II. Herder (1778) - Morhof (1682) - Vogel (1626)
III. The War Poetry of the Seven Years' War
IV. Herder and the Volkslieder (1778)
V. After Herder: From the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War
IV. Herder and the Volkslieder (1778)
The war ended in 1763 with the peace of Hubertusburg. Many soldiers and civilians were dead and Prussia was nearly ruined. Otherwise not much had changed and nobody had won anything. But the war songs remained and were still read and sung. I should mention that only in 1771 Klopstock managed to publish an updated version of his "Kriegslied" as "Heinrich der Vogler" in his Oden (pp. 111-3). To avoid misunderstandings he replaced Friedrich with Heinrich I., the "German" king who won the battle against the Magyars. I wonder if he perhaps knew about Vogel's obscure epic. But we can see that Heinrich was at that time already established as a hero of German history. Klopstock also added some more battle songs (see pp. 71-2 & p. 205) as well as some pseudo-Germanic "bardic" odes like "Hermann und Thusnelda" (pp. 144-5). "Hermann the Cheruscan" had already become a great "hero" from the past and his fight against the Romans was regularly celebrated by patriotic poets. In fact German poetry remained very martial even though at that time no war was going on.
Meanwhile young Johann Gottfried Herder was busy making himself a name a writer and scholar. He was from East Prussia but no Prussian patriot and also no admirer of King Friedrich. Herder always despised Prussia's militarism and despotism, particularly the "military slavery" (see Erinnerungen, pp. 32-3, p. 74; Horn 1928). When he left Prussia on his way to Riga in 1764 he nearly kissed the ground after he had crossed the border (Böttiger 1838, p. 112).
Nonetheless he loved and admired Gleim's war songs. In his first major work, the Fragmente Ueber die neuere deutsche Literatur (II, 1767, pp. 345-9) he included a chapter about the grenadier's songs. Here he celebrated them as "national songs [...] that nobody of our neighbors has", "Nationalgesänge: voll des preußischen Patriotismus" and Gleim as the German Tyrtaeus whose eleven songs have "more right to immortality" than the Greek poet's four songs. We can see here an amalgamation of Prussian and German patriotism: "hier hat einmal ein Deutscher Dichter über sein Deutsches Vaterland ächt und brav Deutsch gesungen". A year later in a letter to Gleim - who would become his life-long friend - he once again lauded the grenadier's songs and their "powerful language" (Herder, Briefe I, No. 48, p. 108).
Gleim's war songs and especially Lessing's introduction to the Kriegslieder were of great importance for Herder when he developed his concept of "Volkslied" (see Gaier in HW 3, pp. 848-50; see Hildebrandt, pp. 428-9). He understood war as one of the basic situations that inspired songs: "the martial nation sings about the feats of its ancestors and cheers itself up to feats" (Alte Volkslieder, 1773, in SWS 25, p. 82). In fact there were many songs about war and fighting in the Volkslieder, but nearly all of them from other countries and he deeply regretted the lack of relevant German songs, the "battle and freedom chants" of the old Germanic people. In the introduction to his first unpublished attempt at an anthology, the Alte Volkslieder (1773, SWS 25, p. 5), Herder expressed his patriotic longing for the lost songs of the old "bards" collected by Charlemagne. And later in Über die Wirkung der Dichtkunst auf die Sitten der Völker in alten und neuen Zeiten (p. 85) written in 1777 he pleaded: "O hätten wir diese Gesänge noch oder fänden wir sie wieder".
Therefore the battle-song in Morhof's book was most welcome to him. It looked like one of the few relics of the alleged old German "bardic" tradition. When he compiled the Alte Volkslieder in 1773 he first intended to use the complete song with all eleven verses but then decided to quote only the last verse as well as some lines from the other verses in the introduction to the third part (SWS 25, pp. 115-9; pp. 68-72). In the notes he referred - of course - to both Gleim and Klopstock but strangely also to Pope's and Dryden's "Musikoden". It seems he meant their odes for St. Cecilia's Day. Dryden's had been set to music by Händel (1739, at IMSLP). This looks to me like name-dropping and I can't see a relationship.
