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Uhland, Johann Ludwig (1787-1862)

Johann Ludwig Uhland

born: 26 April 1787
died: 13 November 1862
country: Germany

Ludwig Uhland was born on 26 April 1787 in Tübingen, the beautiful university city not far from Stuttgart. Most of his life revolved around Tübingen and those poets associated with that town—Hölderlin, Kerner and Mörike among them. He came from an intellectual family of scholars and his first important literary influence was Des Knaben Wunderhorn, Arnim and Brentano’s anthology of folk poetry published in 1808. Uhland himself began to write increasingly sophisticated poetry in folksong style at the same time as devoting himself to serious literary research. He spent a year in Paris in 1810 where he was supposed to be studying law but was drawn instead to the study of old French manuscripts in the Bibliothèque nationale. He translated poems from French and Spanish and was in contact with such fellow poets as Chamisso, de la Motte Fouqué and Hebel. The publication of Uhland’s Gedichte in 1815 was a literary event that announced the advent of a new force in German poetry, the collection (containing the subsections Lieder, Sinngedichte, Sonette, Balladen, Romanzen) reached its ninth edition by 1835. Uhland continued to write poetry, some of it influenced by Goethe and Heine and much of it (the Vaterländische Gedichte of 1817, for example) the result of his political engagement with liberal causes and with the idea of a united Germany. During the time of his greatest literary activity Uhland eked out an existence as a lawyer; he married in 1820, a happy union from which there were no children. His ongoing life of scholarship was rewarded at last when he was appointed Professor of German Language and Literature in Tübingen in 1829. He made a number of attempts to enter into political life as a left-wing representative of short-lived reforming parliaments: first in 1831 in the wake of the July revolution in France, and again in 1848. These forays into the realms of practical politics lost him his job at the university; he continued his writing and his scholarship as a private individual—renowned as he was throughout Germany by this time. Brahms was one of the avid readers and students of Uhland’s monumental collection of Alte hoch- und niederdeutsche Volkslieder, and this popular poet was one of the pioneers of ‘Germanistik’, the study of German literature in all its aspects. Uhland died in Tübingen on 13 November 1862. If it were not for the fact that Schubert had regarded Uhland’s poetry as the special preserve of his rival, the song composer Conradin Kreutzer, there would certainly have been more Uhland settings by the greatest of the Viennese composers; as it is we are left with only one—Frühlingsglaube—a masterpiece nevertheless. Notwithstanding Schumann’s relative shyness in writing Uhland songs, Uhland was set to music a phenomenal number of times, particularly by composers of ballads—the area where Uhland is at his strongest and most inventive. Richard Strauss was a substantial setter of the poet’s words, both in his youth and as a mature master. A particularly beautiful setting by Strauss of a seminal Uhland poem is Des Dichters Abendgang.

from notes by Graham Johnson

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