Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. 1170-1229) was the greatest German poet, composer, and singer of minnesongs and Spruche—gnomic or didactic songs—of the Middle Ages.
The work of Walther von der Vogelweide is distinguished by genuine feeling and meticulous skill in metrics and rhyme patterns; his personality embraced a sterling character and a wide range of interests. As a mentor of society, Vogelweide exhibited unshakable ethical principles, religious faith, and a robust attitude toward life. Although only about 5,000 lines of his poetry are extant, his utterance is so personal and natural that more is known about him than about, for example, William Shakespeare, despite the fact that Vogelweide was restricted by the conventions of courtly culture, which, however, he did not always observe.
Born in Austria to an impoverished knightly family, probably in Bolzano (Bozen) in the South Tirol, and in or near a bird reserve (as his name indicates), Vogelweide went as a youth to the Viennese court of Duke Frederick I of the Babenberg line. There, where his teacher was the famous singer Reinmar von Hagenau, he remained until Frederick died on a crusade in 1198. After visiting the court of Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia several times, Vogelweide joined the retinue of Philip of Swabia, the rival of Otto IV of Brunswick for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. Walther became disappointed in Philip, especially after his coronation, vainly urging him to adopt a strong imperial policy. After Philip's assassination in 1208, Vogelweide gave Otto IV his allegiance. Though a staunch adherent of the Church, Vogelweide criticized both Innocent III and Gregory IX for their worldly policies. Later he joined Emperor Frederick II, who gave him a fief near Würzburg. Vogelweide was buried in the cloister garth of the Cathedral there.
Vogelweide created verse and music for all his works and sang the songs himself as he moved from place to place. His fame was widespread. He used and refined every known type of song and added new ones: genuine "lofty" (conventional) minnesongs addressed to ladies of rank; "natural" (unconventional) minnesongs addressed to humble lasses; dancing songs; songs of nature, of summer, of complaint, and of vituperation; fables; riddles; parodies; elegies; prayers; panegyrics; philippics; and a crusading song in which he expressed the doctrine of Christian salvation. He was particularly noted for his bold political songs aimed at secular and temporal authorities from popes and emperors down, attacking them for what he considered malfeasance, duplicity, greed, and other vices. But Vogelweide was just as critical of society. He never compromised his ideals or questioned Christian dogma. In a famous messenger song he expressed cultural nationalism—but without chauvinism—born of pride in his fatherland.
In spite of his fame while alive, Vogelweide is mentioned in only one contemporary document, as having received money for a fur coat in 1203 from the bishop of Passau. Two hundred years after his death he was revered by the Meistersingers as one of their 12 masters. In the 16th century Martin Luther adapted one of his songs.
Until recently there was little interest in, and knowledge of, the music to Vogelweide's songs. Generations of serious scholars puzzled over textual cruxes without giving much thought to the music. This omission is now being corrected despite the scarcity of authentic musical notations. In some cases contrafactures (later songs in identical meters set to melodies apparently borrowed from Walther) have been discovered.
No existing manuscript of Vogelweide's works was written before his death. The most important manuscripts date from the 14th century, and the best of these is the Great Heidelberg Codex (C), beautifully illustrated with stylized colored pictures of singers and their coats of arms.
Further Reading on Walther von der Vogelweide
George F. Jones, Walther von der Vogelweide (1968), is an excellent introduction. Recommended for historical background are August Closs, The Genius of the German Lyric: An Historic Survey of Its Formal and Metaphysical Values (1938), and Martin Joos and Frederick R. Whitesell, eds., Middle High German Courtly Reader (1951).