Old Love Songs: German Folk and Art Poetry Was Created In Abundance

Taken from the Syracuse Union, Thursday, July 27, 1922 p.3

No one doubts anymore that folk songs were a poetic product of one individual rather than a compilation by many authors. People also feel that these poets must have been great artists because they united into one song everything inherent to a people of a particular era with a musical rhythm, thus turning it into a piece of the cultural wealth of that people. Every society, even the least complex, creates poetry and song. The more ancient the folk, the greater its feelings are transformed into songs and poetic verse. Dancing goes hand in hand with song, and it has helped preserve four line stanza songs similar to the singing competitions of the Eskimos.*

[*Translator's Note: The text uses the term Schnaderhüpfel, which is a four-line song stanza.]

Caption under illustration reads: Walter von der Vogelweide

In Germany the folk song has been preserved with its preference for dialectic coloring. In the 15th century it was essentially the Low German dialect which led the way in volk poetry. In the 17th century High German poetry came to the fore and it remained through the 18th and 19th centuries.

The oldest known German folk song is "Es waren zwei Königskinder, die hatten einander so lieb" [There were two children of a king, who loved each other so.] This folk song has been known to be in Germany since the 12th century. It can also be found in India and Greece in the love saga of "Hero and Leander."

Feelings and sentiments dominate in the folk song. They have a special and overall appeal. The people show a bond with nature. The folk song portrays all natural phenomena in their unique perspectives. The elements are personifications. Mountains, forests, water and earth each possess their own secret power. Feelings are animate objects which one must experience in existence. Deep emotions are summarized in short and simple folk-inspired terms which say so much more than pretty, drawn-out phrases. One Lower Rhineland folk song summarized the bittersweet pain of departure in these lines:

[From the Swabian song "Auf der Elbe bin ich gefahren"]

                        And for all the tears she cried
                        She could not find her way.

And the ring, which broke in two, tells us about a man's fate. [From the poem Das zerbrochene Ringlein by Joseph von Eichendorf

Caption under illustration reads: Handwritten folk song from the 15th century from a collection of German songs in the Munich State Library.
[See Es ist ein Schnee gefallen by Caspar Othmayr.]

Feelings of love are the major these in these folk songs. Human feelings are most clear reflected in one human's feelings for another human being. Thus the love song becomes the most prevalent form of folk songs. The oldest German love song is the well-known first entry in the collection called "des Minnesangs Frühling."

                        You are mine,
                        I am yours,
                        Certain of this you may be!
                        You're locked away within my heart
                        The key is lost, we'll never part,
                        You'll always be with me.

This little song has lasted seven centuries because it is so pure and so heartfelt. We still hear versions of it today in south German mountain yodeling and recitation.

                        If you want to be my beau
                        An honest man you must be.
                        Lock me up within your heart,
                        And give the key to me!
                                                                        (Carinthia, Austria)

                        My heart and your heart
                        Will forever beat as one.
                        The key is lost,
                        never to be found.
                                                                        (Carinthia, Austria)

One can find appropriate stanzas for every aspect of love. Yearning for a beloved first appear here: [a href="https://www.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Ach_Elslein,_liebes_Elselein_mein_(Ludwig_Senfl)">Ach Elslein, liebes Elselein mein by Ludwig Senfl]

                        Oh little Else, my little Else dear,
                        How I wish I were with you
                        But two deep waters
                        Are between you and me.

In Swabia one sings:

                        Little bird in the pine woods twitter brightly, tirili.
                        Sing through the forest and tell me true
                        Where might my beloved be?
                        Little bird in the pine woods twitter brightly.

The young man is happy once he finds the courage to become her suitor:

                        Maiden, oh maiden, you must become my wife.
                        There's nothing more I want in my life.
                        If you will not have me,
                        I'll go off to war.
                        If I cannot have you
                        I don't want to live anymore!

A concise and energetic refusal of love comes in the following lines:

                        How can I possibly accept you,
                        When I don't even like you!
                        You have such an ugly face.
                        God forgive me but I don't want you.
                        Leave me alone. Go away, shoo!
                        And don't come back to this place!

Lovesickness drives many a rejected suitor into remote places where he tries to forget. Upon returning to the site of old memories this song reawakens feelings:

                        And when I came back to you,
                        The tree had withered, it seemed;
                        For another beloved stood by her,
                        Indeed, it felt like a dream.
                        The tree stood in the Oden Forest,
                        To Switzerland I wandered away;
                        The snow fell down so coldly,
                        And my heart broke apart that day.

The folk song lives on forever with the people but poetry as an art form is regulated by the inclinations of the times and it changes its form accordingly. The love songs of the 12th and 13th century are not actual folk songs but the products of the minstrels known as minnesingers. In minnesongs there is a difference between the older, chivalrous lyrics and those of an later period, which are derived more from French love songs. In the earlier period we have Der von Kürenberger amd Ditmar von Eist, both of whom were Austrians from the second half of the 12th century.

The later courtly minnesong had its grand initiation with Heinrich von Veldeke. The form was continued by Friedrich von Hausen, Reinmar von Hagenau, and Walther von der Vogelweide. Its tone was not folklike but rather what one might call in keeping with its era. The minnesinger loves a noble lady, whom he scarcely knows personally. This is not a matter of the heart because this is not what the times demand. Certainly there are many folk elements in the minnesongs and a few have found there way into the folk culture if the poet has not already created then out of the folk poetry. For example, Gottfried von Neisen, like Walther von der Vogelweide, learned about the fresh and concise sytle of the folk songs of his time and wrote this stanza:

                        The nightingale sang so well,
                        That you should always thank her,
                        The other little birds should too!
                        Then I thought about my beloved.
                        She's the queen of my heart.

