Oswald was one of the last south-German/Austrian poet-musicians, and was sometimes regarded as the last of the Minnesingers. (The Minnesingers were the German version of the Trouvères and Troubadours, a species of French itinerant poet-musicians in the 12th and 13th centuries. Their themes were mostly about courtly—or less proper—love.)
Wolkenstein is in Sachsen Germany, on the Zschopau River, southeast of Chemnitz in the Ore Mountains. If that’s too obscure for you, you can think of it as kind of near Dresden. I don’t know when he went there to have been named after the place, though—I couldn’t find anything on it. Although he did a lot of wandering around in his life, the place that gave him his name didn’t come up, so it was probably his father’s name.
German music from this period was isolated from that of other musical centers, like Ferrara and Paris, to some degree. European polyphony had developed almost exclusively in the hands of the French-speaking musicians or those in close and constant contact with the French, like the English. Even the temporarily individualistic music of the Italian trecento was gradually transformed by the French influence, especially once the Franco-Flemish invasion began. (See Composer Biography: Johannes Ciconia for more about that).
When Johannes Ciconia went to Padua in the 1390s, for instance, his presence and that of his compatriots at the Papal chapel marked a new development: the occupation of Italian musical posts by foreigners. This was particularly noticeable after the Papal Schism, which lasted from 1378-1418. The Council of Konstanz (more on this in a moment) brought musicians together from all over as part of the pomp and ceremony that went with resolving this great debate. The Hungarian Emperor Sigismund brought his best musician/politician, Oswald von Wolkenstein, with him; likewise the singers who accompanied the English delegation were particularly admired in Köln on the way, as well as at Konstanz.
Oswald, who is, after all, the subject here, was born in the Schloss (castle) Schöneck in Pustertal, Tyrol. This is south of Munich, in what is present-day Italy, but has been both Austrian and German in the centuries between Oswald’s lifetime and now.
Oswald’s father was Friedrich von Wolkenstein and his mother was Katharina von Villanders. Oswald was the second of (at least) three sons.
When he was 10 years old (c1387), Oswald left his family and became the squire of a knight errant (which means a roving knight, one without a specific patron). He traveled for the next 14 years, writing an autobiographical song about it, called “Es fügt sich…” (“it fits,” or “it is fitting”). His journey took him far and wide, and he was even shipwrecked in the Black Sea. He was said to be fluent in ten languages.
When his father died in 1399, Oswald, now a grown man, returned to Tyrol and began a long feud with his older brother Michael about inheritance. Always tempted by travel, in 1401 or 1402, Oswald participated in a failed expedition to Milan with King Rupert of Germany (1352-1410). In 1407, he and his brother finally settled their argument, and Oswald received a third of Schloss Hauenstein and the accompanying estates in Seis am Schiern (an alpine village in southern Tyrol, now part of northern Italy). The other two-thirds of the castle belonged to a knight named Martin Jager, who would become Oswald’s lifelong nemesis. Oswald didn’t like the property division once he got there, and he occupied the entire castle, appropriating Jager’s share. You can imagine how popular that was with Herr Jager.
In 1408, preparing for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Oswald paid for a memorial stone to be made and installed on the wall of the cathedral in Brixen (another southern Tyrolean town, now part of Italy). The stone still stands there, showing Oswald in Crusader gear, with the long beard of a pilgrim. But before going on the crusade, he wrote several songs for his beloved, Anna Hausmann, the wife of Brixen citizen Hans Hausmann. (It isn’t clear whether the love he felt was requited or not.) When he came back from this pilgrimage in 1410, he acquired the right to take up residence in the Augustinian abbey called Neustift, which was near Brixen. This abbey would later produce collections of Oswald’s music.
In 1414, Oswald became a member of the entourage of Friedrich IV, Duke of Austria and Count of Tyrol at the Council of Konstanz (1414-1418). There’s a nice portrait of Oswald in the council’s chronicle. While he was there, he met other notable dignitaries, emissaries, musicians, and nobles who would affect how he lived the rest of his life.