It is clear that the reference to the death for the fatherland also must have caught Herder's attention. This formula was of well-known at that time. Both Klopstock and Gleim had used them in their songs and Herder was familiar with Abbt's above-mentioned treatise. But he also knew Horatius' ode, in fact he even translated that text. It was printed a year later - anonymously - in his friend Matthias Claudius' Wandsbecker Bothe (No. 191, 30.11.1774). In 1778 Herder published, encouraged by, among others, his friend Gleim, the first volume of the Volkslieder and here also included the battle-song from Morhof's book, but this time he only used the last verse and referred the readers to Morhof for the other verses.
It should be noted that at that time another war was in the making and would start soon. The War of Bavarian Succession - later called the "potato war" - would come to an end already a year later without any battles. Nonetheless there was a new flood of saber-rattling songs by German poets. Gleim's Preußische Kriegslieder were published again (at UB Göttingen) and he also wrote new war-songs that were printed as Preußische Kriegslieder, im März und April 1778 (at BSB). Gleim sent a copy to Herder who was very impressed (see Herder, Briefe 4, No. 51, p. 67 ) but otherwise the new anthology wasn't really successful. These texts sounded weak compared to the original Kriegslieder. Christian Gottlieb Contius from Saxony wrote Lieder zum Feldzuge 1778 (at UB Halle). Gleim's former friend Karl Wilhelm Ramler in Berlin published - one book for both armies (!) - Kriegslieder für Josephs und Friedrichs Heere (at Google Books) where all the tired clichés including the death for the fatherland were recycled once again. There was also a new translation of Tyrtaeus' elegies, this time for the use in schools by one D. E. Mörschel, a military chaplain (at Google Books).
This was more or less the background music when the first book of Herder's Volkslieder was published. Those who bought this anthology found a considerable amount of old martial songs for example from Scandinavia and Spain. The "Schlachtgesang" (I.2.18, pp. 177-8) was the only "old" German war-song. In this context at that time it may have looked like another comment on the current war and it could easily be read as a historical companion piece to Gleim's and Klopstock's Kriegslieder. But strangely this time Herder didn't refer to them in the notes. Instead (notes, pp. 323-4) he only mentioned Percy who "would have started a book with it". This was of course his standard criticism of the lack of interest for these kind of songs in Germany: "aber wir? uns gesitteten Deutschen trage man so etwas auf."
Herder only used the last verse of the original text - the epic had now shrunk to a short song - and otherwise referred the readers to Morhof's book to read the rest. Interestingly he also called it "old" - "Es ist gewiß alt" - even though Morhof had said the opposite because he knew it wasn't that old. One may assume that this was Herder's attempt to to extend his anthology's historical depth: the older the better! Perhaps some readers really thought this was a song of a medieval bard.
A year later the second volume of the Volkslieder appeared and of course more songs about wars and fighting were included. Here he also used - to close a circle - "The Ancient Ballad of Chevy-Chase" (II.3.7, pp. 213-26), but this time the earlier version from Percy's Reliques (Vol. 1, 2nd ed., 1767 , No. 1, pp. 1-17). There is also another song from the time of the ThirtyYears' War: Moscherosch's amalgamation of Zincgref's and Weckherlin's poems and he called it "Schlachtlied" (II.3.11, pp. 240-4, notes, II, p. 310). They are not identified as the original authors. Herder only had an unauthorized print of Sittewalds Gesichten without the marginalia of the first edition (Leyden, 1646, Vol. 4, pp. 114-7). But he should have known that both poems had just been included in Eschenburg's Auserlesene Stücke der besten deutschen Dichter (Vol. 3, 1778, pp. 237-46 & pp. 194-7) and I wonder if he was aware of who their authors were.
Nonetheless he now had a companion piece to the "Schlachtgesang": two "old" patriotic German soldier songs celebrating the death for the "fatherland" - whatever that was at that time - that served as a supplement to all the foreign war and battle songs he had included. From now on they were easily available and we can follow their further history. We will see that Vogel's obscure piece became more famous than it ever has been even though it would take a long time until he was identified as its original writer.
