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

The imitation folk poetry of German romanticism came in two main formal types: lyrics and narratives. The lyrics were often cast as “dance songs” that resemble the stanza-and-refrain forms used in medieval poetry, and not by accident: next to contemporary “folk” or oral culture, the expressive culture of medieval times, precisely because they were the Dark Ages, was newly valued by romantics as a storehouse of unsullied lore.

Goethe's most famous song-with-refrain, owing to the large number of musical settings it attracted, was Heidenröslein (“Heath rose”), one of his earliest lyrics, first published in 1773. It was reissued in 1794 in a book of Lyrischen Gedichte (poems for music) set by his musical collaborator Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752–1814), the first great figure in the history of the lied, with more than fifteen hundred to his credit (Ex. 3-2). The text, a sustained metaphor for the “deflowering” of a maiden, consists in fact of a narrative; but the actual narrative genre (a matter of form as well as content) was something else:

Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn,

Röslein auf der Heiden,

war so jung und morgenschön,

lief er schnell, es nah zu sehn,

sah's mit vielen Freuden.

   Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot,

   Röslein auf der Heiden.

Knabe sprach: Ich breche dich,

Röslein auf der Heiden!

Röslein sprach: Ich steche dich,

dass du ewig denkst an mich,

und ich will's nicht leiden.

  Röslein, etc.

Und der wilde Knabe brach

’s Röslein auf der heiden;

Röslein wehrte sich und stach,

half ihr doch kein Weh und Ach,

musst’ es eben leiden.

  Röslein, etc.

A boy saw a rose growing,

a rose upon the heath.

It was so young and morning-fresh,

he quickly ran to look at it up close.

He looked at it with much joy.

   Rose, rose, red rose,

   Rose upon the heath.

The boy said, I'll pluck you,

Rose upon the heath!

The rose said, I'll prick you

so that you'll always think of me,

for I won't suffer it.

  Rose, etc.

And the savage boy picked

the rose upon the heath;

the rose, defending itself, pricked away,

but its aches and pains availed it not;

it had to suffer all the same.

  Rose, etc.

Lyrics and NarrativesLyrics and Narratives

ex. 3-2 J. F. Reichardt, Heidenröslein

The change from setting neoclassical or “Anacreontic” verses, as in Ex. 3-1, to setting volkstümlich poetry like this produced the mature German romantic lied. The change is often described as one between two generations of composers, or between a first and a second “Berlin song school.” The real change, however, was in the nature of the words they set.

The main narrative genre of volkstümlich romantic poetry was called the ballad, another term with medieval (or pseudo-medieval) roots: compare the Italian ballata or its prototype, the balada of the troubadours (called chanson balladé in northern France). The German term obviously reflects a faulty etymology, since a chanson balladé is, quite literally, a “danced song” rather than a narrative. The Germans were not responsible for the mix-up, however; the term ballad was first used in England, as early as the fourteenth century, to designate a sung narrative poem, often one that included dramatic dialogue between humans and supernatural beings, and that typically ended in disaster.

As a folk genre the ballad flourished mainly in the British Isles and Scandinavia, lands of mist and frost that fascinated the German romantics. The earliest German romantic ballads were in fact translations from English and Scandinavian originals—or rather, imitations of Herder's translations in his Volkslieder—and had no “true” German folk prototype at all. In this they resembled the Kalevala: they were contemporary creations manufactured to supply a desired ancient heritage. Far and away the most famous German ballad of this kind was Goethe's Erlkönig (“The elf king”), written hard on the heels of Herder in 1782 and first published as part of a singspiel libretto called Die Fischerin (“The fisherman's wife”). It achieved fame when republished, again in a setting by Reichardt, in the Lyrischen Gedichte of 1794 (Ex. 3-3 shows the grisly end):

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?

Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind:

er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,

er fasst ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

Who rides so late through night and wind?

It is the father with his child.

He holds the boy in his arms,

he clasps him firmly, he keeps him warm.

—Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?

—Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?

Den Erlenkönig mit Kron’ und Schweif?

—Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.

“My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully?”

“Father, don't you see the Elf King?

The Elf King with his crown and train?”

“My son, it is a patch of mist.”

“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!

Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit dir;

manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand;

meine Mutter hat manch’ gülden Gewand.”

“Come dear child, go with me!

I will play beautiful games with you;

many are the bright flowers on the shore,

my mother has many robes of gold.”

—Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,

was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?

—Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind:

in dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.

“My father, my father, and do you not hear

what the Elf King softly promises me?”

“Be calm, keep calm, my child:

in dry leaves the wind is rustling.”

“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?

Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;

Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn

und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”

“Will you go with me, brave boy?

My daughters shall tend you nicely.

My daughters will lead the dancing each night

and will lull and dance and sing for you.”

—Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort

Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?

—Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:

es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.

“My father, my father, don't you see over there

the Elf King's daughters in that deserted spot?”

“My son, my son, I see it perfectly,

the old willows look so gray.”

“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;

und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.”

—Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an!

Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!

“I love you, I am charmed by your good looks,

and if you are not willing, I shall have to use force.”

“My father, my father, he's clutching me now!

The Elf King has hurt me!”

Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,

er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind,

erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not:

in seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

The father shudders, he rides apace;

in his arms he holds the groaning child.

Sweating and straining he reaches the courtyard;

in his arms the child lay dead.

Though very elaborately and effectively disguised with specifically Germanic and romantic surface features, Goethe's pseudo-folkish ballad belongs to an ancient mythological tradition with origins going back at least as far as the Greeks: the “siren song” or song of fatal seduction, usually addressed by supernatural women to natural men, and most often given a maritime setting, as in the Odyssey (or in the form of another German romantic nature being, the Lorelei or Rhine mermaid). Goethe's immediate model was Herder's translation of a Danish folk ballad in which Herr Oluf, a knight, riding at night to summon guests to his wedding, meets up not with the Elf King himself but with one of the Elf King's daughters, who tries to lure him in a lethal dance but, failing, mortally curses him along with his bride and mother.

Lyrics and Narratives

ex. 3-3 J. F. Reichardt, Erlkönig, ending

Lyrics and Narratives

fig. 3-1 Moritz von Schwind, Erlkönig.

Goethe's variation ostensibly removes the element of sexual allure (but perhaps only succeeds in displacing it interestingly), while surrounding the horse and rider with a whole syllabus of Germanic nature mythology, according to which the forest harbors a nocturnal spirit world, invisible to the fully mature and civilized father, but terrifyingly apparent to his unspoiled son. The father thinks he “sees perfectly” and is in control of things. He is powerless, however, against the spirits, who flaunt their ascendancy by taking the child. Thus the romantically nostalgic or neoprimitivist themes of hidden reality, invisible truth, the superiority of nature over culture (in none of which, incidentally, did Goethe really believe) are clothed in the imagery and diction of folklore to lend them supreme authority.

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-div1-003004.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-div1-003004.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-div1-003004.xml