Okay, we know what you’re thinking: “No way man Rock & Roll was born in ‘Merica in the 1950s by the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis,” but stick with us. You’re about to receive a history lesson unlike any other. A strong case can be made that Rock & Roll’s roots lie in a land mostly associated with epic mountains, world-class wines and more castles than anywhere else in Europe.
In 1170, a lad was born into the world whose gift for prose and song enchanted thousands in his time. So innovative were his lines and melodies that they continue to be revered today. Who is this medieval rock star? None other than Walther von der Vogelweide. Say that three times fast. We dare ya.
Widely thought to have first seen light in South Tyrol (possibly in the villages of Lajen or Waidbruck just east of South Tyrol’s capital, Bolzano), Walther von der Vogelweide is the greatest Minnesinger of all time.
What is a Minnesinger you ask? Think of them as the Jim Morrisons of medieval times. Minnesingers were musically poetic souls from Germanic lands of Europe akin to the ancient Troubadours of France. Together, they arose from the intellectual light born out of the Dark Ages in the 12th and 13th centuries. The sudden advent of their songs and poetry is one of the most remarkable events in the history of music and literature.
Love The Beatles, U2, The Foo Fighters or any other musical act of modern times? Thank the Minnesingers and Troubadours of time long past. Without their ingenious mingling of word and melody with injections of a rebel yell, songs we love to belt out in the shower today would not exist.
So you see, all forms of modern music — including Rock & Roll— are in a way rooted in South Tyrol. Fitting really. The jarring jagged mountain peaks of this region in northern Italy seem almost like raised fists in the air.
Read on to learn more about this Rock & Roll rebel of the Middle Ages that we owe so much to.
Poets in Flight
The title Minnesinger is derived from the old world word “Minne” — signifying love, which was the usual subject they were prone to sing while drawing a bow across the strings of a viol. But Minnesingers also wrote galant songs capturing the spirit of knights roving about in search of chivalrous adventure. Songs no doubt well suited to the age of the Crusades — when the world rang with the renown of noble names and knightly deeds.
Walther’s name —Walther of the Bird Meadow— supposedly stems from his love of nature and his fondness for song birds. That certainly seems to be likely as many of his lyrics accentuate adulation for the winged wonders such as in “When From The Sod The Flow’Rets Spring”:
When from the sod the flow’rets spring,
And smile to meet the sun’s bright ray,
When birds their sweetest carols sing
In all them morning pride of May,
What lovelier than the prospect there?
Can earth boast any thing more fair?
To me it seems an almost heaven,
So beauteous to my eyes that vision bright is given.
Do those lines remind you of any particular modern Rock & Roll classic? They should. Recall Robert Plant’s infectious crooning in Led Zeppelin’s biggest hit, “Stairway to Heaven”:
There’s a sign on the wall
But she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings
In a tree by the brook
There’s a songbird who sings
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiving
Where Song Became Stone
South Tyroleans hold Walther von der Vogelweide in such high regard that in 1889 the city of Bolzano not only named its main square the “Waltherplatz” but also embellished it with a remarkable fountain, adorned by a noble statue of the tender-hearted bard sculpted in exceptional detail from the region’s renowned Lasser marble.
The face of Walther reveals a serene attitude and dignified expression that suits a long, kingly cloak falling gracefully off his shoulders. It is quite clear he was light years better looking than Mick Jagger. His hands hold a viol while below him is a marbled cage enshrining a beloved songbird. Further down two lions stoutly sit upright bearing shields while opposite regal swans curve their snowy necks as if to drink the Alpine water in the basin.
Travelers to Bolzano will find they are not the only ones to parade around the square admiring Walther’s statue. Certainly not by coincidence, birds flutter about his stately form and delight their feathers by bathing in the fountain. The lasting inﬂuence this legend has imparted on South Tyrol and our feathered friends is endearing to witness.
Melodies on Wings Without Fail
Walther appears to have led the typical life of a Minnesinger, roaming from royal court to royal court, and castle to castle, stirring hearts and bringing cheer with his songs. His compositions were not only powerful in sentiment but showed ever delicate and elaborate poetic meter. Out of his 188 poems, at least half are written in unique measures, and all are expressed in forms invented by himself. Not even the band Rush could conjure up such musical progressiveness.
Like any good rock star, Walther also used the infection of melody to rebel against religious authority and the status quo of the time. Many of his songs speak out against the long arm of the papacy.
Much of Walther’s artistic glory came at the medieval court of Vienna. He made several trips and actively influenced the royals to partake in crusades, including Frederick II’s crusade of 1228 where he may have journeyed from Vienna with the holy army to at least his native South Tyrol.
Walther’s spirit took flight in 1230 and he was buried in Würzburg in the Franconia region of Germany. His love for birds was such that in his will he bequeathed a sum of money to furnish food and water daily to the feathered minstrels so that the space above his cloistered grave might always be melodious with the “poets of the air.”
The Path Where Walther Once Roamed
Beyond relaxing in the Waltherplatz in Bolzano, travelers interested in more encounters with the magic of Walther von der Vogelweide can partake in a scenic hike in Lajen that includes strolling sun-kissed slopes to the Vogelweider Farm, purportedly the birthplace of Walther.
The 3-hour trek is enjoyable for all ages and skill levels, and the bird songs you’ll hear while walking where Walther once stepped makes it easy to see why he expressed a life-long fondness for the poets in flight.
Such a talent and so impactful a legend was Walther von der Vogelweide that he could not help but echo across time and ocean to touch the heart of the great American poet, Longfellow. In the late 1800s, Longfellow penned an ode paying respect to Walther of the Bird Meadow. Here are a few lines:
Then in vain, with cries discordant,
Clamorous round the Gothic spire,
Screamed the feathered Minnesingers
For the children of the choir.
Time has long effaced the inscriptions
On the cloister’s funeral stones,
And tradition only tells us
Where repose the poet’s bones.
But around the vast cathedral,
By sweet echoes multiplied,
Still the birds repeat the legend,
And the name of Vogelweide.
Does Vogelweide Deserve a Spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Of course, we only ask this question in jest. The obvious answer is no. No one will ever crank up a Vogelweide tune at their next house party. But it’s fun to peer way back into history to see how the roots of modern music began to form. Who knows? Without the rebellious vibe of Vogelweide, perhaps Elvis’s “shocking” dance moves in the 1950s would have never seen the light of the stage and The Beatles would forever have short hair and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” would have been really about well…diamonds.