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Oswald von Wolkenstein was a man of rather coarse manners. He looked coarse. His portrait is even coarse, no whitewashing: beard stubbles, scars, one eye shut for a lifetime. He looked more like a robber baron than a noble semblance of knighthood in the Romantic sense. This impression is conveyed and intensified by many of his song texts. Performers have taken their cue from these: this roughneck, this bardic master-poet of drastic phrasings must also have been musically rough, a kind of tavern minstrel in a castle atmosphere: “strum, strum”.


Very gradually, over the course of many years, a change of perspective has crept in. The results can be heard on this CD. The man from the lower (South Tyrolean) nobility, the singer, instrumentalist, tunesmith (as one might formerly have said): as a mercenary he was not just along for the ride in campaigns between Northern Europe and Northern Africa—he was receptive to everything new, especially music. Mostly in southern lands, at numerous courts, listening to the performances of colleagues, he picked up on new and cutting-edge developments, and this was above all: polyphony.


He adopted musical models for his new texts. He apparently composed some too, showing himself to be rather a man of the Renaissance than of the late Middle Ages. This comes across when listening to these new recordings, decidedly different from those largely familiar by now. Even monophonic songs: artful.


One song on this CD exemplifies this with particular clarity: “Durch aubenteuer tal und perg” (Kl 26, Track 04). Sung here by Marc, who accompanies himself on the lute, is one of Oswald’s most radical texts: a personal account of escape, capture, imprisonment. (The translation can be found starting on page 253 of the revised re-issue of my Wolkenstein biography.)1

In this song text the poet truly did not mince words. But what we hear is a different matter. The coarse material is filtered as it were by musical means, it becomes refined. The radical becomes musically elevated and idealised. The melismas for example, are carefully calculated by Oswald: no longer a mere addition to monophony, mostly shrugged off until now, they are an essential ingredient of his style. That which is coarse and drastically phrased is subtly articulated in music. A metamorphosis takes place: a merging of intentions of both poet and composer, whose setting adapts and transforms the latest trends. In this way the seemingly plain and simple song blends into the soundscape of delicate, subtle polyphony. We have to see Wolkenstein differently, when listen to him here.


Dieter Kühn


[1] Kühn, Dieter: Ich Wolkenstein. Die Biographie (Erweiterte Neufassung), Frankfurt/Main (Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag) 2011 (= Das Mittelalter-Quartett: Viertes Buch).