V. After Herder: From the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War
Herder's Volkslieder were clearly not a big success at first. But they served as an inspiration and source for later scholars, writers and editors who became interested in this newly invented genre. But it took more than 30 years until Vogel's "song" was revived. In 1806 Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano published the first volume of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, their great anthology of what they regarded as Volkslieder. Herder's ground-breaking collection served as a major source for them. Nearly all relevant German texts were reused, either taken directly from Herder or else they went back to his original source.
This was also the case with the "Schlachtgesang". They checked Morhof's book and included a nearly complete version of eight of the eleven verses and called it "Frommer Soldaten seligster Tod" ("A pious soldier's blissful death"). A reference to Morhof was added (I, 245; Roellecke DKW I, pp. 424-30). By the way, Goethe wrote a review of the Wunderhorn for the Jenaische Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (3, 1806, col. 137–144 & 145–148, here col. 142) and commented on every single text in this collection. His remark about this particular piece sounds very accurate: "Perhaps uplifting in peace and while marching but in war and close to mischief it becomes horrible.".
There were many more martial songs of all kinds in the Wunderhorn. One may say there was a great demand for patriotic war and battle songs that year. It was the time of the Napoleonic Wars, not long after the battle of Austerlitz. The French were on a winning streak and the future for Prussia and the rest of fragmented Germany looked rather bleak. At around the same time Achim von Arnim compiled and published a broadside of Kriegslieder. Here we find another version of this piece. The same text also appeared on at least one commercial broadside but it looks like Arnim was the author (see Steig, pp. 198; Röllecke 1971):
Kein sel'ger Tod ist in der Welt,
Als wer vorm Feind erschlagen
Auf grüner Heid' in freiem Feld
Darf nicht hören groß Wehklagen.
Im engen Bett er sonst allein
Muß an den Todesreihen,
Hier aber ist Gesellschaft fein,
Fall'n mit wie Kräuter im Maien.
Kein einz'ger Tod mir so gefällt!
Wer da mit Klang begraben,
Der wird das große Schlachtenfeld
Zum Denkmal ewig grün haben.
Da denk und ruf ich, wenn ich sterb,
Viktoria den andern,
Da ist der Todestrank nicht herb,
Da muß das Gläschen noch wandern.
Here the last verse of the original text was turned - for the first time - into a modern, singable song of four stanzas. But this particular variant didn't prove successful. Others followed soon. But at first a new edition of Herder's Volkslieder appeared posthumously in 1807. Now it was called Stimmen der Völker in Liedern. The editors - his widow Karoline von Herder and Swiss scholar Johann von Müller - again included the "Schlachtgesang" and made it available for new generations of readers (5.3, p. 466). But in this edition the songs were arranged more or less in geographical and chronological order. Therefore we find this text in the chapter with German songs between Moscherosch's "Schlachtlied" and another - more peaceful - poem from the Baroque era.
In 1814, the time of the so-called Befreiungskriege against France, one Karl Wilhelm Göttling (1793-1869; see Wikipedia), a young student and volunteer soldier who would later become a famous philologist, wrote an adaptation that didn't leave much of the original text, only two lines in the first verse. This new version was set to music by popular composer Albert Methfessel (1785-1869) who then included the song in his Allgemeines Commers- und Liederbuch, a songbook for students (1818, No. 67, pp. 126-7; 1823, No. 87, pp. 168-9):
Kein schön´rer Tod auf dieser Welt,
Als wer auf grüner Heide fällt!
Auf grüner Heide schlafen,
Wenn Schwerdt und Kugel trafen:
Das nenn´ ich süsse Ruh,
Thät´ gern die Augen zu.
