The death on June 5, 1722, of Johann Kuhnau, cantor of the Thomaskirche and Leipzig's civic music director, left the Leipzig town council with a problem. Who was fit to succeed him as the city's highest ranking musician? Georg Philipp Telemann came to audition, and took the council's offer back to Hamburg, where he used it to put his superiors over a barrel. They raised his salary, and he stayed in the free Hanseatic city. The council then turned to Christoph Graupner, Kapellmeister in Darmstadt and one of the foremost composers of the day, noted for his cantatas; but Darmstadt wouldn't let Graupner go. Appeals councilor Platz summed up the council's quandry: "Since the best men cannot be obtained, we must make do with the mediocre."

The "mediocrity" the council finally settled on as Kuhnau's successor was Johann Sebastian Bach. He had spent the preceding six years in Co then, about 30 miles northwest of Leipzig, as Kapellmeister to a minor court. "We have at all times been well content with the discharge of his duties," Bach's employer there, Prince Leopold of Anhalt, graciously pointed out in a letter of dismissal he gave his Kapellmeister to take to Leipzig. Bach presented the letter to the council before officially taking up his duties on May 16, 1723. The journey from Cothen, where his position had been a comparatively exalted one, to Leipzig, where he was to be a mere civil servant, and an overworked one at that, required about a day.

How things change. Now it is possible to travel from Washington to Leipzig in a day. Meanwhile, the overworked civil servant of 1723 has become one of the most famous musicians of all time, and is a special hero in 1985, the year in which posterity celebrates the 300th anniversary of his birth. To mark the occasion, Leipzig is hosting a major international festival this week devoted to Bach's music.

The town fathers, modern-day counterparts of those same councilors who reluctantly handed over control of the city's musical life to him, seem to have forgotten all about the battles Bach fought to get the council to give him a decent number of church musicians, the bitterness he felt at their usurping his prerogatives and assigning a low priority to his claims in various disputes, the retreat he made in later years into private, highly intellectual forms of composition that had little to do with his public duties.

Bach has become tradition, Leipzig's tradition, and the city is paying him more honor now than when he was alive. That is not surprising, really, because there have always been other, more pressing if not more important things than music to occupy the hearts and minds of Leipzigers.

From the time there were industrial cities, Leipzig was one of them, set in the flat farmland of the East German state of Saxony, 100 miles southwest of Berlin. The area has a distinctive industrial odor, like the exhaust of motor vehicles. Unlike the Italianate city of Dresden -- the elegant seat of the electors of Saxony and a center of power -- Leipzig has always been a city of merchants, a center of the fur trade and of publishing.

Leipzig differs from its near neighbor to the southeast in another important respect. Both Dresden and Leipzig, like nearly all of the major cities of Germany, were reduced to rubble by the end of World War II. In rebuilding, Dresden opted to go slow and attempt to restore the old city to its prewar splendor -- much as it appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries -- while industrial Leipzig went ahead with more rapid reconstruction, along lines similar to what was done in many other Eastern bloc cities after the war.

As historical and musical as it is, Leipzig has never been renowned for its beauty. But some of the post-war buildings are quite attractive. In fact, there have been some architectural triumphs, particularly the Neue (New) Gewandhaus, Leipzig's third concert hall by that name, a modernistic structure with a concert-hall-in- See LEIPZIG, E3, Col. 1 LEIPZIG, From E1 the-round modeled on the Philharmonie in Berlin, and said to have excellent acoustics.

From industry to symphony, this city of 700,000 is well worth a visit. Although the government discourages organized religion, the churches are full, and the worship lively. Bach is everywhere, even when he is not being specially feted. You can search him out at the Thomaskirche and in the city's recital halls. And Saxony has long been one of Germany's more interesting regions, with its cultural might and the vigor of the Saxon people.

If you arrive in Leipzig by train -- by far the least expensive way to go -- your first reaction is likely to be amazement at the size of the city's central train station, the largest in all of Germany. The station has three enormous wings, each of which stretches for blocks. Exiting the station, you walk out onto the bustling plaza, a vast stretch of concrete with streetcars crossing it. The buildings surrounding the plaza are an eclectic mixture, a clear sign of the city's experience of war. Those in the older and more ornamental architectural styles -- including some especially prominent examples of turn-of-the-century Jugendstil -- are the ones that escaped total destruction in the bombings of World War II; where destruction was complete, more austere modern construction stands.

On one side of the plaza, at the center of the city, is the Baroque-style Rathaus, or town hall. The Rathaus was badly damaged during the war and was restored. From it, you can see the Thomaskirche at one end of the plaza, but only because an entire block of old Leipzig -- including Zimmermann's Coffee Shop, where Bach directed winter performances of the city's Collegium Musicum -- was leveled during the war.

At the other end of the plaza is the Auerbachskeller, the restaurant made famous by Goethe's visits.

