Saturday, April 12, 2014

A New Song History: "Robin Adair" in Germany

While researching the history of the songs "Eileen Aroon" and "Robin Adair" I learned - much to my surprise, I must admit - that the tune had also been very popular in the German speaking countries for quite a long time. One adaptation - "Treu und herzinniglich" - was introduced by poet Wilhelm Gerhard in 1826 and it soon became a standard in collections of so-called "Volkslieder". A second text - "Heimat, Ade!" - appeared first in the 1850s and was later not uncommon in songbooks for schools. I got the impression that the Folklorists in Germany didn't care much for these songs and not much research has been done. But in fact this turned out to be a very fascinating story. I have worked quite a long time on that but now I am glad that it is complete and as usual the text that is now available on my website has become much longer than expected:  
This is conceived more as a kind of documentation but I also felt it necessary to discuss some important theoretical questions. Especially the term "Volkslied" needed some clarification. I was not interested in our current definitions of this very controversial concept - Herder's "cuckoo's egg" (see Chapter III) - but in the practical use of it during the 19th and early 20th century. At that time the "Volkslied" covered a very broad range of songs and today's ideas of "authenticity" are not of much use in this respect.

Besides that I have learned a lot that I didn't know before. For example I must admit that I had never heard of Wilhelm Gerhard, a formerly popular German poet who is completely forgotten today. He not only played an instrumental role in this story but also turned out to be a most fascinating character. A considerable number of his poems and adaptations - later he also translated Burns - were set to music and one gets the impression that his contemporaries regarded him as a very competent lyricist. Perhaps I will write a little more about him in the near future.

Another thing I have learned is that an unbelievable great amount of songbooks and sheet music of all kinds were published during that era. Did the people really use them? At least it seems that music publishing was a worthwhile and rewarding business. But today it is not that easy to keep track of all of them. The holdings of the libraries are somewhat fragmentary, not every publication has survived until today and many songbooks are a little bit difficult to get. Moreover the strange secretiveness of many editors and publishers regarding their sources wasn't particularly helpful. But nonetheless I hope I have reconstructed the song's history in a reasonable way. In one case - the origin of "Heimat, Ade!" - I had to correct myself three times and I am still not sure if there maybe was an even earlier initial publication.

The success and long-running popularity of "Robin Adair" in Germany also shows how easy foreign songs could be integrated into the "Volkslied"-genre. Other songs were even more popular, for example Burns' "My Heart's In The Highlands" - as "Mein Herz ist im Hochland" - and as far as I can see this has not been addressed properly so far. Only after World War I this multicultural attitude began to vanish and the foreign hits were piece by piece purged from the repertoire and then were at best ghettoized in extra chapters. Otherwise it cannot be explained why these kind of songs that had once been so popular have completely disappeared from the musical memory. I hope this text I have written helps a little bit to uncover this not overly well-known chapter of German music history.

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