German interest in folksongs began in the middle of the eighteenth century, stoked in no small part by the Europe-wide mania for Ossian. Thomas Percy’s influential Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) was also much admired, and the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who had been sent a copy by Rudolf Erich Raspe (of Munchausen fame) in August 1771, the same month Herder wrote the first draft of his essay Über Ossian und die Lieder alter Völker, responded to calls for a German Percy. In 1773, he began translating sections of the Reliques and collecting other North European folksongs for a volume of ‘Alte Volkslieder, englisch und deutsch zusammen’ which, though sent to the press, on account of numerous errors by the printer was never published. In 1777, Herder returned to the project, and the first volume, now titled simply Volkslieder, appeared the following year.
A glance at the contents pages reveals the extraordinary range of the originals—Lithuanian, Spanish, Swiss, Danish, Skaldic, Morlach, Greek, Estonian, Lapp, Latvian, Greenlandic—but as Percy’s Reliques was the impetus, most come from English or Scots. Other sources include Ramsay’s Tea-table Miscellany, D’Urfey’s Wit and Mirth, or Pills to purge Melancholy, Camden’s Remaines, Ossian, and, perhaps surprisingly, Shakespeare (Measure for Measure, Cymbeline (two extracts), The Tempest, As You Like It (two extracts), Othello, Twelfth Night, Hamlet), who also provides the quotation on the title-page of the first volume (Laertes’ ‘A violet in the youth of primy nature …’, in German). Goethe is another: the first appearance in print of ‘Klaggesang von der edlen Frauen des Agan-Aga’ (‘Die Uebersetzung dieses edlen Gesanges ist nicht von mir’, notes Herder), plus songs collected in Alsace.