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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

But the Herder/Grimm phase did contain a new wrinkle, namely the idea that the superior truth of unspoiled natural man was a plural truth. The next step in the romantic nationalist program was to determine and define the specific truth embodied in each cultural community. Here is where the motivating resentment or inferiority complex finally began to break the surface of German nationalism. Not surprisingly, the values celebrated in the German tales—the “Prince Charming” values of honesty, seriousness, simplicity, fidelity, sincerity, and so on—were projected onto the German language community, which in its political fragmentation, economic backwardness, and military weakness (its primitiveness, in short) represented a sort of peasantry among peoples, with all that that had come to imply as to authenticity. It alone valued das rein Geistige, “the purely spiritual,” or das Innige, “the inward,” as opposed to the superficiality, the amorality, the craftiness and artifice of contemporary civilization, as chiefly represented by the hated oppressor empire, France.

The word “culture” itself—or rather Kultur, to incorporate the special resonance the word had for the Germans—began to symbolize the values through which the German romantics set themselves apart from other peoples. As the German social historian Norbert Elias has put it,

The concept of Kultur mirrors the self-consciousness of a nation which had constantly to seek out and constitute its boundaries anew, in a political as well as a spiritual sense, and again and again had to ask itself: “What really is our identity?” The orientation of the German concept of culture, with its tendency toward demarcation and the emphasis on and detailing of differences between groups, corresponds to this historical process.1

The answer to the question “What is German?” (Was ist deutsch?) arose most clearly in the romantic lied, a genre that was inspired, one is tempted to say, by that burning question of national identity. In the light of contemporary philosophy and politics (and the links between them), the mission of the lied to unite the “I” and the “We” takes on a newly clarified sense of purpose.

The rediscovery of the folk and the consequent fever of collecting had an enormous impact on German poetry as well as the music to which it was set. Many poets, led by Goethe (a close friend, as it happens, of Herder's), began writing in a calculatedly volkstümlich style so as to capture some of the forgotten wisdom that das Volk had conserved through the ages of cosmopolitanism, hyperliteracy, and Enlightenment. It was a neat switch on the concept of “the Dark Ages.” The dark, especially in its natural forest habitat, was in its mystery and intuitive “second sight” now deemed light's superior as teacher of lore—that is, nation-specific, orally transmitted, traditional knowledge.


(1) Norbert Elias, The History of Manners, trans. E. Jephcott; quoted in Sanna Pederson, “On the Task of the Music Historian: The Myth of the Symphony after Beethoven,” Repercussions II, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 13.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003003.xml