We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

Until the end of the eighteenth century, and even a bit beyond, the lied was considered a lowly genre, the province of “specialist” composers (i.e., hacks) like Reichardt and his “Second Berlin School” contemporaries Johann Abraham Peter Schulz (1747–1800) and Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758–1832), Goethe's favorite, who as director of the Berlin Singakademie played a leading part in the Bach revival, another manifestation of burgeoning German nationalism.

What Goethe liked about Zelter's settings was their modesty and true Volkstümlichkeit. (He broke with Reichardt a year after the Lyrische Gedichte were published because, as he put it, Reichardt had a “forward and impertinent nature” and thought himself Goethe's artistic equal.)2 What he disliked in the settings of others (emphatically including Schubert) was the oversensitive, overcomplicated response to each successive line in a poem that “smothered” the words in musical artistry. Far from showing him musically insensitive, though, the fear shows how easily distracted (or to put it positively, how strongly attracted) Goethe was by music. He wrote to Zelter in 1809 that however wary he may have felt, as a poet, toward music carelessly applied, no lyric poem was complete without it. Only when set and sung, he wrote, is a poem's inspiration released into “the free and beautiful element of sensory experience.” In a wonderful formulation, he concluded that, when listening to beautiful words beautifully set and sung, “we think and feel at once, and are enraptured.”3

But the lied nevertheless remained a low-prestige affair, which is why Schubert's Viennese forebears, whose careers were oriented toward the aristocracy for support, cultivated it so little. Aristocracy, as ever, stood for cosmopolitan “civilization,” not particular Kultur. Between 1781 and 1803, Haydn composed no more than three dozen lieder with keyboard accompaniment in the style, more or less, of the “first” Berlin song school. (Compare that with fifteen “canzonettas” to English texts composed in London in 1794–95, and a walloping four hundred British folk song arrangements with obbligato strings, commissioned by publishers in London and Edinburgh.)

One of Haydn's most volkstümlich songs, though, has become exceedingly famous: Gott, erhalte Franz den Kaiser! (“God save the Emperor Franz!”), better known as the Kaiserhymne (“Emperor's hymn”), which with various words and at various times has seen duty as national anthem for three countries (Ex. 3-4). The first was Austria, from the year of its composition, 1797, until 1918, when the last Habsburg emperor (Karl I) was deposed. Next came Germany, from 1922 to 1950, sung to a poem by Hoffmann von Fallersleben that dates from 1841 and begins “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” (“Germany above all else”). Since 1950 the melody has served the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany” until 1990), sung to the words “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (“Unity, Justice, and Freedom”).

Haydn's hymn was composed under the inspiration of “God Save the King,” the earliest of all national anthems in the modern sense (first used in 1745 but, like the British “unwritten constitution,” never formally adopted). Equally to the point, it was composed in direct “rebuttal” to La Marseillaise, the French revolutionary hymn that was officially adopted as the anthem of the Directory government in 1795 and has been in continuous use ever since. True, Haydn's hymn celebrated an imperial dynasty rather than a nation in the modern sense. But the concept of nationhood had developed by the late 1790s to the point where the “folklike” style was the only way one could embody a national sentiment that aspired to cross-cut all social classes. Later, in a gesture that found a number of echoes, as we have seen, in Schubert, Haydn cast the slow movement of his Quartet in C major, op. 76, no. 3, as a set of variations on “Gott, erhalte Franz den Kaiser!” so that the quartet is now known as the “Emperor” Quartet.

Mozart, who composed some sixty freestanding (or “insert”) arias with orchestra (all but five in Italian, the operatic lingua franca), left only half that many songs with keyboard accompaniment (all but four in German, his native tongue). One, at least, is a masterpiece—or so Goethe thought. The text of Das Veilchen (“The little violet”), Mozart's only Goethe setting (composed around 1785), was extracted, like Erlkönig, from a singspiel libretto (Erwin und Elmire, 1775). Curiously reversing the sexual roles in Heidenröslein, the flower is cast this time as the spurned male lover, trampled underfoot.

The Lied Grows Up: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

ex. 3-4 Joseph Haydn, Kaiserhymne (Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser!)

Mozart's setting sports an appropriately volkstümlich opening theme, first given by the piano in the form of a ritornello, then repeated by the voice; and it makes some nicely restrained illustrative use of the piano (to paint, for example, the maiden's “carefree step”). But it is really a miniaturized aria, with an opening section that modulates to the dominant, a middle section in the parallel minor with a poignant far-out point on ♭VI, and a return to the original key “doubled” by a final thematic and textual reference (Mozart's idea!) to the opening stanza for the sake of a proper da capo closure.

Beethoven's involvement with the lied was about as deep as Mozart's: in a composing career that lasted twice as long, he composed about twice as many lieder (not counting 168 purely mercenary folk song arrangements, mostly at the instigation of the same British publishers who tempted Haydn). His song output does contain one major work, however: An die ferne Geliebte (“To the distant beloved”), op. 98, completed in 1816 and published with a dedication to his patron, Prince Lobkowitz. Rather than a single song, it is a set of six, all linked by composed transitions and ending with a thematic recollection of the first, thanks to which it bears the subtitle Liederkreis, literally a “circle of songs.” In English the term is song cycle.

