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The birth of Estonian and Latvian poetry from the spirit of the German lied. Part 2

Keywords: folk song, Estonian poetry, German lied, theory of poetry, J. G. Herder, lyrical poetry

 

In the same year with the second volume of J. G. Herder’s folklore collection addressed in Part 1 of the present article, the poetry almanac “Ehstländische poe­tische Blumenlese für das Jahr 1779” was published. Besides the German-language poetry of its three publishers – publisher Johann Friedrich Ernst Albrecht (1752–1814), his actress wife Sophie Albrecht (1756–1840) and Friedrich Gustav Arvelius (1753–1806) – the almanac presented three Estonian translations of popular German songs. In addition, musician Andreas Traugott Grahl, who had been tutoring in Estonia, published a collection called “Oden und Lieder” (1779) in Leipzig, which is reported to have also contained some Estonian-language songs with the lyrics coming from “an Estonian lady”. So the singing culture booming in Germany had made its way to the Baltics. The simple song in folk style (Lied im Volkston) conquered the local parlours and stages and soon also farmhouses. The source texts of the Estonian and Latvian versifications representing the last quarter of the 18th and first few decades of the 19th century came from popular German songbooks and song games, not from poetry collections. So the lyrics, despite their origin as poems, started living their own anonymous life as folk songs: having aquired (owing to some popular song composers) the status of singing songs, they travelled from one collection to another, sometimes with tunes and the composer’s name, yet mostly without mentioning the author of the lyrics.

It is hard to pinpoint the songbooks which happened to provide the source texts for our Estonian lyrics, as the variety of such songbooks was enormous. The most popular, suitable and influential songbook of those available for the local translators was “Das Mildheimische Liederbuch” (1799) published by Rudolf Zacharias Becker (1752–1822), which brought together the best songs previously published and became the most popular songbook of all time in the German language space. While Herder’s folklore collections were read and sung enthusiastically only by a small number of educated elites, Mildheim’s songbook became a real people’s book, whose songs became, if they were not already, folk songs through this very collection. This was the source of numerous songs to be found later in the songbooks of schools, students and Liedertafel. Songs from Mildheim’s songbook also found their way into the hearts of Estonian and Latvian readers, and many of them were later written down as folk songs. Thus we can argue that due to the Baltic German intellectual guardianship Estonian as well as Latvian poetry took example not from their own folk song but from the German lied, which – as an offspring of ­German cultural colonialism – was to mould the Estonian (written) poetic and singing culture for long to come.

 

Liina Lukas (b. 1970), PhD, University of Tartu, Institute of Cultural Research (Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu), Associate Professor of World Literature, liina.lukas@ut.ee

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