Und zieht ihr heim ins Vaterland -
'Wer fällt, zieht noch in schön’res Land;
Des Heils kann sich vermessen,'
Kann Welt und Glück vergessen,
Wer unter Blumen ruht,
Getränkt von treuem Blut
Und wer daheim ein Herz noch kennt,
Das treu sich und sein eigen nennt,
Der denke dran im Streite,
daß Freiheit er bereite,
Zum Heil dem Vaterland
Zum Heil dem Liebesband!
Drum, Brüder, rasch die Wehr zur Hand!
Den kühnen Blick zum Feind gewandt!
Lasst euer Banner schweben!
Ertrotzt vom Tod das Leben!
Denn nur aus Sieg und Tod
This song became quite popular and was occasionally reprinted during the following decades. But there were more attempts at bringing this old text into the modern age of new German nationalism. Another version can be found in the popular songbook Deutsche Lieder für Jung und Alt (1818, pp. 75-6): four of the verses used in the Wunderhorn set to music by an unnamed composer. One more reworking of the last verse appeared in a periodical Zeitschwingen oder des deutschen Volkes fliegende Blätter (1819, p. 192). But most important was a variant that appeared in 1824 in an anthology with the title Kriegs- und Volkslieder (No. 61, pp. 79-80), compiled and edited by young poet Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827; Wikipedia).
This collection included nearly 100 pages of older and more recent patriotic war and soldier songs. The editor - who remained anonymous - dedicated the book to the secretary of war of his home state Württemberg and according to the rather martial introduction it was inspired by officers there who wished to have "better" songs available for their soldiers to get rid of all the bawdy and insipid pieces that were apparently quite popular back then. Hauff also included Göttling's "Kein schönrer Tod" (No. 15, pp. 22-3). His newly edited version of the old "Schlachtlied" was derived from the text in Herder's Volkslieder. He turned Vogel's last stanza into a singable song of three verses and even indicated a tune:
Kein schön´rer Tod ist in der Welt
Als wer vorm Feind hinscheid't,
Auf grüner Heid, im freien Feld
Nicht hören darf Klag' und Leid;
Im engen Bett nur Einer allein
Muß an des Todes Reih'n,
Hier aber find't er Gesellschaft sein,
Fallen mit, wie die Kräuter im Mai'n.
Manch frommer Held mit Freudigkeit
Hat zugsetzt Leib und Blut,
Starb sel´gen Tod auf grüner Heid,
Dem Vaterland zu gut.
Kein schön'rer Tod ist in der Welt
Als wer vorm Feind hinscheid't,
Auf grüner Heid', im freien Feld,
Nicht hören darf Klag' und Leid.
Mit Trommelklang und Pfeifengetön
Manch frommer Held ward begraben,
Auf grüner Heid' da fiel er ja so schön,
Unsterblichen Ruhm thut er haben
Kein schön'rer Tod ist in der Welt
Als wer vorm Feind hinscheid't,
Auf grüner Heid', im freien Feld,
Nicht hören darf Klag' und Leid.
This particular variant was then used 15 years later by Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860; see Schmid 1989, Dahmen 1989, Bopp 1916) who wrote a new tune and included the song in one of his collections of Volkslieder. Silcher's importance for German popular music during the 19th century should never be underestimated. I wrote about him several times (see for example here) and will only mention a few points here. He was one of the most successful and influential promoters of Volkslieder in Germany and supplied the choirs with songs and arrangements.
Männergesangvereine were not simply some men singing in a choir but an expression of the political and cultural emancipation of the ascending middle-class (for the historical background see Klenke 1998, esp. pp. 21-50, Nickel 2013, esp. pp. 67-86). It was a time of political repression - the Carlsbad decrees (1819) had put the screws on the national and democratic movements in the still fragmented Germany - and the singing associations offered one of the few possibilities to express modern political patriotism.
