German Song and its Poetry 1740-1900 by J.W.Smeed

Croom Helm


Song-lovers needed such a book; but they needed it more accessibly priced and written. The hand-drawn music examples look homely. The text is academic and didactic, all mortar­board and blackboard. Some parts earn ticks and alphas; others (such as "elegaic", five times) black marks. The historical background has been competently tilled. We are told why it was so fer­tile; German-speakers use the same words for their simplest folksongs as for their profoundest poetry. The enterprising bourgeoisie, with their credo of individualistic expression, in art as in life, encouraged a proliferation of printed poems suitable for setting and singing. The native stock of continuo song for voice and bass line was soon hybridized by imported strains. Firm-rooted harmony sprouted florid melody; the Bach chorale was crossed with the barcarolle. Once vox populi had become indistinguishable from vox dei, the technological developments of piano manufacture, and music-making and marketing in general, made the eventual bumper output of great song-writing seem almost pre-ordained.

   In the fields of aesthetic and social history, J. W. Smeed is an informed and insightful ob­server, and a reliable guide to such agreeable by-ways as the poetry of Hagedorn or the music of Schulz. His book is diligently re­searched, especially in such aspects as folksong and Hausmusik, and ably documented with annotations and bibliography. He could have written the perfect factual introduction to an unfamiliar and rewarding subject. Instead, he abandons his main theme of eighteenth-century song after a hundred pages and tackles topics admittedly beyond his range. So unless the course is compulsory I doubt whether all his readers will last it.

   The first stumbling-block is a tediously insistent style, in which every other point has either already been made, above, or soon will be again, below. Even Chapter One manages to begin “As I have said”. Chapter Three, about Austria and Switzerland, announces that “the foregoing account has dealt almost exclusively with Germany", which the more attentive students will already have realized. Extra padding is provided by a reluctance to use one abbreviation where twenty words will do, eg, “there is no better way of illustrating the point I wish to make than by taking . . . “, etc.

   Worse still, the occasional sparks of enthusiasm are soon smothered by futile fault-find­ing. Thus the introductory samples on free offer from the eighteenth century include resoundingly false accentuation, a near-defunct style, melodic lines which would probably sound better as keyboard solos, unvocal characteristics, an awful octave leap, and so on. No doubt this represents an intentional, even laudable, striving for balance: but it forfeits interest, and indeed leaves the main account in debit. This is the burden, in every sense, of the book's stated theme. We are led up the untrodden paths only to be shown that they are uneven. We are left with the strong impression of a justly neglected genre.

   Of course there is plenty of less negative opinion, and indeed much able advocacy. But even in the nineteenth century, the frailer flowerings continue to receive withering com­ments. Much of this second 100-page section is confessedly otiose. “I cannot hope to add any­thing substantial to what has already been written” on the leading song-composers, so “I have contented myself with placing them in their historical context”, where far they beyond were the already. The last chapter ventures far beyond the title, because “although I am not expert enough to pursue the history of song into” the twentieth century, in any great detail, “a word or two must be said”. Not everyone will see the necessity. All such space should surely been reserved for advertising and displaying genuine goods and real values.


Times Literary Supplement, November 1987 © the estate of eric sams