Oswald von Wolkenstein

(1377 - 1455)

Oswald von Wolkenstein

Austrian poet and composer. Oswald von Wolkenstein spent his youth in the Trostburg, even today still an imposing castle near Waldbruck, south of Brixen. Walter von der Vogelweide is said to have lived quite near. Oswald von Wolkenstein lost one eye during a carnival merry-making at the Trostburg. When only ten years old he went out into the world -- as was not unusual for young men of high birth in those days -- and war service took him to France, Spain, Italy and even as far as the Nordic and Slavic countries and to Asia. About 1400 he returned home, probably because of his father's death. The three brothers Michel, Oswald and Lienhard shared the inheritance in 1407, and from then on Oswald tried hard to extend his own domains, mainly by force and at the expense of others. From1415 he was in the service of the German King (from 1433 Emperor) Sigismund, who took him to the Council of Constance (where he played an important part) and on various diplomatic missions. Between 1421 and 1427 he was involved in a series of bitter quarrels with other landowners--his wild and lawless behavior led to his being twice arrested and imprisoned. From 1430 to 1432 he was again involved with politics, and attended the Council of Basle; thereafter he retired to his estates and gave up writing music and poetry.

A memorial tablet, still visible today, can be found in the Cathedral of Brixen, where it was placed by him in 1408 on the occasion of an endowment for a pious purpose. He was buried in the monastery of Neustift (north of Brixen) to which he gave considerable support during his lifetime.

At the beginning of the 15th century the German minnesong had already been in the hands of the 'masters' for a century. Frauenlob and Regenbogen gave the rhyme verse minnesong a devotional character, called the 'master-song.' Meanwhile French music developed constantly. The original solo song in France was followed by the chanson, accompanied by instruments, and together with the older motet, a multitude of rhythmic and melodic possibilities were explored to achieve a peak of subtle elaborateness. The techniques of counterpoint also developed, although their application was at first slow and awkward. The first to study and use the new notation in Germany was the 'Monk of Salzburg,' a generation before Oswald, but in his case only the outward appearance of his composition was based on the French form, while the whole construction in general and detail adhered to the German style, and even the 'flowers' (coloraturas) of the mastersingers are constantly encountered in his music.

Oswald von Wolkenstein revolutionized the German tradition. He always uses French notation, and--this is of decisive importance--he uses simultaneously duple and triple meter rhythm, and the mensural notation--which we use to this day--and which at last finds its justification. He even occasionally uses both kinds of rhythm and sets some of his songs in two and three part counterpoint. The song coloraturas, too, are included in the rhythm, thus fitting properly into the unity of the composition. He remains conservative on one point, however: like in minnesong and master-song the verses in each stanza do not form a continuous rhythm, but each line is self-contained followed by one of a new rhythmic construction. We still see this form today in many Protestant Chorales with their fermatas on the last note in each line.

Even more important were Oswald's achievements in polyphonic music. The Monk of Salzburg had already written a few polyphonic compositions, but they were incredibly primitive and again much more tied to the German style than one is led to believe by the French notation. Oswald von Wolkenstein on the other hand matched the full sophistication of contemporary French composition. In part he did so by using some of the standard French compositions more or less as a starting point and merely provides them with a German text. In this fashion he produced patterns for German songs, after which he and generations to come could mould their own compositions.

A Partial Oswald von Wolkenstein Discography | IIIB: From Oswald von Wolkenstein to the Locheimer Liederbuch