Minnesang was a tradition of lyric- and songwriting in Germany that flourished in the Middle High German period, which began in the 12th century and continued into the 14th. People who wrote and performed Minnesang were known as Minnesänger, a song was called a Minnelied. The name derives from minne, the Middle High German word for love, as it was Minnesang’s main subject. The Minnesänger were similar to the Provençal troubadours and northern French trouvères in that they wrote love poetry in the tradition of courtly love in the High Middle Ages.
In the absence of reliable biographical information, there has been debate about the social status of the Minnesänger. Some clearly belonged to the higher nobility – the 14th century Codex Manesse includes songs by dukes, counts, kings, and the Emperor Henry VI. Some Minnesänger, as indicated by the title Meister (master), were clearly educated commoners, such as Meister Konrad von Würzburg. It is thought that many were ministeriales – members of a class of lower nobility, vassals of the great lords. Broadly speaking, the Minnesänger were writing and performing for their own social class at court, and should be thought of as courtiers rather than hired musicians. Friedrich von Hausen, for example, was part of the entourage of Friedrich Barbarossa, and died on crusade. As a reward for his service, Walther von der Vogelweide was given a fief by the Emperor Frederick II. Several of the best known Minnesänger are also noted for their epic poetry, among them Heinrich von Veldeke, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Hartmann von Aue.
The earliest texts date from around 1150; the earliest named Minnesänger are Der von Kürenberg and Dietmar von Aist, clearly writing in a native German tradition in the 3rd quarter of the 12th century. This is referred to as the Danubian tradition. From around 1170, German lyric poets came under the influence of the Provençal troubadours and the French trouvères. This is most obvious in the adoption of the strophic form of the canzone, at its most basic a 7-line strophe with the rhyme scheme ab|ab|cxc, and a musical AAB structure, but capable of many variations. A number of songs from this period match trouvère originals exactly in form, indicating that the German text could have been sung to an originally French tune, which is especially likely where there are significant commonalities of content. Such songs are termed contrafacta. For example, Friedrich von Hausen’s “Ich denke underwilen” is regarded as a contrafactum of Guiot de Provins’s “Ma joie premeraine”.
By 1190, the German poets began to again break free of Franco-Provençal influence. This period is regarded as the period of Classical Minnesang with Albrecht von Johansdorf, Heinrich von Morungen, Reinmar von Hagenau developing new themes and forms, reaching its culmination in Walther von der Vogelweide, regarded both in the Middle Ages and in the present day as the greatest of the Minnesänger. The later Minnesang, from around 1230, is marked by a partial turning away from the refined ethos of classical minnesang and by increasingly elaborate formal developments. The most notable of these later Minnesänger, Neidhart von Reuental introduces characters from lower social classes and often aims for humorous effects.
Only a small number of melodies have survived to the present day, mainly in manuscripts dating from the 15th century or later. There are a number of recordings of Minnesang using the original melodies, as well as Rock groups such as Ougenweide performing songs with modern instruments.
In the 15th century, Minnesang developed into and gave way to the tradition of the Meistersänger. The two traditions are quite different, however; Minnesänger were mainly aristocrats, while Meistersänger usually were commoners. At least two operas have been written about the Minnesang tradition: Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Richard Strauss’ Guntram.