Almost fifty years after the original event, Willibald Alexis’s historical novel Ruhe ist die erste Bürgerpflicht (1852) commemorated a musical performance that had taken place on October 16, 1805, at Berlin’s Nationaltheater. According to both Alexis’s reimagining and contemporary reports, after the closing “Reiterlied” of Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager a new war song was sung by audience and actors. The sensation this caused—in a city awaiting its troops’ departure for war against Napoleon—established Schiller’s play as a privileged site for political singing in Berlin and across German lands for the next decade. In this article, I account for this first occasion, its unusual press reception, and its influence by contextualizing it within a growing early nineteenth-century discourse on public communal singing, arguing that Berliners were self-consciously enacting French patriotic behaviors. As well as indicating longer-term continuities, I distinguish the political role attributed to war songs in this period from the more familiar Bildung-orientated discourse on choral singing and folk song. In contrast to established accounts that locate the emergence of popular political song in the volunteer movements of the Wars of Liberation and the national politics of the Burschenschaften and male-voice choirs, I suggest that these early performances show the official imposition of public political singing—as a kind of “defensive modernization”—in response to the Napoleonic threat. I thus revise our understanding of the establishment of singing as a modern political tool in German lands, and of the role of singing in the development of political agency and national sentiment more broadly.
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