Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the German Volkslied 

in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Ann Schmiesing

(MahlerFest XIV)


In his review of the first volume of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in 1806, “By rights, every household in which cheerful people live should possess this book, and display it by a window, or under a mirror, or wherever else song and cookbooks tend to be placed, so that it may be opened at any moment of high or low spirits, when one wishes to find something harmonious or inspiring” (Jenaer Allgemeine Literaturzeitung 137-38; qtd. in Rölleke 29).* Goethe’s enthusiastic assessment of the collection can be used as a point of departure for discussing several related facets of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn and the German Volkslied in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For despite considerable criticism, the collection became wildly popular, as Goethe’s description of the book as a household staple indicates, although in fact it never became a staple literary work among the common people whose lives its songs allegedly reflected, but instead primarily influenced nineteenth-century artists, composers, and writers. Moreover, Goethe’s curious suggestion that the book be placed wherever song or cookbooks generally are displayed underscores the diverse nature of the collection. For although it gained a reputation as a unified collection of folksongs, Des Knaben Wunderhorn is in fact a random assortment of various types of songs, including hymns, children’s songs, war songs, allegorical poetry, craftsmen songs, ballads, and idylls. And as these various forms suggest, the songs treat themes ranging from the perils of the battlefield to the delights of the kitchen, and from earthly passion to heavenly devotion. In what follows, I shall discuss the nineteenth-century reception to this varied work, as well as examine the late-eighteenth-century models which Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim took as their inspiration. Because my field of specialty within German literature lies within the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, I cannot comment authoritatively on Gustav Mahler’s use of the songs; however, a few of the examples I will use in speaking of Des Knaben Wunderhorn will come from songs for which Mahler composed music.

Des Knaben Wunderhorn, commonly translated into English as “The Youth’s Magic Horn,” appeared in 3 volumes between 1805 and 1808. Its compilers were Ludwig Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, two of the most prominent representatives of the romantic movement in Germany. Typical of the movement, both authors were in young adulthood during their work on Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Arnim was 24 years old and Brentano 26 at the time they compiled the first volume. Arnim was born in 1781 in Berlin to a Prussian diplomat who was later to serve as director of the royal opera. His mother died three weeks after his birth, and Arnim and his only brother were raised by their maternal grandmother. He studied law and mathematics at the universities of Halle and Göttingen, and in 1801 began his friendship with Clemens Brentano. The friendship eventually led not only to fruitful literary collaboration on Des Knaben Wunderhorn, but also to Arnim’s marriage to Brentano’s sister Bettina in 1811. As for Brentano, his circumstances were rather different from Arnim’s. Whereas Arnim was a Protestant aristocrat of Prussia, Brentano was a Catholic whose family tree included Italian ancestry. The son of a Frankfurt businessman, he was born in 1778 at Thal-Ehrenbreitstein in the home of his grandmother, the novelist Sophie von la Roche. After his own attempt to go into business failed, he attended the University of Jena, where he grew acquainted with August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, as well as Ludwig Tieck–all leading members of the romantic school. He remained in Jena until his move to Heidelberg in 1803.

Influenced by the adaptations of love songs which Ludwig Tieck had published in 1803, Brentano began to entertain the idea of jointly collaborating with Tieck on a collection of songs, although Tieck was not responsive to this idea. Also influenced by Tieck, Arnim proposed in a letter to Brentano that an academy for the popular arts be founded, in which literary, theater, musical, and dance forms of folk art would mutually reinforce each other and serve to reconcile the split between high culture and folk art. Only through such a reconciliation, Arnim believed, could the German-speaking lands achieve a national confederation and a truly national German culture. Arnim also wished to found a publishing house for the purpose of publishing folksongs, as well as a network of hostels throughout the German-speaking lands where members could learn from minstrels and street performers. To these and other suggestions, Brentano responded tactfully that he doubted that Arnim’s family would, in view of their elevated social status, allow him to engage in work which strayed so far from high culture, and he later proposed that they instead collaborate, as a more realistic start, on a collection of poems and songs. Since he had begun collecting manuscripts at the time he first envisioned collaborating with Tieck, he already had many songs to contribute to his proposed joint venture with Arnim, which he and Arnim began to discuss in earnest in 1804. The two worked in libraries and in the field collecting manuscripts in 1805, with much of the work being completed during Arnim’s six-week stay with Brentano in Heidelberg in May and June of that year. Publication of the first volume, which was dedicated to Goethe, took place at the end of 1805, although the title page of the volume listed the year of publication as 1806. Volumes Two and Three appeared in 1808.**

