July 23, 2009 -- Yodelling is a serious business in Bavaria -- so serious that it's the subject of a court case starting on Thursday in Munich.
The legal dispute focuses on who composed the unforgettable yodelling refrain "Holla-rä-di-ri, di-ri, di-ri" in the "Kufstein Song," one of the most famous Alpine folk songs, a perennial hit in beer tents at the Munich Oktoberfest.
The heirs of composer Karl Ganzer, who wrote the song 60 years ago, are suing music publisher Egon Frauenberger who claims to have invented the yodelling passage.
The Ganzer heirs want to stop Frauenberger from continuing to earn one twelfth of the royalties for the song, which remains a money spinner because it is performed so often in Germany and Austria where folk music shows continue to occupy prime time slots on public TV. Every time the song is played in public, it makes money.
"It's a very popular song at the Oktoberfest and for Oompah bands in general," Gernot Schulze, Frauenberger's lawyer, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
He says the Kufstein Song about the delights of the little Austrian town of that name -- "Framed by Mountains so Peaceful and Still" -- was originally composed by Karl Ganzer as a kind of tango -- but that Frauenberger, a friend of Ganzer's, made key changes to give the song more Alpine punch.
The original yodelling refrain was a pedestrian "cuckoo yodel": "Di-da, di-da-da-da." Schulze says Frauenberger came up with the racier, yodelling refrain that made the song such a lasting hit. "He made it more exciting to listen to in Oktoberfest tents, and also more exciting for the bands to play," says Schulze, adding: "The court will have to decide whether Karl Ganzer is the sole composer of the song."
Yodelling expert Josef Ecker, who teaches the vocal art to thousands of students every year, doesn't see how anyone can claim copyright credit for a yodel.
"Yodelling is made up of textless syllables. Syllables are free, they're public property," Ecker, Bavarian born and bred, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Ecker says demand for his yodelling lessons has been increasing sharply in recent years and that he expects to teach 3,000 students this year. The rise stems in part from resurgent interest in Bavarian folk traditions, but Ecker says a good yodel also brings spiritual satisfaction that is being appreciated by growing numbers of people around the world. "I give people an insight into an art form that stretches back thousands of years. It's about man conversing with nature, but it also has its origins in the need to communicate across large distances in the wilderness."
"The high-pitched sounds and changes in pitch cause sound waves that travel much further than words," says Ecker. Alpine farmers traditionally used a variety of yodels to call for help, arrange the sale of cattle or flirt with milkmaids in the next valley.
Lasting Love of Yodelling
Ecker explains that yodelling has only been used for social entertainment for the last two centuries, a trend that coincided with the emergence of Bavarian folk costumes that are still worn at parades and in beer tents at the Oktoberfest, and at Alpine festivals throughout the year.
But yodelling was never confined to the Alps. "It dates back to the Stone Age and it's used all over the world. Mongolian tribes use a form of yodelling to communicate across the steppe," says Ecker. Forms of yodelling have also been detected among African tribes as well as across Asia and the Americas.
According to Ecker, legend has it that in 400 AD, missionaries who were travelling along the banks of the Italian River Po were so delighted with the beauty of the scenery that they broke out into spontaneous yodelling and were killed by the locals who mistook the noise for a war cry.
"I've taught people from 110 countries including China and Japan, professional singers and actors, as well as corporate executives in motivation seminars," Ecker says. The yodelling instructor holds courses at Alpine locations in Bavaria but also travels to other parts of Germany. A basic Introduction to Yodelling course lasts a gruelling eight to 12 hours after which students get a Yodelling Diploma.
It doesn't take long to teach people the pitch changes, but the characteristic Bavarian rolling Rs are more of a challenge, he says. He also teaches students the basic yodelling syllables such as re, rü, ra, ri, yo. It's up to them how they string the syllables together, as long as there's not too much repetition, says Ecker.
"The breathing techniques and yodelling experience give people a feeling of joy that can last for weeks."