“Volksmusik” (translating as the “people’s music”) is the name given to traditional German folk music. Prior to the unification of Germany in 1871, the country was separated into different provinces. Each region had its own unique style of folk music. Often passed down through generations, it was composed collectively by the people reflecting their lifestyles and traditions. While popular through out Germany, folk music was especially embraced in East Germany, where it evoked a sense of pride and patriotism.
German folk music is entrenched in the country’s political history. Joseph Goebbels worked under the Nazi German government and was responsible for delivering propaganda, painting Hitler in a positive light. In 1933 he was appointed the director of the Reich Chamber of Culture, and heavy restrictions were enforced across all areas of creative arts. As a result many Jewish entertainers including musicians became unemployed. Goebbels stated “The radio is the most influential and important intermediary between a spiritual movement and the nation, between the idea and the people.” (NSDAP – 1938) In a controlled effort to encourage more Youth to join The Nazi movement, songs praising the German race were introduced instead.
Traditional folk music known as “volkslieder” was taught to children at school. Different from the to the 19th century German folk music, these songs were more upbeat and happy. Following the student revolution in 1968, new songs reflecting political rebellion began to emerge. The folk scene flourished with more realistic songs rich in emotion. The instruments used in volksmusik date back hundreds of years and are unique and distinct to this genre of music. Accordions are often used, with the most common being the schwyzerogeli. Translating to “little organ”, different sounds are created by pushing of pulling the bellow. The right side has 31 buttons forming the treble, while the left side plays the base and has 18 chords. The steirisches harmonica is another type of accordion popular in volksmusik. While also having diatonic buttons, it produces more distinct bass notes. The zither is a five stringed instrument played upon a table top. The left hand controls the pitch while the right hand controls the strings on the fretboard. Another important string instrument in German folk music is the classical (nylon strings) or acoustic (steel strings) guitar. Often used to help carry the melody of the song, the distinct rhythm is created by using the palm of the hand to stop the bass, while continuing to play the chords.
Other typical instruments used include the natural wooden alphorn. Originally used to communicate across the vast mountainous alps, it is commonly associated with yodeling. The hackbrett, is a German variation of the dulcimer. It is played by striking small hammers against the strings of a wooden box. German Folk music is responsible for influencing many great classical composers, including Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) Examples of musicians who achieved success through traditional German folk music include Friedrich Krell, a German conductor who also led the orchestra. Another is Gothilf Fischer, who rose to fame after winning competitions in folk song in 1949. He went on to found the Fischer Choirs. Kerschbam Zithermusi is a band of four musicians, popular for the traditional and authentic style German folk music they produce. Another of Germany’s most successful musicians Heino, is known for taking traditional volksmusik and recording them as updated schlager (popular music Folk Music with it’s unique dialects or customary yodeling, is essentially the passing on of German traditions. While music styles continue to change and evolve, it is clear that folk music will remain firmly entrenched in Germany’s culture.
- Childress; Natalye. Young Germany. “A Short History of German Music: From Bach to Bluementopf.” (18 May 2015)
- Folk Music. “A Guide to Folk Music of the World – German Folk Music”. (Music Folk – 2011) http://www.music-folk.com/german-folk-music
- Goebbels, Joseph. http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/goeb56.htm.
- Moll; Michael. “Volksmusick in Jeans” – German political and folk songs during the revival. Folk World. (June 2000)
- Zither – Kerschbam Zithermusi – Kerschbam Marsch – Zithermusik – www.kerschbam.de