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Music in the Nineteenth Century

CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit

The Romantic Lied; Mendelssohn's Career; the Two Nationalisms

CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


Although German-speaking composers have been prominent in the last several chapters (and will remain so for several chapters to come), and despite the frequent claim that their prominence raised the German “art music” tradition in the nineteenth century to the status of general standard and model (at least within the instrumental domain), the fact is that only two important musical genres were actually German in origin, and one of them was vocal.

The romantic Charakterstück for piano (to call it by its German name) was one of these, and the other was the romantic Lied (plural Lieder), the setting of a lyric poem for solo voice accompanied by the piano or (at first) some other “parlor” instrument, a genre so German that it has retained its German name in English writing. Both the character piece and the lied have cognate genres in other national traditions. The romantic character piece is in some obvious ways comparable to the fancifully titled harpsichord pièces by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French clavecinistes like François Couperin. But there were two important differences. The French genre was “imitative” while the German one was “expressive,” in keeping with the great change in esthetic sensibility that the word “romantic” declares. And the French genre descended from the dance suite while the German one descended from the fantasia. The two genres, it thus transpires, were not genetically linked. The one did not lead to the other, and so the romantic Characterstück is entitled to be considered an independent genre, as indigenously German as the romanticism to which it gave form and expression.

Similarly, the lied can be superficially compared with many previous forms of accompanied solo song, going all the way back to the monodies of the early seventeenth-century Florentines, or the English “lute ayres” of the same period. (The latter may look even more closely akin to the lied, since it had a fully composed accompaniment rather than a figured bass.) Indeed, the at times intense and personal expressivity of those earlier genres does seem to prefigure the primary esthetic aim of romantic lyricism. But again, the lineages were dissimilar. The monody and ayre descended respectively from the madrigal and the recitation of epic poetry. They were court genres, not domestic ones, and they were both quickly subsumed into the nascent opera. There is no genetic link between them and the lied.

Like the Characterstück, the romantic lied originated in Berlin, the Prussian capital, and once again that curious protoromantic C. P. E. Bach (who wrote some two hundred lieder) played a crucial role in its birth. From the very beginning, moreover, the lied was associated not only with the idea of Empfindsamkeit or personal expressivity, but also with the idea of Volkstümlichkeit or “folklikeness.” The two ideals may seem at first incongruous, since the simplicities of folk song may not seem on the face of it the likeliest channel for the expression of a unique personal psychology. But in fact, as already hinted in the previous chapter, German romanticism saw personal and collective expression as mystically linked, each depending on the other for authenticity. It was in the lied that the romantic “I” bonded musically with the romantic “We.” Accordingly, the earliest lieder were in effect imitation folk songs with simple melodies that, while reflecting the mood of the poem, could be easily sung by nonprofessionals at home. The accompaniments were also kept simple and were (in theory, anyway) regarded as optional. The person chiefly responsible for the theory was a Berlin lawyer named Christian Gottfried Krause (1719–70), who first described the lied in a book published in 1752 under the title Von der musikalischen Poesie (“On poetry for music”), and then got several of his friends, including C. P. E. Bach, to furnish examples of it. Thus, rather unusually, the description of the genre actually preceded its earliest specimens. It was decidedly a cultivation, a “hothouse growth.”

The first book of actual lieder was published in 1753 under the title Oden mit Melodien (“Odes with melodies”). An ode, which means a poem of praise sung to the lyre (whence lyric), was a time-honored classical genre that could be either public (choral) and grandiose, addressed to an assembled audience (as in the Greek drama or the odes of Pindar), or personal and intimate, addressed to a loved one (as in the odes of Sappho, or, in Roman times, of Horace and Catullus). It was the latter type, of course, that furnished the German romantics with their model. The model of models was Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet of the sixth century bce, whose widely imitated “Anacreontic” verses celebrated the joys of wine and love.

Americans may know about Anacreon because the drinking song that (in Francis Scott Key's contrafactum) became “The Star-Spangled Banner” was originally called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” It was the more personal, amorous side of Anacreon that inspired the verses by Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725–98) that (chosen by Krause and set at his instigation to suitably “Volkstümlich” melodies) laid the foundation for the romantic lied. Amint (Aminta), one of C. P. E. Bach's contributions to Krause's Oden mit Melodien, will give an idea of that foundation (Ex. 3-1). Its simple melody returns with every verse in the manner of a folk song. The simple three-part texture, completely written out even though it could easily be “realized” by a skilled continuo player, is additional evidence that the song is meant for home consumption by the relatively unskilled. The performance direction, Mit Affekt (“emotionally”), connoting an urban, sophisticated, self-aware manner seemingly at odds with the rustic simplicity of the tune, is a perfect paradigm of what we might call the “lied sensibility” with its unique crossbreeding of the I and the We.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-chapter-003.xml