Silcher was Musikdirektor at the university of Tübingen since 1817 and he stayed there for the rest of his life. Since 1826 he published a series with the title XII Volkslieder für Männerstimmen (see here Vol. 1), songs in the popular style arranged for male choirs. This would become one of the century's most successful musical publications. A considerable part of his repertoire was made up of patriotic songs of all kinds, often very martial. In 1839 the sixth volume appeared (AMZ 41, 1839, p. 481). Here he included - besides the famous Loreley" - several soldier songs: "Es geht bei gedämpfter Trommel Klang", "Wer will unter die Soldaten" and as the first number, his own version of "Kein schön'rer Tod ist in der Welt" (see in a later ed., 1902, No. 74, p. 127):
The text was taken from Hauff's anthology. Wilhelm Hauff had studied in Tübingen 1820 - 1824, they had known each other (see Dahmen 1987, p. 73) and Silcher was surely familiar with this collection. It is nearly identical, except for a few edits that make it look closer to the wording of the text in Herder's Volkslieder which he also knew very well. The tune was his own. In fact Silcher wrote a considerable number of the melodies himself and first passed them off as authentic "Volksweisen". This he only admitted much later. Nearly a third of those published in the Volkslieder für Männerstimmen were his own compositions (see Bopp, p. 167). Shortly later, in 1841 he also wrote an arrangement for voices and piano for his other important series, the XII Deutsche Volkslieder mit Melodien für 1 oder 2 Singstimmen mit Pianoforte (Vol. 4, No. 2; see a reprint 1869, No. 38, pp. 41-2).
At this point this old text by a 17th-century poet who imagined what a medieval "bard" would sing had arrived in the modern world. It was now usable in the context of the new German nationalism. "Kein schön'rer Tod" would become one of Silcher's most popular songs´(see f. ex. AMZ 12, No. 40, 3.8.1877, col. 626). Not only was it easily available in his own publication that were regularly reprinted and published anew. We can also find this piece in a great number of popular songbooks for all purposes. Among the first were the nicely illustrated Alte und neue Soldatenlieder. Mit Bildern und Singweisen (1842, No. 2, p. 6; new ed. 1847, No. 64, p. 82), the massive anthology Musikalischer Hausschatz der deutschen Volkes (1843, No. 579, p. 361) and Lieder für Männer-Turngemeinden (1846, No. 102, pp. 212-3). The latter was a songbook for gymnastic clubs, also hotbeds of nationalist sentiments.
But especially editors of anthologies for schools and the youth apparently felt it necessary to include this song. I will only mention here Neuer Liederhain. Sammlung mehrstimmiger Lieder für Schule und Haus. Jünglings- und Männerlieder (Vol. 2, 1854, No. 28, p. 29), Erk's and Greef's Singvögelein. Sammlung ein-, zwei-, drei- und vierstimmiger Lieder für Schule, Haus und Leben (Vol. 5, 1855, No. 34, p. 19), Greef's Chorlieder, heitere und ernste, für Gymnasien und andere höhere Schulen: Erstes Heft (H. 1, 1862, No. 12, p. 11) - in the latter two as "Altdeutsches Schlachtlied" with a reference to Morhof - and Lützel's Liederkranz. Sammlung ein- u. mehrstimmiger Lieder für Schule u. Leben. Ein- und zweistimmige Lieder enthaltend (Vol. 1, 1863, No. 85, p. 70). Of course we can also find it in student songbooks like the wildly popular and often reprinted Allgemeine Deutsches Commersbuch of which Silcher was one of the original editors (1861, p. 406; 1883 ed., No. 59, p. 65).
The year 1871 was a political watershed with the foundation of the German Kaiserreich. And now, freshly united, many Germans seemed to have an even greater obsession for patriotic songs, the more martial the better. Especially the youth was regularly treated to war and battle songs of all kinds and this one was amongst the most popular of them. We may look into a Liederbuch für die deutsche Jugend (Vol. 2, 1871, No. 39, pp. 35-6) or in school songbooks like Erk's and Greef's Liederkranz. Auswahl heiterer und ernster Gesänge für Schule, Haus und Leben (Vol. 3, No. 48, pp. 57-8) and Sering's Concordia. Auswahl mehrstimmiger Männergesänge für höhere Schulen (c. 1880s, I, No. 15, pp. 15-6). Occasionally Göttling's version appeared, for example in Erk's Deutscher Liederschatz. 250 männerstimmige Gesänge für die höheren Klassen der Gymnasien und Realschulen und für Seminarien (1889, No. 187, p. 186) but Silcher's song was clearly much more popular.
