The German Ballad Catalog

Der deutsche Balladenkatalog (deutsche Version)


At long last the German Ballad Catalog is coming to the internet where it has belonged from the very beginning.  Since 1965 the Kommission für Volksdichtung's ballad conferences have had the goal of creating a European ballad index with which one can not only find ballads from a single "national" tradition, but also find and even compare parallel, perhaps even related, ballads from other traditions.  Today on the occasion of the 36th "Arbeitstagung" once again in Freiburg a large number of the German folk ballads is being made available through the system of thematic classification.

The thematic system applies a system of "narrative units" and "thematic units" which I have elaborated directly out of the actual ballad material.  Thousands of reports from hundreds of song types were inspected, and from these texts typical narrative situations and actions were abstracted.  These are the "narrative units" such as "discovery by chance," "discovery by means of a test," "Liebesprobe," "broken tokens," etc.  These narrative units are too motival and variable, however, too be truly useful for ballad classification and search procedures.  Once one gathers such related narrative units together under rubrics which have the same thematic significance for the ballad plot, one reaches a stable level which quite effectively brings ballads together where they are comparable or on the other hand differentiates ballads when they differ.  Such abstracted "thematic units," or "Themes" for short, might be "Discovery," "Retribution," or "Killing."

Such a level of abstraction in the themes is necessary in order to achieve reliability in ballad searches.  In the international ballad type of the "Mädchenmörder" (Halewijn/Ulinger/Ulrich) the murderer "Ulrich" murders the girl before her brother can save her.  In the "Ulinger" variants of this same song type the brother just barely manages to arrive in time to kill the "attempted murderer" and thus save his sister.  That these strains are "genetically" related is made plain by a quick inspection of the texts (DVldr 41 or here 03.B2b-03-04.pdf).  A classification as "murder" would separate these texts and variant groupings.  Conversely, a classification with the theme of "killing" would reunite them.  In any case the variants would be brought together under the theme of "retribution."  And also under the theme of "morals and mores" because irrespective of whether the murderer "succeeds" in murdering the girl or not, obviously he has lured her away and betrayed her.

It is important to recall that a certain theme can often occur as "positive" OR as "negative." In the above example it is the violation of "morals and mores" (theme 245), i.e. the betrayal of the girl, which is important.  Ironically, but quite fittingly, the girl in the related "Halewijn" type "betrays" her attacker: although she promises to get undressed as he is looking away she cuts off his head instead. And furthermore that is certainly not a "murder," for the ballad considers it an act of self defense.  Still, as "killing" (theme 650), this piece of plot action parallels the "murders" and "vengeance killings" in the other subtypes of this song cycle.

Alongside the themes there is another highly important dimension to ballad plot: the dramatis personae.  These, too, as "role relationships" or simply "roles" must be abstracted in order to function as search criteria.  It makes little difference whether it is a knight, or a soldier, an apprentice, a musician, an elf or a sailor who seduces the woman: important is his acting like a "Lover."  And thus the ballad will be findable under the role of "Lover."  It is no so important whether the person appears as father, mother, step parent or as an uncle, as long as the person actually act as "family."  This ballad is then findable under the role "Family."

Both themes and roles can appear many times and complexly: it is exactly the ability to combine various themes and roles which makes the system so effective.  If the woman smiles at the man riding by and invites him to a roll in the hay, the ballad must be findable among the "Lover" roles.  But when the woman tries to seduce her unrecognized father, we must be able to find the song both under "Lovers" and "Family" ("Vater und Tochter" DVldr 142 or here: 04.04-13).

For a more detailed description of the thematic system, go to the Overview of Themes and Roles or the Complete List of narrative Themes and dramatic Roles with its descriptions and "narrative unit" subcategories.  In case you do not find what you want in the search page menus search the complete list.  Usually you will find what you want there, and then you can choose the theme which fits best.  "Murder" you will find under "Killing" [650] (it works best in conjunction with a betrayal of "Mores and Morals" [245]).

This same richness of combination holds true for the dramatis personae and their role relationships, and it should be emphasized that the roles need not necessarily be mutual: "she" can act as a "Lover" while "he" reacts as "Family."  What is important here is the kind of relationship, not a motival, detailed description of purely external characteristics.  One can discover this best by means of the question: "What kind of a function does this character have for the plot?"  Cowboy or knight: if he asks for love he is "Lover."  Apparently differing positive or negative aspects still point to the same role: whether he is successful or whether she sends him off, for the plot he functions as a "Lover."  In similar fashion the robber ballads emphasize one single relationship above all others: just like the robbed persons ("Victim"), their rescuers and the robbers are all classified as "Victims, Helpers, and Wrongers".  In fact, Robin Hood is himself at once Victim, Helper and Wrongdoer all together.

It is useful to search for roles in hierarchical order, looking first to Lovers and Family before classifying solely as Religious/Supernatural or Contestants (which are often secondary roles.)  The Elfin Knight acts like a Lover however supernatural he may be.  A revenant acting like a ghost with people frightened, or Mary performing a miracle, would be "Religious/Supernatural."

Choose the appropriate themes from the drop-down menus, using the "ADD" button until you are satisfied with your criteria.  Then submit them to the search engine ("Find").

If, however, you want to search for more exact correspondences, you can use the "advanced search" fields to directly enter detailed searches, e.g. "Mores and Morals" violated [245.a], or look for desertion as "Occupational Responsibilities" failed [280.a] plus "Flight" [330].  Enter as many narrative unit codes as you want.  A space separates the entries.

The bibliography of works cited explains the abbreviations used in the song descriptions. 

The thematic system is conceived so that it also fit other ballad traditions.  Extensive testing done on Anglo-American ballad material, as well as on Slovenian and Scandinavian material indicate that the thematic system appropriate to a wide range of ballad traditions.

This catalog unlocks an ever growing selection of the German folk ballads.  Currently ballads contained in the standard work Deutsche Volkslieder mit ihren Meloldien,  ballad series vols I to VII, have been entered.  This selection was conditioned by technical rather than by programmatic considerations.  Soon ballads of love relationships will follow, and then other categories, such as magical and mythical ballads, robber ballads, historic ballads, etc., as soon as I can scan them in.

And finally I wish to thank many of those who have helped me over the years.  Some of this most important are Rolf Wilhelm Brednich, D. K. Wilgus, Eleanor Long, Donald Ward, Barbara Boock and Ursula Schlatterer.  Also the institutions deserve my thanks: the German Folksong Archive (das Deutsche Volksliedarchiv),  California State University, Fresno, and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst.  In the final analysis I am unsure whether the Deutsches Volksliedarchiv is a "person" or an "institution:" it certainly has a life of its own.

Of course all responsibility for the accuracy of the data and the functioning of the system is entirely my own.

David Gray Engle

© 2014

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For questions, comments and much desired feedback, please contact me.