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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin
The Discovery of the Folk

ex. 3-1 C. P. E. Bach, Amint (Wotquenne 199, no. 11)

This crossbreeding, which implied the impossibility of a particular “I” without a particular “We,” was in large part the brainchild of a Prussian preacher named Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), who provided the main intellectual bridge between the Sturm und Drang movement of the 1770s and the later German romanticism. His basic idea may seem all too obvious to us, heirs as we are to two centuries of romantic thinking; but in its day it was a revolutionary notion. Very simply, Herder contended that there was no universal human nature and no universal human truth, no “sensus communis” as posited by his one-time mentor Kant. Rather, he argued, each human society, each epoch of human history, each and every human collectivity was a unique entity—and uniquely valuable. Human difference was as worthy of study and respect, and could be as morally instructive, as human alikeness.

This idea has been given various names, among them historicism, particularism, and relativism. Herder did not invent it out of whole cloth; parts of it were actually derived from the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the philosophes, who were among the most ardent upholders of Enlightenment and its gospel of universality. But the specific emphases Herder gave his eclectic intellectual compound, and the consequences he drew from it, mark his thinking as particularly romantic, and particularly German. Through him, paradoxically enough, aspects of German particularist thinking became universal. They provided the necessary philosophical foundation for all nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalist thought.

It seems only natural and right that human particularity and diversity should have appeared natural and right to a German thinker. The German-speaking lands were then, and to some extent remain even now, a political and religious crazy quilt. And the idea of valuing particularity and diversity arose in reaction to the universalist, Enlightened assumption that progress lay in political consolidation and uniformity. To a French thinker, the politically fragmented German scene looked not only backward but weak; and shortly after Herder's death Napoleon would prove the point by force of arms. Herder's particularism and the German nationalism that grew out of it were in part an expression of resentment against French condescension, to say nothing of the French military threat.

Looking for the bedrock of irreducible human difference, Herder fastened on language. In his influential tract Über den Ursprung der Sprache (“On the origin of language,” 1772), he argued that without language a human being would not be human. But language could only be learned socially, that is, in a community. Thus human singularity had its limits. A human was human only in the society of other humans, and the natural definer of societies was language. Since there could be no thought without language, it followed that human thought, too, was a social or community product—neither wholly individual nor wholly universal. Thus to view humanity only as a totality was to miss the very specifics that made people human. These were to be sought in language communities, each of which (since it had its own language) had its own characteristic mode of thought, its own essential personality.

An Enlightened thinker might conclude that each language was merely a particular way of expressing universal truths. Herder insisted, rather, that each language manifested or (to put it biblically) revealed unique values and ideas that constituted each language community's specific contribution to the treasury of world culture. Moreover (and this was the most subversive part of all), since there is no general or a priori scale against which particular languages can be measured, no language, hence no language community, can be held to be superior or inferior to any other.

When the concept of language is extended to cover other aspects of learned behavior or expressive culture—customs, dress, art—those aspects will be seen as essential constituents of a precious collective spirit or personality. That spirit embodies a truth separate from but equal to the truths embodied by all other spirits. In such thinking the concept of “authenticity”—faithfulness to one's essential spirit—was born. It became an explicit goal of the arts, not just their inherent nature, to express the specific truth of the community they served.

These ideas put an entirely new complexion on the whole concept of folklore. Until the late eighteenth century, folklore, or local vernacular culture, was associated chiefly with the peasantry, and was therefore assigned a low cultural or intellectual prestige. Now folklore was seen as embodying the essential authentic wisdom of a language community or nation. Its cultural stock soared. It was zealously collected and studied, both for the sake of defining national characteristics and for the sake of comparing them. The brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, philologists (students of language) by training, compiled their epoch-making collections of folktales (Kinder-und Hausmärchen, “Children's and household tales,” 2 vols, 1812–15) under the direct influence of Herder's teachings. They followed up on these with an even more ambitious two-volume collection of German folk myths and legends, Deutsche Sagen (“German sagas,” 1816–18). By the middle of the nineteenth century their efforts had been duplicated in almost every European country.

The great explosion of published folklore and its artistic imitations did a great deal to enhance the national consciousness of all peoples, but especially those in two categories: localized minority populations (like the Latvians or Letts, the original object of Herder's collecting interest) whose languages were not spoken across political boundaries, and (at the opposite extreme) large, politically divided groups like the Germans, whose languages were widely dispersed across many borders. The boundary between the collected and the created, or between the discovered and the invented, was at first a soft one, easily traversed. It was not always possible to distinguish between what was collected from the folk and what was contributed by the editors, most of whom were poets as well as scholars, and did not distinguish rigorously between artistic and scholarly practice.

The most illustrative case was that of the Kalevala (“Land of heroes”), the national epic of the Finns, who in the early nineteenth century lived under Swedish and, later, Russian rule. First published in 1835, it was based on lore collected from the mouths of peasants but then heavily edited and organized into a single coherent narrative by its compiler, the poet Elias Lönnrot (1802–84). It never existed in antiquity in the imposing form in which it was published, and which served to imbue the modern Finns—that is, the urban, educated, cosmopolitan classes of Finnish society—with a sense of kinship and national cohesion. Nor do the ironies stop there. The distinctively incantatory trochaic meter of the poem (the result of the particular accentual patterns of the Finnish language), when translated into English, provided the model for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (1855), which purported to provide the United States of America, a country of mixed ethnicity and less than a century old, with a sort of borrowed national epic that would lend it a borrowed sense of cultural independence from Europe.

In the area that concerns us most directly, Herder himself made one of the earliest fundamental contributions, with his enormous comparative anthology of folk songs from all countries, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (“Voices of the peoples in Songs,” 2 vols., 1778–79). In it, he actually coined the term Volkslied (folk song), now universally used to denote what had formerly been called a “simple” or “rustic” or “peasant” song. His collection was followed, and so far as Germany was concerned superseded, by the greatest of all German folk song anthologies, Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The youth's magic horn”), brought out by the poets Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in three volumes between 1805 and 1808. Verses from this book, which contained no original melodies, continued to be set as lieder by German composers throughout the century and far beyond.

In some ways this “discovery of the folk” was a mere recycling of an ancient idea, that of “primitivism,” the belief that the qualities of technologically backward or chronologically early cultures are superior to those of contemporary civilization, or more generally, that it is those things that are least socialized, least civilized—children, peasants, “savages,” raw emotion, plain speech—that are closest to truth. The most recent and dogmatic upholder of primitivistic ideas had been Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Social Contract begins with the unforgettable declaration that “man was born free and is everywhere in chains.” No one had ever more effectively asserted the superiority of unspoiled “nature” over decadent “culture.”

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 29 Feb. 2024. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 29 Feb. 2024, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003002.xml