The significance of the collection to German literature and culture is seen in the desire which both writers held even before commencing work on Des Knaben Wunderhorn to show that German- language songs, legends, and tales from the Middle Ages to the Baroque demonstrated that a Volksgeist or “spirit of the people” had existed not only in Elizabethan England and other northern European countries, but was also to be found in German literature before what they viewed as the corrupting influence of the Enlightenment. Until the 1760s, most eighteenth-century German writers had attempted to imitate French high culture instead of focusing their efforts on creating a truly national German literature. Influenced by French neo-classicism, German authors such as Johann Christoph Gottsched did not concern themselves with creating a literature which would reflect German culture, for the simple reason that there was, in their view, no German culture to reflect. Instead of developing or reviving native legends and songs, they were primarily interested in plots drawn from classical mythology and history, and concerned themselves first and foremost with adhering to the strict literary principles set forth by seventeenth-century French critics. The plot of a drama, for example, was to follow the pseudo- Aristotelian unities, having just one setting and taking place within one twenty-four hour period.

Resistance to Frenchified German literature grew in the 1760s and 1770s. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing not only denounced what he viewed as overly pompous and declamatory French drama, but also pronounced that “true theater” should be neither for the aristocrats nor for the rabble, but for the people– “das Volk.” If any culture should be imitated, Lessing argued, it should be that of England, since in his view the works of Shakespeare represented a more genuine and natural form of poetic expression than did those of the Frenchmen Racine and Corneille. Like Lessing, the writers of the pre-romantic Storm and Stress movement saw in Shakespeare a symbol of Germanic or Northern European culture, and they also argued against the normative strictures of French neo-classicism and in favor of the pluralistic nature of folk culture. Indeed, they not only began to incorporate Germanic myths and legends into their dramatic and narrative works, but grew interested in other manifestations of folk culture, and were particularly influenced by British collections of folksongs. In the 1760s, James Macpherson had published poems which, he claimed, he had translated from Gaelic. Although the songs were purported to be about Fingal and written by his son, the third-century Celtic hero Ossian, Samuel Johnson suspected that Macpherson had at best found only fragments of songs and stories, and had fabricated the rest. Indeed, Macpherson refused to produce his originals. The Ossianic revival which Macpherson’s work spurred nevertheless influenced several German writers and intellectuals. As Goethe’s Werther exclaims in The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s famous novel from the Storm and Stress movement published in 1774:

Ossian has taken Homer’s place in my heart. What a world, into which this magnificent hero leads me! To wander over the heath, around me the whistling and howling winds of the storm which in the steaming fogs lead the spirits of our fathers in the dawning light of the moon…When I find him then, the sauntering grey bard who seeks the footprints of his fathers on the broad heath, and oh! finds their gravestones and then, full of lament, turns his eyes towards the dear star of the evening, which hides itself in the rolling sea, and the times of the past become alive again in the soul of the hero…O friend! I would like to draw my sword like a noble fighter, free my ruler at once from the flickering torment of slowly dying life, and send the liberated demigod my soul. (464)