Oswald soon entered into the service of Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, as a diplomat. This service got him traveling again, including to England, Scotland, and Portugal, where he participated in the conquest of the Moorish city of Ceuta. In 1416, he joined King Sigismund in France, and they went together back to Konstanz, where the Council still convened.
The Council of Konstanz took so long because it ended the great Papal Schism, also known as the Three-Popes Controversy. The deposed or accepted the resignation of two of the papal claimants, and elected Pope Martin V (1369-1431) in 1417. The council also condemned and executed Czech philosopher Jan Hus and ruled on issues of national sovereignty, the rights of pagans, and whether the conflict between Poland and the Order of the Teutonic Knights was a just war.
In 1417, Oswald married Margarete von Schwangau (her hometown is right near Schloss Neuschwanstein, the castle on which the Disneyland Castle is based). They had seven children. None of this stopped him from pining after Ann Hausmann, and you’ll hear more about that in a minute.
Oswald joined the Elefantenbund in 1418, an alliance of noblemen against Friedrich IV, who had been banned by King Sigismund for aiding the flight of the antipope John XXIII from the Council of Konstanz (euphemistically called a “resignation” earlier). Friedrich, with the help of the local peasants, resisted Sigismund, Oswald, and the Elefantenbund, and Friedrich vigorously pursued his enemies all over the area.
On the home front, between 1421 and 1427, Oswald was involved in a series of bitter quarrels with other landowners, and his own wild and lawless behavior led to his arrest and imprisonment twice.
In 1421, Anna Hausmann lured Oswald into a trap set by Martin Jäger, and he was brought to Innsbruck, handed over to Friedrich, and imprisoned. In 1422, Friedrich ransomed Oswald off in exchange for 6,000 ducats (about $4.8 million US in today’s money) and an oath to be non-violent evermore. This agreement allowed Oswald five months to settle his debts with Marin Jäger and other nobles. But Oswald didn’t meet his obligations and also didn’t show up in Tyrol Castle when he was supposed to. Instead, he slipped away to Hungary, where he met up with his old friend King Sigismund. Together, they plotted a war against Friedrich. This war was eventually started by Oswald’s older brother Michael, who also allied with Sigismund.
In 1422, the castle where Sigismund and Oswald were hiding, Schloss Greifenstein, was under siege by Friedrich’s troops, and it took most of the year to get out of there. The citizens and peasants of Tyrol and Brixen supported Friedrich, so soon, most of the nobles, including Oswald’s two brothers, surrendered. Oswald fought on with a few other nobles, and Oswald was the last to surrender.
Sigismund couldn’t afford three wars all at once, and by the end of 1424, Sigismund and Friedrich had made peace. Oswald was witness to it. That same year, Oswald commissioned the Neustift monastery to create a manuscript of his collected songs.
Oswald returned home penniless, and when Friedrich insisted on the 6000 ducat ransom that was three years overdue, Oswald fled. In 1425, he lived in Schloss Neuhaus, near Gais (another southern Tyrolean town that’s now part of Italy). Meanwhile, Friedrich renewed his siege of Schloss Greifenstein.
Oswald continued his feud with Friedrich long after all the others had given it up, and was forced to flee to Lake Konstanz in 1426. But Friedrich’s people found him and he was imprisoned in Innsbruck. He soon realized that he had no choice but to make peace with Friedrich, who finally forced him to pay Martin Jäger for the stolen and occupied properties, which allowed Oswald to have uncontested full ownership of Schloss Hauenstein and its estates at last. But Friedrich had learned that Oswald wasn’t to be trusted, and Oswald had to swear not to contact any nobles outside Tyrol unless Friedrich specifically approved it in advance.
