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Alfred Schnittke – Minnesang

Alfred Schnittke‘s Minnesang is close to my heart for several reasons. It is a sublime piece of music; it was composed in 1980-1981, so it is nearly the same age as me; and it was inspired by German medieval poetry, known as Minnesang. I have already written previously about one of the leading Minnesingers, Walther von der Vogelweide (c.1170-1230), in connection with the San Gimigniano frescoes. I thought, however, I’d point to several websites about him that may be interesting to any German or German-speaking/reading readers and visitors.

To start off, there is what seems to be a well-written page on German Wikipedia with a comprehensive list of links to some of the places I am about to point you to. Freie Universität Berlin offers a collection of online resources, including bibliographies and theses. Among the latter, these two look like the ones to start with: a referat by Stephan M. Rother that looks at the life and work of von der Vogelweide who, as quite a few of his kind, changed his patrons several times; and a work by Jens Hildebrand about von der Vogelweide and the society of his time (Walther von der Vogelweide und die Gesellschaft seiner Zeit). I haven’t yet read either work myself, so I’ll share my impressions once I did, but if you’re already familiar with any of these works, please feel free to let us know your thoughts.

Next, if you are feeling adventurous and want to try your hand, eyes and mind at medieval palaeography, then here is the place to practise: Projekt Gutenberg.de has a few images of a rather neat medieval hand. You can open a poem’s text in a new browser window and see how far you can get. See also if you can unfathom some of the medeival shorthand rules (one of the tips: when you see a line above a vowel, this means that the vowel is followed by ‘n’). If palaeography sounds like a tough exercise, then the same resource has got a collection of von der Vogelweide poetry, edited by Richard Zoozmann. And, of course, there is the poet’s biography, with a well-known image of his.

Speaking of von der Vogelweide’s iconography: his best-known miniature portrait is filed in the Codex Manesse (dated by 1300), and the wonderful thing is that you can consult the full Codex online. It is an amazing collection of miniature images of many a German historical figure, and I will definitely take time in another post to walk you through some of the personalities. On the same German Wikipedia page I mentioned above there is a photo of his tomb, and on Flickr one of the visitors to Bolzano (Bozen) photographed the monument to Walther.

Bibliotheca Augustana offers a biography and a full list of works (although not all are actually on the site). You may want to look at Mädchenlieder (The Girls’ Songs, composed about 1205) that include one of von der Vogelweide’s best-known poems, Under der linden (Under the linden tree).

The English-speaking readers and history and literature lovers are still welcome to consult Graeme Dunphy’s translations of von der Vogelweide’s poetry, as well as the English Wikipedia page. I shall see if I can bring you some more English translations of the works by one of the best medieval German poets (certainly one of the most prolific). What is interesting – and if you read the poems that Dunphy translated this will be very obvious – is that von der Vogelweide lived quite literally from pen to mouth, having changed several patrons in his lifetime. His love poetry, on the other hand, carries a spell of romantic gloom, yet quite popular at the time. The ideal of courteous, knightly love for the Belle Dame would often not permit a hero to rest blissfully by the side of his beloved lady. Either he’d be required to leave her behind and join the Crusade, or else the perspective of ruining her status (as well as of being discovered and mutilated (at the very least) by her husband or relatives) would force him to keep a distance. The latter found its manifestation in the fact that these knight-poets would only compose a song; the performance fell on the shoulders of their minstrels.

Back to Schnittke: Walther von der Vogelweide wouldn’t be the only source of inspiration to this composer. There could be – and probably were – at least another 11 medieval German poets who form the group of 12 leading Minnesingers. Of the vast repertoire of the German Minnesang poetry Schnittke had taken some 20 songs, transforming the legacy of medieval culture into his own distinct work for 52 voices. To read more about the genre (which had its equivalents in Northern and Southern France), head to Minnesang Wiki. If you choose to listen to Schnittke’s canon (which is 15 mins. long), make sure to bear until the extract at 10:40-11:00 mins: for me, this is the most sublime moment in the entire work. And if you are searching for this work on a CD, this may be the place to go: Alfred Schnittke: Minnesang; Choir Concerto.

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