I get the impression that after the turn of the century this piece was reprinted even more often, for example in Auswahl von Liedern für deutsche Schulen by Bösche and Linnarz (9th ed., 1902, No. 37, p. 38), Breu's Deutsches Jugendliederbuch für Gymnasien, Oberrealschulen, Realschulen und andere höhere Lehranstalten (2nd ed., 1909, No. 42, p. 35) as well as in one with the title Gute Geister. 4stimmige gemischte Chöre für Gymnasien, Realschulen, Lehrerbildungsanstalten (1909, No. 85, pp. 189-90). In Lang's and Mezger's Liederlust. Eine stufenmäßig geordnete Sammlung von Liedern für Knaben- und Mädchenschulen (c. 1913, No. 202, p. 170) it was even included in the volume for 10 to 14 year old pupils. Young people also found it in the songbooks for the Wandervogel-movement , especially in the famous Zupfgeigenhansl (1909, here 1913, p. 162) or in Werckmeister's Wandervogel Liederborn für die Deutsche Jugend (1910, No. 327, pp. 231-2). Both had special chapters of soldier songs.
At this point the song had become willful and - seen from today - irresponsible propaganda and it makes me wonder what the editors of these kind of anthologies really thought when they wanted children and young people sing about how "beautiful" the death for the fatherland would be. Of course we can ask if singing a text like this had practical effects. But at least it can be seen a one little element in the process of the "militarization of male youth" (see Schubert-Weller 1998) since the 1890s. At that time the song was a kind of popular companion piece to Horatius' "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori". His ode was of course taught in school. During these years before the war commentaries for the use in schools encouraged more "militaristic" readings of this text (see Freund 2014; here p. 129).
In 1914 the Great War started and the song of course remained in use and was apparently sung by soldiers and civilians (see f. ex. Glaeser in Weltbühne 1928, p. 410; Beaufort 1918, p. 204). In one periodical it was called "The soldier's song of all soldier's songs, with which the brave are still buried in the field today" (Grenzboten 1915, p. 182-3). This seems to mean that it was sung at fallen soldiers' burials. Later there were also claims that German students died with with Horatius' line "in their hearts and on their lips" (quoted in Freund 2014, p. 127). As far as I know barely any criticism was uttered against the glorification of the "beautiful" death for the fatherland. Young Bertolt Brecht had some problems in school for mocking this idea in an essay (see Freund 2014, p. 130). Still during the war - but only first published in 1922 and then 1927 in his Hauspostille - he wrote his "Legende vom toten Soldaten" (see Cohen-Pfister 1985, pp. 34-5; see Wikipedia):
Und als der Krieg im vierten Lenz
Keinen ausblick auf Frieden bot
Da zog der Soldat seine Konmsequenz
Und starb den Heldentod
I may add that it looked a little bit different in England where Horatius' ode had also been taught to the young people, the future soldiers. Poet and officer Wilfried Owen (1893-1918, see Wikipedia, see also Freund, p. 130) debunked it in a touching poem written shortly before he himself died in the war (Owen, Poems, p. 15):
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitten as the cud
Of vile, incurable scores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro Patria mori
After the war ""Kein schön'rer Tod" remained popular and well known in Germany. There were references in literature and art, some very critical, especially the laconic sketch by George Grosz (1927, see Grosz 1971, [p. 94]). But the song was regularly reprinted in songbooks, particularly those for young people (see Deutsches Lied). Apparently nobody thought it inappropriate even after the gruesome war experiences. To name only one example: new editions of the very popular Zupfgeigenhansl still included the chapter with soldiers' songs and this particular piece (f. ex. 1920, pp. 162-3). Viewed from today this even more so seems like irresponsible propaganda and a very tasteless glorification of war and death .