Just as Werther describes Ossian as seeking his own ancestors and recording their stories, Goethe and others seek in Ossian and related Northern European heroes a link to their own distant past. In 1773, Johann Gottfried Herder’s seminal essay “Ossian and the Songs of Ancient Peoples” appeared, in which the term “Volkslied“–adapted from the English “popular song”–appears for the first time in German. Herder saw in the Volkslied the most authentic expression of poetry, and he himself compiled a two-volume collection of folksongs in 1778 and 1779; whereas Herder’s collection consisted mostly of translations of foreign songs, the songs in another collection, this by Anselm Elwert and published in 1784, were largely German in origin. It was not only Macpherson, but also the English bishop Thomas Percy, who influenced the desire of Herder and other German writers to create their own collection of folksongs. Percy’s collection was titled in full Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and other pieces of our earliest poets (chiefly of the lyric kind) together with some few of later date. The three-volume collection was published in 1765, and among those who sung its praises were Oliver Goldsmith and the renowned Shakespearean actor David Garrick, who himself possessed a sizeable collection of folksongs. In the same year that it was published,

Rudolf Erich Raspe, a writer and librarian in Hannover who would later move to England and achieve fame for his adaptation of the Münchhausen stories, praised it and called for a German Percy who would collect important artefacts of German folk literature. A similar call for was made by the German writer and fellow Anglophile Gottfried August Bürger in the 1770s.

It was in many ways a desire to serve as just such a “German Percy” that propelled Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano in their own efforts to compile folksongs two decades after the Anselm Elwert’s collection appeared. In a letter of February 15, 1805, to Arnim, Brentano states that their aim should be “to undertake a reasonably priced book of folk songs…It must be a delicate balance between the Romantic and the everyday mood, it must contain religious, tradesmen’s, and common laborers’ songs, songs of the times of day and year, and humorously frivolous songs…It must be so arranged that no age is excluded; in it the better folk songs could be preserved and modern ones could be composed for inclusion” (Steig 1:132; qtd. in Hoermann 24). As this statement shows, Brentano wished to bring about a rapprochement between high culture and folk culture, and it is significant in this regard that the letter also expresses his hope that such a book would make Rudolf Zacharias Becker’s Mildheimisches Liederbuch–a work with an Enlightenment (and largely high-culture) agenda to which Brentano objected– obsolete. Like other members of the romantic school, Arnim and Brentano turned to the Middle Ages for inspiration, although it is notable that numerous songs in Des Knaben Wunderhorn have their origins in the Baroque, a period which the Enlightenment writers had abhorred. Brentano and Arnim considered both the Reformation and the Baroque as continuations of the Middle Ages, which the Enlightenment had unfortunately cut short. Arnim’s own objections to the Enlightenment are voiced in his essay “On Folksongs,” which was appended to the first volume of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. There, he speaks with fondness of childhood memories of a servant singing hymns while sweeping the floor, but laments that the Enlightenment killed such genuine poetic expressions in what he calls its “witch’s kettle of too highly esteemed knowledge.” Indeed, the difference between Arnim’s and Brentano’s goals for their song collection and those of Enlightenment writers becomes clear when one examines Christian Fürchtegott Gellert’s comments in his preface to his hymns from 1757: there, Gellert, a prominent writer of the Enlightenment and the movement known as literary sensibility, stresses that in hymns “a general clarity must reign..which nourishes the understanding” (107). Although Gellert does not discount emotion as a necessary ingredient of any hymn, his emphasis, unlike that of Brentano and Arnim in their collection of songs, is on reason. In his essay “On Folksongs,” Arnim further charges that German dramatists of the time pretended to be creating a theater for the people, while in fact they only further distanced the people from the dramatic arts. He also quotes Goethe’s description of the folksong as a genre which can be enjoyed by all classes of society. As Goethe wrote:

We have tended to call these kinds of poems folksongs for several years now, not on the basis of whether or not they were written by or for the people, but because they have in them something so sturdy and good that the essence and core of the nation understands, retains, dedicates itself to, and further transmits these things–these poems are the truest poetry that can be…they hold an incredible charm even for those of us who stand at a higher level of culture and refinement, just as the memory of youth holds such a charm for the adult. (Des Knaben Wunderhorn 321)

