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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

Not that modern concepts of nationhood could not be projected on the ancient past. Indeed, such projections—to be blunt, such figments of imaginary history—were the inevitable product and propagator of modern nationalism wherever it appeared. The Biblical Hebrews were enthusiastically cast as protonationalists by Handel and his English oratorio librettists in the mid-eighteenth century for the benefit of an audience now regarded as the first true European nationalists in the modern sense of the word. And it was the spread of modern nationalism in the aftermath of Napoleon's defeat that mainly accounted for the nineteenth-century rebirth of the “Handelian” oratorio in Germany, where it had never thrived before, alongside the nationalistic “Bach revival,” which also began with an oratorio, albeit of a different sort: the St. Matthew Passion, performed in Berlin under the twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, a pupil of Carl Friedrich Zelter (Goethe's intimate), in 1829.

That event was a tremendous watershed in the growth of German choral music. In its wake, literally hundreds of German oratorios were composed for performances at summer choral festivals that, first organized in 1814, had reached grandiose proportions by the 1830s, with throngs of performers holding forth before even bigger throngs of spectators, all hungry for nationalistic edification.

In keeping with the nature of the venue, festival oratorios nominally followed the Handelian rather than the Bachian model: secular works on (usually) sacred themes, rather than actual service music. But just as in Handelian times, the sacred was interpreted metaphorically, as a stand-in for the national. Indeed, one German critic was even moved to reclaim Handel (suitably re-umlauted as Händel) for a German sensibility that Handel never knew, declaring that the score of Judas Maccabeus, just revived in translation for a music festival on the Rhine, “breathes the deep seriousness of the German spirit and expresses the most joyful volkstümlich enthusiasm.”17

In keeping with the old genre's new purposes, a new theme was added to the traditional biblical and Apocryphal subject matter on which Handel's oratorios had drawn: legendary plots from the history of the Christian church, many of them based on episodes from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (“Jerusalem delivered”), a sixteenth-century epic poem set at the time of the First Crusade. One such oratorio, Die Zerstörung Jerusalems (“The devastation of Jerusalem”), first performed at a festival in Leipzig (Bach's city) in 1832, was the work of Carl Loewe, already familiar to us for his volkstümlich ballads.

Loewe's lifetime fame came not only as balladeer but also as the most prolific composer of nation-building festival oratorios. His work thus provides a link between the volkstümlich and the feierlich—between the folkish and the sacred—and makes all the more obvious the nationalistic subtext behind the “Jerusalem” theme. Just as Handel's audiences recognized themselves in his choruses of Israelites, so German nationalists read a parallel between Jerusalem's fate (sacked but then delivered) and the one they wishfully predicted for their own country, first disunited and devastated but then united and triumphant.

Later Loewe oratorios featured legendary figures from German history. Gutenberg, first performed in Mainz, the great printer's city, in 1836, celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of his first experiments with moveable type. Johann Hus, first performed in Berlin in 1842, commemorated the fifteenth-century religious martyr. Loewe even composed an oratorio called Palestrina (1841) that recounted the legend of the Pope Marcellus Mass through which the great religious composer was reputed to have saved the art of music. Because his work was “inspired” rather than “correct,” Palestrina counted as an honorary romantic—and, it followed, an honorary German.

Quite the most remarkable aspect of Loewe's oratorios, from the historical if not the artistic point of view, is the way they managed to hybridize one exclusively Bachian element into the otherwise Handelian mold. Like the Bach Passions and cantatas, almost all of them (even Palestrina!) incorporated the traditional Protestant German-language geistliche Lieder (spiritual songs) popularly known as “chorales” into the musico-dramatic proceedings, both in simple four-part harmonizations (Cantionalsätze) and in more elaborate fugal or cantus-firmus settings.

What may seem at first surprising about this is the chorale's association with actual worship services. There were those, in fact, who thought the use of chorales inappropriate for festival rather than actual service use. They were in the minority, however. Chorales were retained for the same reason that Martin Luther had originally sponsored them: their use, whether sung by a congregation or merely heard by an audience, furthered Gemeinschaft, the sense of community that could as easily foster nationalism as Protestantism.