It is no wonder that the song stayed in use after 1933 and during the second World War. There was now an even greater demand for young men wishing to die for the "fatherland". It is not clear how often it was sung but it can be found in a considerable number of songbooks. Once again this historical period piece had a practical and topical significance. How many did believe it? I have no idea. But even a song like this can be seen as one little element of the propaganda to glorify war. Only after 1945 this old song fell out of favor. It wasn't used anymore in school songbooks or other publications for young people. In practice it became unprintable and unsingable. I can't imagine a choir performing this text. After two world wars it would only sound cynical. Today this song can't even be found on YouTube.
Now I can try to recapitulate this song's history in a more systematic way. Here we have an obscure early modern text - from the early 17th century, written by a rather obscure poet - about an heroic achievement in the early middle ages that was reanimated as a Volkslied in the late 18th century and then, in the 19th century, became a popular patriotic anthem.
That was a not uncommon process. Recently I wrote about a song from Denmark with a similar history (see here in my blog): the text of "Danmark deilig Vang og Vænge" was originally written in the 1690s by Danish scholar Laurits Kok and then first published by historian Peder Syv in 200 Viser om Konger, Kemper og Andre (1695), the new edition of A. Vedel's anthology of kjaempeviser, the old Danish heroic songs. It was about the Queen Thyra Danebod from the 10th century who, according to legend, organized the building of the Danevirke, the fortifications on the Southern border against attacks by "Tydske, Slaver, Vender".
This was an attempt at simulating the old heroic songs. Medieval heroism served as an example for the present. Laurits Kok, just like German poet Jacob Vogel, tried to create - in a time of crisis - a kind of patriotic national history. And just like Vogel's "Schlachtlied" Kok's poem was "rediscovered" after its inclusion in an anthology of Volkslieder (1818) and then set to music. Only then the song became really popular because it fit it well into the new era of modern nationalism.
Interestingly in case of Vogel's text - unlike the Danish song - the foreshortened and simplified version that was in use since the 19th century lost all references to the middle ages, to King Heinrich's battle against the Magyars. This is a little bit surprising because "Henry the Fowler" had become one of the heroes of "German" history and was at that time clearly much more popular than during his lifetime. Instead it was the formula "dying for the fatherland" - the recourse to antique tradition: Horatius and Tyrtaeus -, that kept the song alive. Herder had rediscovered the text after the Seven Years' War, when the Kriegslieder á la Gleim were immensely popular and it fit very well to this genre.
This song was never a Volkslied in a narrow sense. The author regarded himself as a professional poet and later the text was at first published in learned books for an intellectual audience like Morhof's Unterricht, Herder's Volkslieder and even Arnim's and Brentano's Des Knaben Wunderhorn. It began to appear in songbooks for a wider audience since 1818 and then only became much better known with Silcher's melody.
We can also see that this text had different meanings in different historical contexts. Vogel tried to encourage German patriotism during the Thirty Years' War. For Morhof at the end of the 17th century this was only a piece of historical interest. Herder saw it as an old German battle song, a supplement to both foreign songs about fighting and contemporary Kriegslieder in Germany. In the early 19th century, since the Napoleonic wars and with the emergence of the new German nationalism, this text was ready for practical use. It looked like a popular variant of Horatius' Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori and in the end the song was used for militaristic propaganda. How much influence did this piece have on those who sang it, especially on the young people in the schools where it was a popular standard? At least we can assume that many who had to sing this song later died in the trenches. Today it is out of use and unsingable.
- András F. Balogh et al., Ungarnbilder im 17. Jahrhundert. Studien und Editionen der Texte: Jakob Vogel: Vungrische Schlacht (1626), Kapitel aus [...], Budapest, 2013 [pdf]
- J. M. de Beaufort, Behind the German Veil. A Record of a Journalistic War Pilgrimage, New York, 1918, at the Internet Archive
- Theodor Becker, Das Volkslied Kein schönrer Tod ist in der Welt und Daniel Georg Morhof, Neustrelitz, 1909 (= Beilage zum Jahresbericht des Grossherzoglichen Gymnasiums Carolinum), at UB Düsseldorf
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