Significantly, this statement eschews any attempt to give a rigid definition of the folksong as a genre. Instead of mandating that a folksong must be a song generated by the experiences of the common people, Goethe leaves open the possibility that the folksong can also be written by culturally elevated authors whose experience with the common people may be only slight, as long as the song resonates with the listener or reader as “true poetry” and captures the essence of the German people– distinctions which are not easily defined. Arnim, too, avoids, giving a more specific definition of the folksong, which is significant when one considers the diversity of songs represented in Des Knaben Wunderhorn. At the time that he and Brentano were working on the collection, there was no accepted theoretical definition of the Volkslied, and the collection does little to clarify what its editors associate with the term (Rölleke 30). In fairness, however, it should be noted that the actual subtitle of Des Knaben Wunderhorn is “Alte deutsche Lieder” or “Old German Songs,” and the only references to the Volkslied occur in Arnim’s essay “On Folksongs,” which Arnim included in the collection without notifying Brentano. It is primarily because of Arnim’s essay that the collection grew famous as a collection of folksongs, even though some types of songs represented–such as the hymn– might not necessarily be included in the folk genre and were intentionally left out of previous collections, such as that by Herder. The songs chosen by Gustav Mahler reflect this diversity: they range from soldier songs such as “Der Schildwache Nachtlied,” and “Der Tamburg’sell” to the lighthearted “Wer hat dies Lied erdacht?” to the religious “Es sungen drei Engel” and “Urlicht” in Mahler’s symphonies. Because of this diversity and the lack of any accepted definition of the Volkslied, reviewers of Des Knaben Wunderhorn tended to review the work on the basis of their own differing conceptions of what a Volkslied was.

But that Arnim suggests the possibility that folksongs can be written even by authors with little experience of folk culture is significant chiefly because he and Brentano did not serve as traditional historians in their compilation of songs. Instead of simply collecting and publishing the songs, they revised and rewrote many of them, at times adding and deleting entire verses. They also included six works which were their own creations. Of the 743 songs in the three volumes of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, only one-sixth are genuine and unchanged. Particularly unsettling to critics was the fact that Arnim and in particular Brentano not only revised the overwhelming majority of the songs, but also typically gave no indication in Des Knaben Wunderhorn that revisions had been made. In addition, many well-known songs were given in nonstandard versions. For example, the famous hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (in English, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”) is included in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, but

it appears not in Martin Luther’s original version, but in the revised and longer version written by Johann Michael Moscherosch in the seventeenth century, to which Brentano made his own revisions. Not only is there no indication of which parts of the song were authored by which writer, but there is no reference given to the fact that Brentano himself made revisions. An example of revisions from the songs for which Mahler composed music is “Der Schildwache Nachtlied,” which ends with a verse which was altered by Brentano. Arnim’s and Brentano’s most unmerciful critic was Johann Heinrich Voß, who wrote soon after the appearance of volumes two and three:

With feigned innocence, the collection of old folk songs which appeared by [publishers] Mohr and Zimmer under the title Des Knaben Wunderhorn in 1806 wormed its way into favor and gained encouragement which was far too indulgent. Those who encouraged it did not suspect that since then, it has become a tangled jumble full of willful forgeries, and with much botched work slipped in…In the newly published volumes an incurable mishmash of all sorts of lumpy, sulky, dirty, and useless street songs are thrown before us, plus a few stale church songs. (qtd. in Des Knaben Wunderhorn xv)

To fully appreciate just how scathing Voß’s criticism is, it should be noted that the last line of this passage contains its own ruthless: the words “lumpy, sulky, dirty, and useless” rhyme in German, and so the passage in the original reads: “In den neuerschienenen Bänden wird ein heilloser Mischmasch von allerlei butzigen, trutzigen, schmutzigen und nichtsnutzigen Gassenhauern, samt einigen abgestandenen Kirchenhauern uns vorgeschüttet.” The “tz” sound of butzig, trutzig, schmutzig, and nichtsnutzig makes not only the content of the passage, but its very tone harsh and unforgiving. Voß’s criticism aside, it is significant that even fellow members of the romantic school complained of the unscholarly editing of the songs. Friedrich Schlegel lamented in 1808, “If only so much that is bad, so much that is native and foreign had not been mixed together! If only the arbitrary changes that are evident in several songs had not given the majority of the readers a justifiable suspicion regarding the other songs!” (qtd. in Des Knaben Wunderhorn xiv). And in a letter to his brother Wilhelm in May 1809, Jacob Grimm criticizes Arnim and Brentano’s revisions of older songs, writing, “They do not allow the old to remain old, but wish to transplant it entirely into our time, where it simply does not belong” (qtd. in Campanile 443). Grimm’s criticism is nevertheless interesting when one considers that he and his brother would be similarly chided for altering many of the fairy tales included in their collection.