What is truly remarkable, though, and remains so even on reflection, is the fact that Loewe was a devout Catholic, who advertised his religion as his main artistic inspiration. Equally remarkable is the fact that the most important of the German choral festivals, for Loewe as much as anyone else, was the Lower Rhine Festival (Niederrheinisches Musikfest), inaugurated in 1817 with gala performances of Haydn's oratorios, and by the 1830s the site of music pilgrimages from near and far. Its main site was Düsseldorf, with subsidiary performances in the neighboring cities of Cologne, Wuppertal, and Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle), the French border city that had once been Charlemagne's capital. Although these cities had passed from the Holy Roman Empire to Prussia in the post-Napoleonic settlement of 1815, their historical ties were to the Rhineland, and their dominant religion remained Catholic.

The assignment to Lutheran Prussia of historically Catholic territories was an enormous spur to German unification, which eventually happened in 1870 under Prussian hegemony. (And the assignment to a post-Napoleonic, militant Prussia of territories bordering on France, it has been frequently observed with benefit of hindsight, made two world wars inevitable.) As a result of these political changes, and as a further cultural spur to unification, Catholic composers now felt free and even called upon to incorporate Lutheran chorales into works that were then performed by largely Catholic assemblies of musicians for largely Catholic audiences. In other words, the Lutheran repertory of chorales was now, in apparent defiance of a sometimes bloody history, considered the common property of all Germans irrespective of creed. A religious repertory was in effect co-opted in the name of a nation.

There could be no greater testimony to the ascendancy of the national—and eventually the nationalist—ideal and its transformatory power in post-Napoleonic Europe. Now nation trumped even religion as a definer of human community, and the chorale became for all intents and purposes a brand of spiritual folklore—Volkstümlichkeit made holy. This revolution in the meaning of the chorale was explicitly recognized—indeed proclaimed—in 1819 by the same Ernst Moritz Arndt whose celebrated patriotic poem Des Deutschen Vaterland gave rise to all those enthusiastic musical settings. In a Herder-inspired pamphlet entitled Vom dem Worte und dem Kirchenliede (“On language and church song”), Arndt called for the revival of the chorale and its enshrinement in a common songbook for the use of all Christian Germans.

“Such a project,” one historian has dryly observed, “was of course a liturgical impossibility.”18 But by the 1820s it was no longer a cultural impossibility, as culture became increasingly identified with nation rather than faith. Near the end of his life, Ernst Ludwig Gerber (1746–1819), a great musical lexicographer and the first scholarly historian of German music, pled for the recognition of chorales as the closest thing modern Germany had to genuine folk songs. Later Herder-inspired research, as we know, revealed that Germany actually had a rich surviving folk heritage; but Gerber's idea, however mistaken, was nevertheless symptomatic of the way chorales were now being understood.

Like folk songs, chorales were ancient (or at least “historical”) artifacts of nationhood, bearers of the national spirit. Along with the folk song revival, the chorale revival might help reverse the universal spiritual decline of modern Europe that wore the sheep's clothing of Enlightenment. As Glenn Stanley, a historian of the German oratorio, has put it, the chorale came to be seen as “an image of a former, better time,” in which the nation's spirituality was as yet “a culture unperverted by secular influences.”19 More colorfully, the German romantic poet Novalis, writing as early as 1802, saw the salvation of all music in the chorale revival, if it succeeded in counteracting “the hatred of religion that came with the Enlightenment and reduced the infinite creative music of the universe to the monotonous rattling of an infernal mill.”20


(17) “Gottschalk Wedel” (Anton Wilhelm Florentin von Zuccalmaglio), “Deutsches Volkslied,” Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 13 May 1842; quoted in Cecelia Hopkins Porter, The Rhine as Musical Metaphor: Cultural Identity in German Romantic Music (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996), p. 13.

(18) Glenn Stanley, “Bach's Erbe: The Chorale in the German Oratorio of the Early Nineteenth Century,” Nineteenth-Century Music XI (1987–88): 144 n6.

(19) Stanley, “Bach's Erbe,” p. 123.

(20) Novalis, Die Christenheit oder Europa (1802); quoted in Stanley, “Bach's Erbe,” p. 144 n10.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003010.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003010.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003010.xml