Within a five- to six-block radius of the Auerbachskeller is the retail shopping district of Leipzig, a neighborhood of small specialty shops and arcaded passageways where various items available to the general populace (in other words, available for East German marks rather than hard western currency) are to be found.

There are two fairly large music stores, Oelsner's and the Johann Sebastian Bach Musikhandlung. Oelsner's, on the edge of the shopping center that faces the plaza, is a modest, old-fashioned shop, but its staff is extremely knowledgable and its stock is the best. The Bach Musikhandlung, a couple of blocks from the Rathaus, is geared more to the needs of students.

A bit farther from the city's center -- although easily reached by bus or on foot -- is the university, dominated by a rather forbidding-looking tower. Next to the campus stands the Neue Gewandhaus (the original Gewandhaus and the second Gewandhaus were on different sites), and next to it is the city's opera house. Visitors to the Gewandhaus may want to time their arrival to coincide with one of the regular organ demonstrations; the instrument, by an East German builder, is visually stunning.

The original Gewandhaus -- literally "cloth house" -- was a trade hall for the cloth merchants' guild. It was built in 1781 by J.C.F. Dauthe, who had also participated in the reconstruction of the Nicolaikirche, with the Thomaskirche one of Leipzig's two most important churches.

With the building of the Gewandhaus, Leipzig for the first time had a public facility adequate for the presentation of concerts, and the city's local musical institutions soon coalesced around it. One of the first important visiting musicians to lead a concert in the Gewandhaus was Mozart, who gave a concert there in 1789 that included two of his piano concertos and two symphonies, one of them perhaps from the final trilogy of 1788.

Beethoven's First Symphony was performed in the Gewandhaus in 1801, just a year after its premiere in Vienna. As the 19th century progressed, and orchestral music grew in size and complexity, the original Gewandhaus began to show the limitations of its size. A new structure was erected between 1882 and 1884 in what was then a suburb of the city, with a large and a small concert hall. By that time, the name "Gewandhaus" had become so closely associated with Leipzig's orchestra that the new building was called the Gewandhaus, too, even though it was intended not for cloth, but solely for concerts. The lastperformance in the original Gewandhaus took place in 1885; the soloist on that occasion was Clara Schumann.

The great days of late 19th- and early 20th-century music in Germany fortunately found Leipzig with a great orchestra and a great new hall (upon which, incidentally, the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall was patterned), and such luminaries as Arthur Nikisch, Carl Muck, Richard Strauss, Wilhelm Furtwangler and Bruno Walter on the podium. But like so much else in Germany, it was a short-lived idyll. The second Gewandhaus, now called the "old" Gewandhaus, was destroyed in an air raid Dec. 4, 1943.

The New Gewandhaus opened its doors in 1982, thus ending a 40-year hiatus in the city's musical life. Leipzig's musical history has been, and remains, a rich one, with a tradition of leadership unbroken since the revival of cultural activity in the middle of the 17th century following the Thirty Years' War. And, for all the anniversary-year excitement over Bach, it has been the history of far more than one man.

In fact, Bach is not the most important musician in the city's history. That distinction clearly belongs to Felix Mendelssohn, who as the Gewandhaus Orchestra's conductor from 1835 until his death in 1847 raised it to a level of virtuosity unmatched by any other orchestra of its day, and who founded the Leipzig Conservatory after having turned down the offer of a professorship in music at the university. (In fact, Mendelssohn was largely responsible for the revival of Bach's music in the 19th century. Among the works he reintroduced to the Leipzig public was the St. Matthew Passion, a performance of which he conducted in 1841.) Other important figures have been Telemann, J.A. Hiller, Niels Gade and Ferdinand Hiller (Mendelssohn's two deputies at the Gewandhaus), Ferdinand David (the Gewandhaus concertmaster under Mendelssohn) and Gustav Mahler, who was conductor at the opera from 1886 to 1888.

Today the Gewandhaus Orchestra is in the able hands of Kurt Masur, who has been its music director since 1970 and is one of the most welcome of visitors to the United States when he brings his own orchestra (as has happened every other year for some time now) or when he guest-conducts American orchestras. He was one of the first to put on a hard hat and go into the Neue Gewandhaus while it was under construction, to see that it was built properly; and he has rebuilt the orchestra's reputation to the extent that it is once again regarded as one of Europe's finest.

Last week a group of Washington-based musicians made the trip to Leipzig; and today these musicians, the members of the Washington Bach Consort, are giving the concert of their lives: a program in honor of the 300th anniversary of Bach's birth, conducted by music director J. Reilly Lewis and performed on the stage of Leipzig's Neue Gewandhaus. Washington has reason to be proud of this wonderful birthday gift, for now it, too, is part of the musical tradition of Leipzig, the city of J.S. Bach.