Thoughts of the producer and author of the German settings


When, a few years ago, my wife had the idea of contrasting the German and Japanese versions of originally German folk songs widely known and sung in Japan, it was obvious that the German versions needed new settings. These new settings had to emphasize the songs’ naturalness. The question now was which instruments to use for these authentic settings. Traditionally, various different instruments are used with differences along geographical lines and functions of the songs themselves (wandering and work songs use different accompaniments than Christmas songs, for instance). However, it would not have been feasible nor reasonable (due to the diverse traditions) to accompany each song differently. Thus, we had to decide on an instrumentation that is useful across all songs.

Traditionally, German folk songs were accompanied by: plucked instruments (guitar, zither, folk harp or contrabass [mostly only plucked]), some wind instruments (recorder, clarinet or various bugle-horns [tenor horn, for instance]), and percussion instruments (dulcimer and other percussion of indefinite pitch). The only keyboard instrument that was used was the accordeon (but only from the 19th century onwards). Of course, the piano is not part of the possible instruments to be used because it is a symbol for the burgeois and urban music culture. In contrast, the folk song is rather part of rural regions.


Of all instruments mentioned above, the guitar has one special feature: Out of all chordal instruments, it is the one which is easiest to transport (one can even play it while walking). Moreover, aside from dulcimer and accordion, only a plucked, and thus chordal, instrument can be used for harmonic accompaniment of singing by itself. Thus, the guitar is the one instrument that can be used to accompany almost any folk song.

However, there is one problem: The handling/fingering is very delicate; some kinds of triads just cannot be played. Moreover, we ruled out certain fingerings: Those that make it possible to play complete chords using all six strings, but, on the other hand, do not allow for reasonable opportunities of linking chords nor of a proper bass leading. Thus, many settings would have had a very weak sound (in some cases, I in fact set one strophe for only one guitar, but I did not want to set the entire cycle this way). Thus, we decided to use a second guitar.

This 2nd guitar (to be heard on the left, while the 1st guitar can be heard on the right), however, is mostly used as a bass instrument since the guitar’s range is comparable to the cello’s concerning the lower ambitus. The reason for this setting is that the bass leading should be logical and easily heard. Thus, the 1st guitar is “freed” from the bass notes, and is able to accomplish more chordally and linearly in the upper range. In order to vary the acoustic pattern, we added a recorder (alternating between soprano and alto recorder) for some songs, which is the most typical and widely used wind instrument in folk music.


For the Japanese versions, we deliberately used piano settings because the piano is the most frequently used instrument at school where these songs are mostly passed on. In most cases, we used settings of Japanese publishers. In case, such sources were unavailable to us, we used settings of German publishers since there are numerous piano settings for these old folk songs in the German-speaking area as well, which are also far from the original character of the songs – just like the Japanese ones. For some cases, we set up these settings ourselves.


The melodies of these old folk songs – especially the numerous broken chords that are often used – correspond to the melodic patterns of the Viennese Classicism. This can easily lead to applying the harmonic patterns of Viennese Classicism as well. However, the harmonic key characteristics of the Viennese Classicism also feature phenomenons like secondary dominants or the dominant of the dominant including the chromaticisms which are intrinsically linked with the afore mentioned phenomenons. These chromaticisms, however, do not correspond at all to what was possible and common in pure folk music. (Some folk music instruments cannot be played chromatically at all.) Thus, I did not allow for more than a temporary modulation to the dominant key (only when required by the melody – mostly only in case of such songs which were originally composed ones). But such a temporary modulation is never reached by a chromatic voice leading. Additionally, I rarely used a secondary dominant (mostly to the subdominant), but also predominantly without a chromatic leading. The diatonic secondary triads are also used rather seldomly because they do not correspond to the style of folk songs, either.


One aspect that is in fact intrinsically linked to folk songs is improvisation. However, we could not and did not want to take this factor into account. Of course, originally, folk songs were not written down, but were improvised using simple chords as well as accompanying patterns or second and third voices. Mostly, only the lyrics were written down (oftentimes up to 20 strophes for one song). Since we are all classical musicians and not really experts for folk songs, there was no doubt that the settings should be fully written down. If music is written down, however, different and more pronounced standards are to be applied to the setting than in case of improvisation arising out of a moment or using pre-constructed patterns. Thus, the settings that I wrote do have a certain “compositional” aspiration. Differently set strophes sometimes not only differ figuratively, but also in their harmonic interpretation. All settings are clasically correct, as well. (It has to be noted that many of these folk song melodies appear to be very “unmanageable” to be set clasically correctly because, originally, they were fabricated monophonically. Consequently, they already depict the classical functional harmony horizontally and not only in the vertical chord of several voices. In folk songs, the melody oftentimes performs the same duties as the bass in strict style. Moreover, similar to the afore mentioned melodies of the Viennese Classicism, the melody of a “later German folk song” – i.e. a non-modal folk song – is oftentimes composed of numerous broken chords.)  So there is nothing in these settings that would not be possible in a classical setting. However, each measure could have been improvised exactly the way I wrote it as well, when this music was still indeed the music of the people. (This ceased to be the case long ago!) Only the connections between different sections, the strophe by strophe increase, the citations, etc. – thus the “being planned” – are typical for music that was written down and would hardly be possible when improvising. Thus, the settings exhibit “stylized authenticity”.


The sequence of the songs is somewhat based on the seasonal cycle of the year. The CD starts with songs revolving around springtime (or birds as its symbol), and ends with Christmas and winter songs. In between, however, there are also songs that are not tied to the seasons, such as students’ songs, songs about farewell and wandering, love songs, etc.


For most folk songs, several versions are known because they had been passed on orally for a long time. Thus, they have changed frequently over time and, under certain circumstances, have been played in distinct versions in different regions of the German-speaking area. Out of all these different versions, we selected one for each song. This personal selection is certainly influenced by the fact that – being Austrian – I am from the very southeastern part of the German-speaking area. We never used all strophes of a song, but always only a small selection. (The lyrics of the various versions are oftentimes fundamentally different as well.)

The lyrics are sometimes passed on using different dialects: Northern and Southern German and Austrian – even Swiss and Alsatian. We also stylized the dialects, partly adjusted the pronunciation to standard German to make the lyrics better understandable, and avoided dictions that would be too different from standard language.  


While recording the CD, we made sure that the sound does not resemble the one encountered in concert halls. The songs are not supposed to sound like they were performed for an audience, but rather for oneself, within the family or at school – according to the actual purpose of folk music.

Of course, there are no fixed keys for folk songs, but, due to the specific ambitus, a certain range has to be used for each song, so an amateur is able to sing them. Our key sequence takes into account close relationships between the keys as well.


We hope that our audience will in fact conceive the CD as a homogenous unity, as intended by all our considerations!


Richard Heller