Not one to sit tight or to mean an oath after he’d sworn it, Oswald broke his vow in 1428 and went to Heidelberg to meet the Archbishop of Köln. He met with other nobles there and tried to convince them to support him in his dispute with his cousin, Hans von Villanders (dates unavailable), who owed Oswald 2200 ducats ($1.8 million in today’s money). He soon became embroiled in local squabbles because the archbishop was friends with both Martin Jäger and dear old Friedrich. The controversy turned into a fracas and Oswald publically beat the archbishop. Yikes! I’m pretty sure that archbishops are on the list of people you should never beat up, publically or privately. At any rate, initially Sigismund backed Oswald in that argument, but soon, he switched sides and freed the archbishop from Oswald’s henchmen.
In 1430, Sigismund summoned the nobles who supported him to Nuremberg, and Oswald and his brother went off to join them, pausing for two months to celebrate Christmas in Konstanz. During this hiatus, Oswald wrote many love songs of a rather erotic nature, the most famous of which is “Ain Graserin,” about a bathing woman. The “frizzy hair” between her legs, according to the song, creates an overwhelming and irresistible desire in the singer.
Once he finally joined Sigismund in Nuremberg, Oswald became a member of the first rank of the Order of the Dragon (Sigismund’s own noble militia against the Ottoman Turks—on a side note, Vlad the Impaler was a member of this group), a very select position that only two dozen nobles held. This lofty position obligated Oswald to participate in Sigismund’s campaign in Bohemia in 1431, which didn’t go at all well. Apparently 50,000 Bohemian soldiers were scary to Sigismund’s entire Imperial army, and the skirmish was over before it began.
In 1432, Sigismund sent Oswald back to Tyrol to prepare the county for an invasion by the Bohemians (Hussites), and to negotiate with them. While Oswald was busy doing his bidding, slippery Sigismund fled to Milan and then to Piacenza (just 45 miles south east of Milan) under the pretext that he needed to go to Rome in order to be crowned emperor. Meanwhile, Oswald commissioned the Neustift abbey to create a second collection of his songs.
When Sigismund called Oswald to join him in Piacenza, Oswald toddled off, but the visit didn’t go well, leading Oswald to write a song of complaint, “Wer die ougen vil vershüren” (“who will disturb the eyes”), set to a French melody. Tired of Oswald too, Sigismund sent Oswald off to Basel. After a year of negotiations, Sigismund was finally crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1433 by Pope Eugenius IV (1383-1447), with Oswald dancing attendance.
After all that, Oswald settled down a bit, and when Friedrich died with only an underage heir in 1439, Oswald was put in charge of the contracts for the young man’s guardianship. He used the opportunity to seek the assistance of one of the guardians in resolving his 18-year-long argument with his cousin Hans von Villanders over bonds that Oswald had given Hans to hold.
When Friedrich’s heir’s guardianship ended in 1443, one of the guardians decided to extend it for six more years because he was enjoying the benefits of being King of the Holy Roman Empire. This caused a new revolt in Tyrol, and Oswald became one of the five commanders of the uprising. His job was to run the fortress at Mühlbach, which blocked the most likely invasion route from Styria, where the new king had taken up residence. Oswald ended up, as a result of skirmishes and maneuvering, as one of the electors to an opponent to the usurping king.
Oswald died that same year, succumbing to an intense heat wave in Merano, Italy. His body was brought to Neustift Abbey and buried near the front in the monastery’s church, where his grave was rediscovered in 1973.
Sometimes Oswald is classified as a Meistersinger (this was a 14th through 16th century German guild for craftsmen who produced lyric poetry, regional music, and unaccompanied art song). He took a highly individual approach to composition, especially regarding text-setting, and he had a fondness for through-composed songs (no repeated section like a chorus, and no obvious divisions into sections—Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I heard for the first time recently, is a through-composed song, for instance and is readily available on Youtube.com), which matched his text style nicely. His often innovative approach to composition (notably his use of large melodic steps and instrumental interludes) sets him apart from other Meistersingers.
His poetry covers a variety of themes from a battle cry and animal sounds, to satire and para-liturgical texts, as well as lots of love poetry inspired by his wife and other ladies. Events from his rather active life are recorded in his songs, and much of his biography can be extrapolated from his music.
