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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

With this thoroughly urbanized and neurotic song we have strayed pretty far from the state of nature, as did the lied itself in the generations after Schubert. The solo song became increasingly a site for subjective lyric expression, the more intense or even grotesque the better, leaving collective subjectivity to the larger, more literally collective choral and dramatic genres. The traditional volkstümliches Lied became once again the domain of specialist composers, like Carl Loewe (1796–1869), who, though actually a couple of months older than Schubert, is usually thought of as belonging to a later generation since he lived so much longer. He remained faithful to the ballad and other genres of story-song into the 1860s, and also, in the spirit of Herder, set Slavic and Jewish folk texts in addition to German ones.

Romantic NationalismRomantic Nationalism

ex. 3-14 Franz Schubert, Der Doppelgänger

Loewe's setting of Erlkönig (Ex. 3-15) was one of his earliest ballads. It was composed in 1818, a year later than Schubert's, but before Schubert's was published. By the time Loewe published his setting in 1824, however, Schubert's had been in print for three years and was already famous. So Loewe's version has to be seen as a competing setting, justified by its difference from its predecessor. The differences, as it happens, all point in the direction of a greater nature mysticism, a more naive romanticism. Like Schubert (or, for that matter, like Reichardt), Loewe uses a compound meter that reflects the strong hoofbeat iambs and anapests of Goethe's poem. But his rhythm is less relentless than Schubert's; he seems more interested in the evocation of a static, atemporal sphere—the Elf King's supernatural domain—into which the horse and its riders have intruded.

The evocation of timelessness though tremolos—an essentially orchestral device (based on a bowing effect) and something of a rarity in piano music—pervades the song from beginning to end, and palpably surrounds the child whenever the Elf King speaks (Ex. 3-15a). At these moments the horse and its headlong charge pass into oblivion, and the music is even more insidiously sweet and inviting than Schubert (who never gives up the human perspective entirely) had made it. Perhaps most significantly, the Elf King's appeals to the boy are set to melodic phrases reminiscent of horn signals. Not only does that lend them a harmonic immobility that deepens the boy's music trance, so to speak, but the timbre of the hunting horn—in German, Waldhorn or “forest horn”—had long since become the primary tone color of supernatural timelessness for German romantics, evoking the “forest primeval,” as Longfellow would later put it in his romantic poem Evangeline.

Another “anti-Schubertian,” anti-ironic touch comes at the very end (Ex. 3-15b), where Loewe eschews the distancing operatic manner to which Schubert still made recourse. He allows the rhythmic motion to come to a stop in the middle of the last line, to create a proper storyteller's suspense, but then accompanies the final word, “tot” (dead), with a horror-harmony rather than Schubert's recitative-punctuating formal cadence (the musical equivalent of a deadpan “throwaway”). Loewe clearly “believes” more in the supernatural content of the poem than Schubert did. That folkish naivety (or “faux-naivety”) characterized Loewe's ballads to the very end.

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-div1-003008.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-div1-003008.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-div1-003008.xml