Beethoven’s principal title to fame is in his superlative place as a symphonic composer. In the symphony music finds its highest intellectual dignity; in Beethoven the symphony has found its loftiest master.
Heinrich Heine, in his preface to a translation of “Don Quixote,” discusses the creative powers of different peoples. To the Spaniard Cervantes is awarded the first place in novel-writing, and to our own Shakespeare, of course, the transcendent rank in drama.
“And the Germans,” he goes on to say, “what palm is due to them? Well, we are the best writers of songs in the world. No people possesses such beautiful Lieder as the Germans. Just at present the nations have too much political business on hand; but, after that has once been settled, we Germans, English, Spaniards, Frenchmen, and Italians, will all go to the green forest and sing, and the nightingale shall be umpire. I feel sure that in this contest the song of Wolfgang Goethe will gain the prize.”
There are few, if any, who will be disposed to dispute the verdict of the German poet, himself no mean rival, in depth and variety of lyric inspiration, even of the great Goethe. But a greater poet than either one of this great pair bears the suggestive and impersonal name of “The People.” It is to the countless wealth of the German race in folk-songs, an affluence which can be traced back to the very dawn of civilization among them, that the possibility of such lyric poets as Goethe, Heine, Ruckert, and Uhland is due. From the days of the “Nibelungenlied,” that great epic which, like the Homeric poems, can hardly be credited to any one author, every hamlet has rung with beautiful national songs, which sprung straight from the fervid heart of the people. These songs are balmy with the breath of the forest, the meadow, and river, and have that simple and bewitching freshness of motive and rhythm which unconsciously sets itself to music.
The German Volkslied, as the exponent of the popular heart, has a wide range, from mere comment on historical events, and quaint, droll satire, such as may be found in Hans Sachs, to the grand protest against spiritual bondage which makes the burden of Luther’s hymn, “Ein’ feste Burg.” But nowhere is the beauty of the German song so marked as in those Lieder treating of love, deeds