Oswald was the ultimate Renaissance jet-setter. Three polyphonic pieces (multiple lines of parallel melodies) attributed to Oswald are French songs to which he set his own German texts. His various visits to Italy also had an effect and his works are the first examples of the influence of Italian music on that of Germany. He was particularly fond of introducing instrumental ritornelli (pieces that circle back in their melodies), especially in his polyphonic works. These range from simple songs with instrumental accompaniment to fairly developed three-part vocal compositions, which, because of technical shortcomings, are usually less successful than his works in two parts.
He also gets classified as a Minnesinger (12th -14th century lyrical songwriters, parallel but different from the Troubadours and Trouvères). His music was representative of 15th century love songs and German polyphony, and he was thought to be the very last of the Minnesingers. (There will be posts on Minnesingers and on Troubadours and Trouvères sometime soon.)
Oswald was skilled in the music notation of his time, but his creative work is that of a gifted dilettante. His works often contain elements borrowed from contemporary French and Italian song as well as from folksong. His monadic pieces (chant), from the standpoint of text, belong to the usual types—there are love songs, religious songs, and bitter political Scheltgedicte (“scolding poems”).
His style puts depth of expression before conventional rules, and his works are marked by unshackling from the weighty traditions governing German courtly song that had bound his predecessors. Most of his songs are monophonic (chant), but some are in two or three parts, and a few of these are contrafacta (replacing the words without changing the melody) based on works by Guillaume Machaut (c1300-1377),Francesco Landini (c1325-1397), and others.
He drew on a wide range of compositional techniques, including canon (like a round), organum (two parallel lines of chant), hocket (rhythmic alternation of notes, like hiccups), and conductus (chant in one or two voices that is meant to be used for processions). His texting of the tenor line anticipates the Tenorlied in the next century, where the melody of a lied (romantic solo song with accompaniment) was used as a cantus firmus, running slowly throughout the piece while the other voices dance around it, using elements from it, or repeating it at a faster pace.
Toward the end of his life, he seems to have rejected these more complex compositional devices and concentrated on setting songs with a greater emphasis on the need to instruct others to “do right” (rechttun) in this world.
Despite the wide variety of his work, he was a poor contrapuntist and often fell back on contrafacta (text substitution). His two-part “”Der may mit lieber zal”(“he with loving zeal”) is based on a three-part virelai by Jean Vaillant (fl.1360-1390), and uses a charming imitation of bird-song. His two-part “Mein herz das ist versert” (“my heart is thus destroyed”) borrows almost unaltered the cantus firmus and tenor of Francesco Landini’s popular ballata “Questa fanciulla” (“this girl”). Others borrowed from Oswald, too, such as Konrad Pauman (1410-1473), who used Oswald’s “Wach auf” (“wake up”) on a sixth tone (a hypophrygian mode—for more about modes, see Musical Modes, Part 1: Church Modes) in his own Magnificat.
Some 120 of his songs survive, marking a new departure in the development of German song. They’re not courtly and stylized as had been the fashion, but are the expression of genuine personal feeling. Many are love songs, inspired by his various love affairs and also his marriage to Magarete von Schwangau in 1417, and these are particularly heartfelt. Some are topical, containing references to current political events, others were inspired by his visit to Jerusalem (1409-1411), and there are also a number of sacred texts.
The first collection has 42 complete songs was produced in 1425, with another 66 poems added to it between 1427 and 1436. The second collection was produced in 1432. The third collection is from 1450, and is a copy of the second collection. There are pictures of Oswald in both the first and second collections that were done under the supervision of Oswald himself. This is thought to be the earliest authentic depiction of a German author.
“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & CO., New York, 1994.
“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.
“A Dictionary of Early Music from the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of Berkeley Press, Berkeley, 1997.
“Music in the Renaissance,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1959.
“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1940.
“Medieval Music,” by Richard H. Hippen. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978.