Beethoven's, though not quite the first, is the earliest song cycle to survive in active repertory. The cyclic idea seems originally to have been an English one, as befits the land where the modern novel had its birth. For at its most elaborate a song cycle could be compared with a novel in songs, just as the earliest English novels, like Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), were cast in the form of letters—discrete utterances between which the reader or listener was left to infer the connections that produced the plot.

The poems Beethoven set, by Alois Jeitteles, an obscure Jewish medical student in Vienna (later a famous physician), interweave nature imagery with personal pathos. There is a lot of rustic imagery in the music—echoes off the mountainside, birdsong, and the like. Though written out for the sake of the changing, often illustrative accompaniments, the individual songs conform (allowing for a bit of ornamental variation) to the stanzaic (or “strophic”) structure of folk songs, with a single melody repeated for every verse unit.

Beethoven's songs, in other words, are still Lieder im Volkston or volkstümliche Lieder (folklike songs) but with a much stronger admixture of personal sentiment than we have seen in previous lieder. Song no. 2, the most rustic in the set, also has the most “pathetic” harmonies where the text refers to “inner pain.” The very fluid tempo also serves to instill a sense of subjective sentiment into the music. Even when not specified by the composer, a fluctuating tempo, called tempo rubato or “stolen time,” suggesting spontaneity of feeling, would become an essential component of “romantic” performing style.

Joseph Kerman has pointed out that “the lied grew up in reaction to the ‘art music’ of Italian opera, cantata, and canzonet,” just as the Kultur of German romanticism was a reaction to the artifices of “civilization.” Therefore, he adds, the English term “art song,” which is sometimes used as a translation for “lied,” is “miserably confusing.”4 But Beethoven succeeded, while maintaining the unaffected “natural” tone without which lieder are not lieder, in reweighting the scales on the side of art. With him, art and nature, craft and spontaneity, are brought into a more traditional equilibrium. Not surprisingly, Goethe hated his songs; Beethoven was the “smotherer” supreme.

Ex. 3-5 samples the first, second, and last songs from An die ferne Geliebte, including the transition into no. 6 as a reminder that the individual songs are connected by the piano. The general style is not all that far removed from that of Reichardt: indeed, the middle stanza of the second song (Ex. 3-5b), in which the voice chants a monotone while the piano takes over the tune, was probably modeled on Reichardt's effective (hence widely imitated) “transcription” of the Elf King's insinuating whisper in Ex. 3-3. Like Mozart, Beethoven tampered with the ending of the text, planting a “pre-echo” of the final lines at the end of the first song so that the cycle can “come full circle” with wistful hopes of vicarious union through shared song.

The ending of the cycle resonates powerfully, of course, with Beethoven's well-publicized loneliness, well known to every listener. Here the composer's “I” decisively preempts the traditional “We,” but forges a new We (and, in its subjective sentimentality, an equally German one) by enlisting the listener's sympathy. And yet it is still important, whenever biographical resonances impinge on the way we interpret romantic art, to distinguish the “persona” embodied in the art from the person who lived the life. From what we know of his life, the actual Beethoven (as often observed) sang most readily “to the safely distant beloved.” The da capo effect that unifies the cycle operates on several levels. There is the literal musical quotation at the end (where, ironically, it is actually the poet who is “quoting” the extra stanza that the composer had planted earlier, not that a listener would know), which involves a change of meter and tempo (Ex. 3-5d). And there is a coda suffused with motivic reminiscences, culminating in a striking reminiscence of the first phrase in the final cadence, forcing one last poignant retrospect. But upon examination, the main tune of the sixth song turns out to be a variation of the opening melody in anticipation of its literal return. It retains the contour up to E♭, down to F, and up again to C (see Ex. 3-5e).

The Lied Grows Up: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

ex. 3-5a Ludwig van Beethoven, An die ferne Geliebte, no. 1, mm. 1-9

The Lied Grows Up: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

ex. 3-5b Ludwig van Beethoven, An die ferne Geliebte, no. 2, middle stanza

The Lied Grows Up: Haydn, Mozart, BeethovenThe Lied Grows Up: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

ex. 3-5c Ludwig van Beethoven, An die ferne Geliebte, no. 6, mm. 1-16

The Lied Grows Up: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

ex. 3-5d Ludwig van Beethoven, An die ferne Geliebte, cyclic return

The Lied Grows Up: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

ex. 3-5e Ludwig van Beethoven, An die ferne Geliebte, the motivic relationship between the first and last songs


(2) Quoted in Eugene Helm, “Reichardt,” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XV (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 704.

(3) Goethe to Zelter, 21 December 1809; quoted in Eric Sams and Graham Johnson, “Lied (IV),” in New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. XIV (2nd ed., New York: Grove, 2001), p. 672.

(4) Joseph Kerman, “An die ferne Geliebte,” in Write All These Down: Essays on Music (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), p. 181.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 15 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 15 Oct. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003005.xml