How to make a ‘Volkslied’: early models in the songs of Johannes Brahms

Loges, N. (2012) How to make a ‘Volkslied’: early models in the songs of Johannes Brahms. Music & Letters, 93 (3) pp. 316-349. ISSN 0027-4224 (print) 1477-4631 (online)


Matthew Gelbart’s recent volume, The Invention of ‘Folk Music’ and ‘Art Music’: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner, demonstrates that ‘folk music and art music are not timeless, objective truths, but very human constructions’. This article argues that even after the concepts of folk music and art music had emerged, figures like Johannes Brahms shaped an individual understanding of folk music that diverged from the prevailing view. Brahms’s concept of folksong is explored first through the prism of Gelbart’s parameters: authorship, origin, function, and transmission, and is interpreted as a late echo of Johann Gottfried Herder’s thinking from the late 1770s. Attention is then shifted to Brahms’s earliest songs in a folk style from the 1850s, in which the influence of his love of earlier music is strongly evident, resulting in a different musical style from contemporary folksong collectors and composers such as Ludwig Erk and Friedrich Silcher. The poet Ludwig Uhland’s approach to medieval folk poetry can be read as an important literary precedent for Brahms’s folksong construct. Ultimately, Brahms’s conception and use of folksong mutated over the following decades; this is interpreted as a consequence of his growing awareness of his middle-class public, thus leaving only a folk ‘trace’ in his song-writing style.

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