The central problem with the undocumented revisions made by Arnim and Brentano was not simply that their work ignored accepted scholarly research standards, but that in ignoring these standards they gave the impression that the songs came directly from the people, when in fact much of the work was the result of their own revisions and interpolations. This impression can be seen in the opinion which Heinrich Heine expresses regarding Des Knaben Wunderhorn in his work The Romantic School: using the song “Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz'” (in English, “At Strasbourg on the Entrenchment”) as his principal example, Heine writes, “There is a peculiar magic in these Volkslieder. The artistic poets wish to imitate these products of Nature in the same way that one makes mineral water. But even if through chemical processes they get the ingredients right, the most important thing will escape them: the sympathetic power of Nature which is impossible to corrupt. In these songs one feels the heartbeat of the German Volk” (202). What Heine doesn’t realize, though, is that much of “Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz'”–like the vast majority of the songs in the collection–was rewritten by Brentano, and thus is not an accurate representation of the people and their traditions. Brentano, as an artistic poet, is thus guilty of precisely that chemical doctoring of Volkslieder which Heine accuses others of in this passage from The Romantic School. Moreover, as Heinz Rölleke, the editor of the critical edition of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, has pointed out, the majority of the songs in the collection were taken from printed sources whose authors had themselves often substantially revised songs from the oral tradition. Indeed, of the 723 songs in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Arnim and Brentano had taken approximately 340 from printed books, journals, and newspapers; 100 from pamphlets, 40 songs from handwritten codices, and 250 from contemporary contributors who either sent in or dictated lyrics to Arnim and Brentano, and many of these 250 songs were revisions from songs in old books and pamphlets (Rölleke 30). Again, the songs for which Mahler composed music represent the diverse sources from which Arnim and Brentano drew: for example, “Der Tamburg’sell” and “Es sungen drei Engel” are from pamphlets (the so-called “Fliegende Blätter”), whereas “Der Schildwache Nachtlied” and “Wer hat dies Lied erdacht?” were dictated to them orally. “Verlorne Müh” is Swabian in origin, while the “Lied des Verfolgten im Turm” is Swiss. Because the vast majority of these and the other songs in the collection were revisions from printed sources whose authors had themselves revised oral versions, the collection cannot be regarded as representative of what the people of any one locale were singing around 1800–or for that matter during any other historical period.

It is notable that the collection also failed to influence what the people were singing in the years following its appearance. Despite Brentano’s initial desire to compile “a reasonably priced book of folksongs,” the completed work was far too expensive for those whose lives its songs allegedly mirrored. In view of the scholarly criticisms of the work and the fact that it was neither representative of nor of influence on the everyday lives of the people, one might well wonder how the work could possibly have been as enormously successful as it was. First, of course, it must be borne in mind that there were many defenders of Arnim’s and Brentano’s work: Goethe, as I noted, described it as an indispensable household possession, and many other critics supported Arnim’s and Brentano’s argument that their intention had never been to create a historically accurate work. To them, the Volkslied was not a historical artefact, but a timeless manifestation of national culture. It was the task of the romantic writer, they believed, to renew and revitalize it. As Johann von Görres wrote in his positive assessment of the collection from 1810, “Whether you look upon all of the poems in this collection as if they had come into existence today or centuries ago, nothing of their essence is changed” (qtd. in Campanile 443). Writing in 1818, Arnim stated that their “highest goal” would be met if “when one of these songs touches him deeply, the thoughtful reader attempts to rid himself of all that is troubling him, and to enrich himself with all in the song that cultivates and inspires him” (qtd. in Campanile 444). For his part, Brentano wrote that he and Arnim had found it impossible while working on the collection to reconcile their own love of their work–and of the romantic notion of a “universal poetry” which is constantly renewing and revitalizing itself–with traditional scholarly constraints.

