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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

Otherwise, the volkstümliches Lied was fast transforming itself into the frankly and literally patriotic Vaterlandslied, sometimes called the Rheinlied after the symbolically charged river Rhine, the quintessential emblem of Germany. Such songs were composed in quantity as the idea of German cultural unity, primed by anti-Napoleonic resentment and sparked by Herderian folk-romanticism, was transformed into a political agenda. A “textbook” example of the genre is Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland (“What is a German's fatherland?”), a famous poem by Ernst Moritz Arndt (1769–1860), a professor of history and a fierce publicist in the cause of German nationalism, set to music in 1825 by Gustav Reichardt (no relation to Johann), a Berlin conductor and singing teacher.

The poem, drafted in 1813 at the very height of Napoleonic resistance, is basically a long list of German-speaking territories, each offered as an answer to the title question and resoundingly rejected with the same refrain: “Oh no, no, no! His fatherland must be greater than that.” The last two stanzas, musically set off from the rest, contain the true (that is, politically correct) answer.

The Liturgy of Nationhood

ex. 3-15a Carl Loewe, Erlkönig, mm. 27-34

The Liturgy of Nationhood

ex. 3-15b Carl Loewe, Erlkönig, ending

The Liturgy of NationhoodThe Liturgy of Nationhood

fig. 3-2 Des Deutschen Vaterland as published in Ludwig Christian Erk's Deutscher Liederschatz (Treasury of German Songs, 1859–1872).

Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland?

so nenne endlich mir das Land!

So weit die deutsche Zunge klingt

und Gott im Himmel Lieder singt:

Das soll es sein,

das, wack'rer Deutscher, nenne dein!

Das ganze Deutschland soll es sein!

o Gott vom Himmel, sieh’ darein,

und gib uns rechten deutschen Muth,

dass wir es lieben treu und gut.

What is a German's fatherland?

Tell me its name at last!

As far and wide as the German tongue resounds

and God in Heaven sings lieder:

That it must be!

That, gallant German, call thine own!

All of Germany must it be!

O God, look down from Heaven

and give us true German spirit,

so that we love it truly and well.

Reichardt's setting is only one of many settings the famous poem received. For the most part a rather ordinary if spirited volkstümlich march, it nevertheless contains a stroke of true German genius when, at the mention of God singing lieder (!), and again at the plea for “rechten deutschen Muth,” the music takes a turn toward the Schubertian visionary terrain of mediants and submediants to inspire a music trance of nationalist fervor. As a result, according to Ludwig Erk (1807–83), the latter-day Herderian from whose posthumous collection Deutscher Liederschatz (“Treasury of German songs”) Fig. 3-2 is taken, “this song was in the decades 1830–70 one of the German songs in most widespread use, and had great political significance.” No less significantly, he adds that “since the ideal of a united German empire has become a reality, our song has begun to be forgotten.” Mission accomplished.

But it was also the original mission of a great deal of music that did not pass so quickly into oblivion. Under the impetus of romantic nationalism, choral music came back into its own. It enjoyed a rebirth that can only be compared with its original “birth” for European music history as the continent-uniting music of the medieval Christian church, the first music deemed important enough to be recorded in notation. That implied trajectory, from chant to lied and from church to folk, testifies to the transformation romanticism wrought not only in the way one thought about nation, but also the way one thought about art. Both concepts were sacralized, made holy, in the process of their romantic redefinition.

Romantic choral music was associated not only with Gemütlichkeit, the conviviality of social singing, celebrated in the Männerchor texts for which Schubert had supplied such a mountain of music, but also with mass choral festivals—social singing on a cosmic scale that provided European nationalism with its very hotbed.

These affairs had originated in the aftermath of the French Revolution as an explicit attempt to put the nation-state in the place formerly occupied by God and king in the popular imagination. Beginning in 1794 (Revolutionary Year III), the Cult of the Supreme Being—code for the revolutionary State—was established. Significantly enough, this cult replaced an earlier cult of the Goddess of Reason, which proved musically barren. The new cult inspired a rich liturgy, some of it actually modeled on that of the Catholic church. Its exercises culminated in the singing of revolutionary hymns by choeurs universels, choirs embracing all present. The men's choral societies that flourished in the German-speaking countries, and the choral festivals that brought them together in monster assemblies, were echoes, so to speak, of the French “universal choirs”—albeit adapted, after the post-Napoleonic restoration, to a political sentiment that was literally counter-revolutionary.

The Swiss educator Hans Georg Nägeli, one of the leaders of the “Liederkranz” or singing-society movement, frankly confessed the aspirations that motivated its growth and spread. For a Swiss like Nägeli, such aspirations were best described as civic, concerned with social order. For Germans, they were better described as nationalistic in the most literal sense of the word: concerned with nation-building. No matter how the political cause may be described, what served and sustained it musically was ever the same. “Take hordes of people,” Nägeli wrote in 1826,

take them by hundreds, by thousands, bring them into human interaction, and interaction where each is at liberty to express his personality in feelings and words, where he receives at the same time like-minded impressions from all the others, where he becomes aware in the most intuitive and multifarious way possible of his human self-sufficiency and camaraderie, where he radiates and breathes love, instantly, with every breath—and can this be anything other than choral singing?15

One could hardly hope to find a better illustration of romantic nationalism—the “I” finding fulfillment in the “We.” But now let us recall some memorable words by St. Basil, the founder of Christian monasticism, dating from the fourth century CE. For him, too, choral music was first of all a means of promoting fellowship: “A psalm forms friendships, unites those separated, conciliates those at enmity…. So that psalmody, bringing about choral singing, a bond, as it were, toward unity, joins the people into a harmonious union of one choir.”16

But where Basil saw choral singing as bringing harmony to a monastic community of perhaps hundreds, Nägeli and his contemporaries saw it as uniting whole nations numbering perhaps millions, the sort of “imagined community” that had no way at all of being imagined in St. Basil's time, or for many centuries thereafter.


(15) Hans Georg Nägeli, Pestalozzische Gesangbilder; quoted in Ulrich Asper, Hans Georg Nägeli: Réflexions sur le choeur populaire, l’éducation artistique et la musique de l’église (Baden-Baden & Bouxwiller: Éditions Valentin Koerner, 1994), p. 114.

(16) Commentary on Psalm I, quoted in P. Weiss and R. Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., p. 21.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 May. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 May. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003009.xml