Johanna Kinkel’s Political Art Songs as a Contribution to the Socio-Cultural Identity of the German Democratic Movement during the Late 1840s

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Anja Bunzel


Johanna Kinkel (1810-1858), a German composer, writer, music pedagogue and wife to the German poet and revolutionary Gottfried Kinkel (1815-1882), has produced a remarkable number of art songs, stage works and novels during her short life, the last eight years of which she spent in exile in London. Besides typical themes of the romantic period, Kinkel’s art songs also include socio-political subjects praising her home, the Rhineland, and encouraging the democratic revolutionary movement of the 1840s to fight against their emperor in favour of a united Germany. Whereas a great deal of Kinkel’s patriotic songs set poems by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), the composer’s enthusiastic appeals to like-minded revolutionaries are mainly settings of Gottfried Kinkel’s words. Many of the Kinkels’ poems and art songs were created within the context of the Maikäferbund, a political and literary association founded by the Kinkels in 1840.

In Taking Popular Music Seriously, Simon Frith introduces the idea that popular music "can stand for, symbolize and offer the immediate experience of collective identity" (140). Considering the nineteenth-century art song as one of the most popular bourgeois art forms of the time, this paper aims to elaborate on the aspect of collective identity at two levels. Firstly, Johanna Kinkel’s settings reflect typical nineteenth-century phenomena of the bourgeoisie, as is indicated by her preferred compositional genre, the art song, as well as by the semi-public framework in which her songs would have been performed and discussed. Secondly, it shall be interesting to ascertain whether Kinkel’s socio-political art songs might have determined the collective identity of the Maikäferbund and, more generally, the revolutionary movement of the 1840s as, according to Kinkel’s contemporaries, some of her political songs were sung publically by other ambassadors of the revolution.

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