The collection also helped to turn attention to a Germanic heritage. In his praise of Des Knaben Wunderhorn in The Romantic School, Heinrich Heine writes, “Here German anger drums, here German banter whistles, here German love kisses. Here German wine and the true German tear sparkle” (202). Even though much of the collection is, of course, comprised of revisions, adaptations, and interpolations of songs, Heine conveys the impression that the songs afforded the reader a glimpse of a livelier and more unfettered German past. The same is true of the prevalent wanderlust theme in the collection. Although there is no unified theme to the songs, many of them tell of knights, gypsies, traveling apprentices, musicians and minstrels, soldiers, and hunters–and thus convey a sense of freedom important to intellectuals living in a century which would increasingly desire both liberation and national unity (Korff 166).

But Des Knaben Wunderhorn was ultimately successful not only because Arnim’s and Brentano’s conception of their task as romantic writers was accepted by many of their peers. In addition to this intellectual acceptance, it also garnered much popular acclaim simply on the basis of its imaginative title, which quickly became a slogan. The collection begins with the famous Wunderhorn poem. This poem exemplifies the revisionist nature of the collection, for it was a free adaptation from Anselm Elwert’s 1784 collection of folksongs. Elwert himself had translated an English version by Thomas Warton, who had freely adapted the song from a medieval Anglo-Norman romance. A related work from Bremen and Oldenburg in northwestern Germany, published in 1684, also had “Wunder-Horn” in its title. In the version which appears in Arnim’s and Brentano’s collection, a boy on a horse comes to the empress and gives her the magic horn, which is described as having four gold bands in which pearls and rubies are inlaid. The boy tells the empress that with just one touch of her finger, the horn will sound like bells sweeter than any harp, sweeter than women’s song, sweeter than any bird, and sweeter than the virgins in the sea. Towards the end of the third volume, in what is the last poem that Brentano revised, the image of the horn appears again. Here Brentano writes, “Der Engel mit dem großen Zorn,/ Ruft allen Menschen durch das Horn!” (“The angel with great wrath,/ Calls all human beings with the horn!”). The reference is to the Last Judgment in Matthew 24:30-31, where it is written that the Son of man in heaven “will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” The image of the horn is also represented in the frontispieces to the first two volumes of Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The frontispiece for the first volume is rather simple, depicting only the boy riding his horse while carrying the magic horn. The second volume has a more elaborate illustration, which is based on a drawing of the famous horn of the city of Oldenburg. But the city in the background is not Oldenburg, but Heidelberg. The horn is nevertheless absent from the frontispiece to the third volume, which instead portrays a medieval setting in which a man and woman play musical instruments beneath a bird on a pedestal. This frontispiece, done by Ludwig Grimm, is a compilation of two medieval engravings, the man and woman taken from an engraving by Israel von Meckenem and the parrot from an engraving by Wenzel von Olmütz.

Finally, however, the popularity of Des Knaben Wunderhorn can be attributed to the influence it exerted on composers such as Mahler, Brahms, and Richard Strauß, on artists such as Ludwig Richter; and on authors such as Ludwig Uhland, Heinrich Heine, Eduard Mörike, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, to name but a few. Eduard Mörike, a later romantic writer, is most influenced by the emotional appeal and lively imagery of the collection, whereas the romantic poet Uhland is primarily known for his adoption of the colloquial, folksy tone and vocabulary which typify the songs in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, as well as for imitating the uneven meter and verse forms often found in the Wunderhorn songs. Uhland also revised and adapted several of the Wunderhorn songs. For example, his song “Der gute Kamerad” (The Good Comrade) is based on “Revelge,” one of the Wunderhorn songs for which Mahler composed music. Whereas Arnim expanded the poem, Uhland shortened it, preferring to lend more focus to the central image of the fallen drummer boy left to die on the battlefield.

