German Word of the Week: Lebenswallen

Reading Hans Joachim Moser's 1958 book Musikgeschichte in 100 Lebensbildern (Music history in 100 Biographical Sketches). Moser (g) was a famous German musicologist and prolific author of books about Western music for a high-middlebrow audience. Moser's biographical sketches are lively, readable, but also sophisticated — he gently dismantles myths such as Palestrina 'saving' Catholic religious music, and isn't afraid to point out works and composers he thinks are under- or over-rated. Moser was also a Nazi, joining the party in 1936 and becoming a senior musical functionary. Among other dubious deeds, he oversaw the 'Aryanization' of Händel's oratorios in the early 1940s.

The book isn't ideologically inflected, though. Granted, lesser-known German composers (Schein, Schütz, Scheidt, Biber even Oswald von Wolkenstein) get more attention than they might in a book by a Frenchman, but this is to be expected. Moser is by no means parochial, and if you ask me, many of these German masters are a bit underappreciated outside of Germany.

At once point, Moser refers to the Lebenswallen of the well-traveled Orlandus de Lassus, which caused me to sit up and say: 'What the fuck ist ein Lebenswallen'? Leben is life, and forms the root of many German compounds: Lebenslust, Lebensauffassung (idea of what life is for), lebenslang (lifelong), even the useful Lebensmüde (tired of life, used of someone who's either suicidal or about to do something extremely stupid and dangerous, as in 'You're really going to drink that piss-colored Sochi tapwater? What are you, Lebensmüde?).

Wallen is a verb meaning, variously, to seethe, bubble or flow. So apparently a Lebenswallen is a seething, bubbling, foaming flow of life. I could find only very few uses of the word in German. One of these is typical, from an 1821 book entitled 'Investigation of Life-Magnetism (Lebensmagnetismus) and Clairvoyancy' by one Johann Karl Passavant:

Screenshot 2014-02-07 14.04.28

The middle paragraph reads: 'From the unsearchable depths of Being, universal Father of things, emerges the God-revealing life-source of all existence, the eternal word of creation (the Logos), and the worlds are created and disappear through the flow of life (Lebenswallen), the breath (spirit) of God, who, all-inspiring, fills the universe.'

Lebenswallen, like Afterkind seems to have fallen into disuse. Together, we can and will usher this fine word back into everyday use.

8 thoughts on “German Word of the Week: Lebenswallen

  1. The problem is not the word Lebenswallen, that’s just another compound – but very uncommon. The verb “wallen” is the problem. That word is really old fashioned and most Germans will probably connect it only to lyrics or old German literature.

    What a strong connotation of wallen is, is that it’s is a lively, sudden, leaving it’s boundaries and hard to stop flow of a liquid. Rather more than fast. Probably a bit like a surge – if I understand surge correctly.

    In a compound with Leben it is a very positive word that stresses the unstoppable aspect. That’s what compounds are great for.

    There are very few circumstances where a modern German would use either word.



  2. I have never encountered “Lebenswallen” before.
    But “wallen” also means to walk, apparently it expresses movement in a rather general fashion,
    compare “Wallfahrt”, “Wallfahrer” (a pilgrimage on foot) and the spell to get the broom to walk and carry water in Goethe’s famous poem “Der Zauberlehrling”:
    “Walle! walle
    Manche Strecke,
    Daß, zum Zwecke,
    Wasser fließe,
    Und mit reichem vollem Schwalle
    Zu dem Bade sich ergieße.”

    In the context of Lasso’s biography it might be old-fashioned for what we would call “Lebensweg”. In (usually religious) poetry one will also find “Lebensreise”


  3. @Rebecca: That was the first thing I checked after Googling Moser. And yes, it covers all the usual suspects (Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Mahler, Schoenberg, etc.). I haven’t gotten quite that far in the reading yet, but their inclusion means he thinks they’re peerless geniuses, and the entries reveal no red flags. He wrote the book in 1958, after all, when most educated Germans were strenuously ignoring the recent unpleasantness. My guess is that he was more of an opportunist fellow-traveler than a fanatic. After all, I’m sure a lot of university positions formerly occupied by Jews were opening up in the 1930s…


  4. For Richard Wagner, wallen was a useful enough word that he stuck it right in the very beginning of the first act of Rheingold:

    Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle!
    walle zur Wiege! Wagalaweia!
    Wallala weiala weia!

    Watch Woglinde and her sisters try, and fail, to guard the Rheingold from Alberich here (link NSFW in hysterically prudish places).

    In contemporary usage, you will find the word as part of the compound noun Hitzewallungen (climacterial hot flashes), also as Aufwallung (“er verspürte Aufwallungen des Zorns”) — equivalent to “upwelling” in English. Wallen should be used sparingly, but if you’re a good writer you know that already.


  5. Actually, one can sometimes find quite a bit of antisemitic clichees in guides to classical music (Konzertführer) of the ’50ties (and later). Either quickly updated from older stuff or reproducing prejudice older than the “1000 years”. Like glibness and shallowness in Mendelssohn or pretentiousness, chaos and exaggeration in Mahler etc.

    BTW bit of entertaining trivia: Moser’s daughter Edda was a famous opera soprano and a favorite artist of former chancellor Kohl.


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