Caption under illustration reads: Couples in love at the Castle of Lady Minne. (Ivory carving from the 13th-14th century.)

One senses the presence of the artist in broadly used elements such as the following four-stanza verse which contains many liberal and succinct ideas:

                        A goldfinch and a wagtail,
                        sitting in the heather.
                        Noble boy and loyal servant,
                        Happy to sit together

Spring is not just an inexhaustible source of thought for the poet. The populace also loves songs of spring and dances of May. Hans Sachs chronicled a song which appears to have originated in the 14th century:

                        May, sweet May,
                        Flowers abound.
                        My heart is free.
                        God knows who my beloved might be.

                        Give me a handsome companion,
                        One who will have only me.
                        Let him wear a silken robe,
                        A nobleman must he be.

                        He hears a nightengale singing,
                        There will be a maiden fair,
                        who says if he will not be mine,
                        My heart will feel dispair.

A song by Schenken vom Limpurg describes love in May:

                        Welcome, welcome, Lady Summertime.
                        Welcome, dear Lord of May.
                        You bestow so much good fortune,
                        Sweet love must be on its way.
                        My love is prettier than flowers,
                        She's sweeter than nightengale song.
                        My love is the greatest lover,
                        To ever come along.
                        Oh, my beloved I'll surround you with love!

Caption under illustration reads: My God, how painful parting is! It's deeply wounded my heart.

                        How many colors can there be,
                        On the wonderful palette of May.
                        The meadow so delightful,
                        Magnificent in every way.
                        Crowns of blooms form rainbows
                        As they spring up in the grass.
                        Singing birds add to the joy,
                        And love renews at last.
                        Oh, will you be mine.
                        Will you hear me singing?

There's a particular genre of love songs called dawn songs which describe the parting of secret lovers in the morning, most times after a warning cry from the nightwatchman. The dawn song seems to have folk origins which were then altered to form courtly minnesongs by poets such as Heinrich von Morungen, Otto von Botenlaube and especially Wolfram von Eschenbach. Perhaps their source was the morning hymns of France. Shakespeare converted the dawn song into drama (the parting of Romeo from Juliet) and Richard Wagner used the form in Act 2 of Tristan und Isolde. In the 15th century the dawn song had already passed into folk poetry.

The most beautiful love songs of all folk groups are the songs of departure, which were derived from the dawn songs. Here we find the bitter pain of separation in plain and simple images. Winli, who was only a minor village poet of the Middle Ages, sings of departure:
                        Leaving causes pain but I must go.
                        I must endure its death.
                        But I can stay a little while longer,
                        Dear lady of mine,
                        Dear lady, so fine!

Another departure song goes:

                        My God, how painful parting is!
                        It's deeply wounded my heart.
                        I travel over the meadows,
                        So sad the time we're apart.
                        The hours pass so slowly,
                        My heart endures such sorrow,
                        As it so often experienced joy.

Minnesongs speak less of feelings in general but rather with observations concerning love.

                        When a couple falls in love,
                        Will have and hold each other true,
                        And be as one forever,
                        There can be no malice between them.
                        God has brought them together
                        To live a blissful life.

Verses such as this show up in later times in the 13th century works of Ulrich von Liechtenstein. When the minnesinger mixed too much tenderness and fantasy in his poetry it's no wonder that his contemporary, Stemmar, wrote the following verse in ridicule:

                        Like a pig in a sack,
                        My heart beats forth and back.
                        Like a dragon breathing fire
                        Such sentiment does not inspire!

The songs of the minnesingers have not achieved popularity. They lack personal, genuine sensibility and a close relationship to natural tendencies, which give folk songs their appeal. For most poets the May song and the Winter song are just about the same. The exception to that statement is Walther von der Vogelweide. Here is a New High German translation by Simrock of his song:

                        Under the linden tree deep in the meadow
                        Here's where we made our bed of love.
                        Crushed flowers and grass bespoke our activity
                        Tanderadei, the nightengale sang above.

                        I followed the road as my beloved awaited.
                        "Blessed lady, you sanctify me" he said.
                        Did he kiss me? Oh, yes, a thousand times.
                        Tanderadei, my lips are still red.

                        He made me a bed abounding in flowers.
                        I laughed to myself with glee.
                        Had anyone come to that rosy brier
                        Tanderadei, what an eyeful he'd see.

                        Had anyone seen what we had done
                        God forbid, what shame would fall upon me.
                        But no one witness how we pleased each other
                        Tanderadei, but the little bird singing in the tree.

— Poetry and Prose.
She: Look at that magnificent oak tree, Fritz! Breezes have blown though its leaves for hundreds of years. What would it say to us if it could talk?"

He:"Before anything else it would say, 'Pardon me, Madame, I'm a beech tree!'"

—The Good Reason.
"Previously Mr. Meyer was an excellent orator. Now he hesitates and stutters like a rank amateur."

"Oh, you don't know?"

"Know what? Did he have a stroke?"

"Thank God, no. But he just got married!"

Translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks, September 10, 2021