It is significant in this regard that Mahler, too, feels free to revise Arnim’s and Brentano’s work. Mahler’s song “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen” (Where the beautiful trumpets blow) is titled “Unbeschreibliche Freude” (Indescribable Joy) in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and in addition to changing the title Mahler also eliminated the last stanza, instead substituting one of his own. In this song a young man says goodbye to his lover, promising that within a year she will be his, and that their love is undying. In Arnim’s and Brentano’s version, the last stanza reads in English translation:

I wish all the fields were paper,
And the students all writing thereon,
They could write the whole night through,
And never write our love away.

Mahler’s last stanza reads:

I go to war on a green heath,
a green heath far away;
where the bright trumpets blow,
there lies my house, my house of green sward. ***

Instead of ending with an affirmation of eternal love between the couple, Mahler chooses to emphasize the young man’s departure for war and an unknown fate. This is particularly significant since there is no mention of war in Arnim’s and Brentano’s version of the song. Together with other changes which Mahler made to the Wunderhorn version, the song becomes one not of “indescribable joy,” but of pervading melancholy (Blaukopf 107).

It is important to note that the adaptations of Mahler, Uhland, and others are in full accord with Brentano’s and Arnim’s notions of a universal poetry: instead of viewing the Volkslied as a static historical artefact to be preserved, they saw in the Volkslied a living part of national culture which was to be constantly renewed and revitalized. In the sense that the Wunderhorn collection did not, as they had hoped it would, influence the common people, the collection failed; but insofar as it influenced numerous artists, writers and composers in their incorporation of elements of the folk tradition into their works, it succeeded in bringing about that reconciliation of high culture with folk culture about which Arnim and Brentano were so passionate.

Works Cited

Arnim, Achim von, and Clemens Brentano. Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Alte deutsche Lieder. Ed. with an introduction by Eduard Grisebach. Leipzig: Hesse, 1906.

Blaukopf, Kurt. Gustav Mahler. Trans. Inge Goodwin. New York: Praeger, 1973.

Campanile, Anna. “Rinaldo Rinaldini. Vergleichende Anmerkungen zum Wunderhorn-Volkslied und zu Christian August Vulpius’ Räuberroman.” Il confronto letterario 24 (1995): 443-57.

Gellert, Christian Fürchtegott. Gesammelte Schriften. Ed. Bernd Witte. Vol. 2. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1997.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche. Ed. Ernst Beutler. Vol. 4. Zürich: Artemis, 1953.

—. Rev. of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. Jenaer Allgemeine Literaturzeitung 21-22 Jan. 1806: 137-38.

Heine, Heinrich. Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke. Vol. 8/1. Ed. Manfred Windfuhr. Düsseldorf: Hoffmann und Campe, 1979.

Hoermann, Roland. Achim von Arnim. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Korff, H.A. Geist der Goethezeit. Vol. 4. Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang, 1962.

Rölleke, Heinz. “Des Knaben Wunderhorn und seine Stellung zu Volks- und Kirchenlied.” Jahrbuch für Liturgik und Hymnologie 28 (1984): 29-38.

Schade, Ernst. “Volkslied-Editionen zwischen Transkription, Manipulation, Rekonstruktion und Dokumentation.” Jahrbuch für Volksliedforschung 35 (1990): 44-63.

Steig, Reinhold, ed. Achim von Arnim und die ihm nahestanden. 3 vols. Stuttgart/Frankfurt: Cotta, 1894- 1913.


* Unless otherwise noted, all translations in this paper are my own.

** For a good summary in English of the background to Des Knaben Wunderhorn, see Roland. Hoermann, Achim von Arnim.

*** The translations of these stanzas are by Inge Goodwin, and appear in Kurt Blaukopf, Gustav Mahler (107).