When we asked singers in the Washington Saengerbund for their comments on songs to include in a sing-along for the Christmas season, "Leise rieselt der Schnee" was high on the list of personal favorites. We selected it as the theme for this Quarter Notes article, and use it as a point of departure for providing some historical insight into the role and use of Christmas and other music in Germany during the Hitler years. Much of the following is based on an article by Irmgard Benzig-Vogt, entitled "Vom Kind in der Krippe zum Kind in der Wiege: Das Weihnachtslied der NS-Zeit" in Neue Musikzeitung 12/1, December 1997 / January 1998.
The text and tune for "Leise rieselt der Schnee" were composed by Eduard Ebel (1839-1905). The version we often sing in the Washington Saengerbund is the popular arrangement by Hermann Erdlen (1893-1972). Very little is known about Ebel beyond his creation of this one song, which became an enduring favorite and which has found its way into many arrangements. The best known among the arrangements is the one by Erdlen, who composed songs like "Alleweil Lustig" and several works for the accordion, and did a number of successful arrangements of others' songs, none of them as successful and enduring as "Leise rieselt der Schnee."
Composed around 1900, this song had already found its way into the Christmas repertoire and into many singers' hearts by the time the National Socialists (NS) came to power in Germany. As in many other areas, these new rulers adopted existing cultural elements and adapted them to their use and philosophy. The "Singbewegung" (singing movement) of the early 1900s had rediscovered a wealth of folksongs suited to that purpose. The initial years of NS rule brought a respectable quality to the fostering of folksongs under youth leader Baldur von Schierach and his music department chair Cerff, who engaged academic music teachers, researchers, and composers in this effort. In their enthusiasm this young group wanted to renew the spirit of the folksongs, and found a fertile proving ground in the Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend, HJ). Already in 1933 Bernhard von Pleinen wrote in the journal Musik und Volk that the "Reich" must be responsible for the fostering of singing, because singing is a special aid to the formation of the popular will ("Weil im Singen ein besonderes Hilfsmittel zur voelkischen Willensbildung liegt"). In 1936, all youth organizations were combined into the HJ and from then on Schierach oversaw all further developments in the fostering of music in Germany.
The new composers had a good and successful time as creators of songs about youth, morning dew, and comradery, many of which were sung all over the land. However, the reshaping of traditional Christmas music and holiday songs or attempts to compose new ones met resistance. The Christian background of these songs, with their traditions and patterns, was too deeply rooted. Whole Nazi bureaucracies attempted to change these songs by pointing to their Germanic origin and adapting them to the NS Weltanschauung (world view). The new or re-cast songs were now sung at Spring, Solstice and Thanksgiving festivals, which were closely scheduled around Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas. The new NS holidays now had their own songs. In particular, the beloved "Marienlieder," often in the "Eia" tradition, singing about Jesus in the crib, were re-cast as songs praising motherhood, with Maria one of many mothers and Jesus one of many babies. An example is "Wenn eine Mutter ihr Kindlein tut wiegen" (when a mother rocks her child). However, hard as they tried, the NS cultural leaders could not push the traditional Christmas from peoples's hearts and minds. Lacking generally accepted substitutes, many of the traditional songs were tolerated, though gradually modified with minor, but significant textual changes which led away from the Christian original. A typical example is "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," whose 2nd verse was changed from "Das Roeslein das ich meine / davon Jesaja sagt / hat uns gebracht alleine / Marie, die reine Magd" to "Das Roeslein, das ich meine / davon meine Herze singt, / das ist die suesse Reine / mein allerliebstes Kind." Similar with our "Leise rieselt der Schnee" whose 3rd verse "Bald ist heilige Nacht, / Chor der Engel erwacht, / hoert nur, wie lieblich es schallt, / freue Dich, Christkind kommt bald!" became "Sonne steiget empor / Kraft und Einheit draengt vor / Glauben an Deutschland erwacht, / bricht durch die dunkele Nacht."
Despite manifold efforts to popularize the new versions of these and other beloved songs, successes were few and rare, as even the Reichsjugendfuehrung (the NS youth leadership) had to admit. Hence the party initially tolerated the Christian content of traditional songs, a tolerance which made the NS ideology more acceptable, or at least bearable to religious people. However, at the beginning of WW II, this benign situation changed, and a systematic effort was undertaken to drive out the Christian content from Christmas, with its suspect message of peace and tolerance. The symbolic metaphors of stars, sun, light, new life became the new synonyms for the NS salvation message: stars leaped over German forests, forming bridges to the front-lines. The Christmas tree became a symbol of life: "Stell auf den Baum, steck an das Licht / nach heilgem Brauch der Ahnen / und lass zu solchem Werke nicht / mein Volk, dich lange mahnen." In their effort to re-cast Christmas into a Germanic, i.e., NS holiday, the leadership also picked up elements from the aforementioned youth movement, especially the Summer and Winter Solstice celebrations with fires on hill- and mountaintops. As symbol of the sun on earth, fire represented the renewal of life and became a leading element of the NS Weltanschauung. The Winter Solstice, usually celebrated on December 21 by HJ and the young SS members in the circle of their peers, was a strong competitor to the traditional Christmas with parents and family in these young peoples' minds. Time was on their side, the NS rulers thought. Skillfully they connected the two holidays by a new tradition: the "Heimholung des Feuers" (bringing home the flame), where children and youth could bring home the fire on Christmas eve with torches lit on a central communal tree.
It is unclear whether the nerve centers of the NS regime recognized that the old faith was reawakened in their attempt to promote Germanic traditions in the war generation. Maybe the NS leaders did not want to notice and were content when the population could maintain a glimmer of hope and faith in the dark Christmases of these years. It is certain that they failed in using new or re-cast songs for changing the spirit and content of Christmas in the hearts of the German people; in the bunkers and trenches one could hear not the new songs, but "Stille Nacht," "O du froehliche," and "Leise rieselt der Schnee."
SourcesVom Kind in der Krippe zum Kind in der Wiege: Das Weihnachtslied der NS-Zeit. Von Irmgard Benzing-Vogt (http://www.nmz.de/artikel/vom-kind-in-der-krippe-zum-kind-in-der-wiege)
Hermann Erdlen (http://www.accordion-online.de/composer/d_he.htm)
These notes by Herbert and Carol Traxler based on internet and other sources, appeared in the December 1999 issue of Quarter Notes, the newsletter of the Washington Saengerbund, Walter Mueller, editor.