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City that birthed a thousand influences and one Passion

The city of Leipzig in eastern Germany has been at the heart of so many seminal influences. A commercial centre for centuries, home to the world's oldest trade fair and Europe's biggest railway station, it's plain to see how this site where two of the continent's major international routes intersect has always drawn people in.

The ideas formulated there have had easy access to the outside world. Notables from Nietzsche to Angela Merkel are alumni of the university. Leading lights from the world of music, like Wagner and Grieg, studied at the Conservatory, itself founded by Mendelssohn.

It was in St Nicholas's church in the city centre that the peaceful protests began that would eventually bring down the Berlin Wall. The Nikolaikirche, as it's known locally, is part of Leipzig's rich musical history, even though there was an element of chance involved.

Johann Sebastian Bach was approaching 40, in the prime of his creative life, when the job of musical director in Leipzig came up. He was lucky. Their first choice couldn't get out of his commitments elsewhere, and the second got a better offer to stay where he was.

We'll just have to lower our sights, groaned one of the city councillors at the time -- this guy is no better than average. Imagine!

The workload was huge. He had to train the singers for the choirs in Leipzig's main churches, and provide new music for the Sunday services.

And even though the city fathers were slow to acknowledge his contribution -- years later, he'd complain of the constant aggravation and pressure -- he remained there until his death 27 years later, in 1750.

During his first winter in the post, Bach set to work on a new piece for Easter. It would be a musical landmark. No oratorio on this scale, big and dramatic and over two hours long, had ever been attempted before.

This in itself was a problem, for the Easter services in Leipzig alternated between its central churches -- even years in St Nicholas's, odd years in the much larger St Thomas's.

It being 1724, it was the turn of the Nikolaikirche, where there was scarcely room in the organ loft for all the singers Bach required.

On Good Friday of that year, which happened to be April 7, he premiered his St John Passion, not quite the way he wanted it.

The following year, in the Thomaskirche, Bach was able to present his oratorio, with revisions that the bigger venue would accommodate, in all its glory.

Direct and emotional, it's a masterful musical, almost operatic, representation of the events of Holy Week, the work of a genius, even if his bosses never recognised him as such.

RTÉ lyric fm features The Hamilton Scores from 9.30 each Saturday morning, and a new series -- George Hamilton's Full Score -- starts tomorrow afternoon at 3.00.


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