the years after the exceptional festival in 2000, the Bach Festival was able to establish itself among the many music festivals and the almost 30 German Bach festivals even with its comparably low budget. This was thanks to two important factors, namely the quality of the programme and the authenticity of the locations. Both are closely linked to each other, because even for established artists it is always something special to perform at the original Bach locations. And also for the audience from all over the world these factors are a good reason to come to Leipzig. A constant increase in visitor numbers backs up the concept of the Bach Festival which has proven successful since 1999 with a mixture of secular and sacred concerts, atmospheric jazz interpretations, chamber concerts, open air events, and organ trips.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s next milestone birthday lies a little further in the future: in 2035, we will celebrate the anniversary of his 350th birthday … But before that we will celebrate the 300th anniversary of Bach’s appointment as Cantor of St. Thomas Church – in 2023!