There are two major phases of Goethe's interest in ballads. The first began in the Sturm und Drang period. Encouraged by Herder while he was a student in Strassburg, Goethe began collecting folk ballads. Among his own ballads in this folk vein are Der Fischer (1778) and Der Erlkönig (1782). Later, in 1797, he and Schiller entered into a ballad-writing competition. This competition occurred as the two were giving much thought to the "essence" of various literary genres, including the ballad. Among the ballads Goethe produced were Der Schatzgraber, Die Braut von Corinth, Der Gott und der Bajadere, and Der Totentanz (on which I posted some time ago). To my mind, they are very "thought out," removed from the seeming spontaneity of the earlier ballads. Still, on an intellectual level they are often pleasing.
Johanna Sebus concerned a real event, the heroic efforts of a young woman to save others after ice on the Rhein had broken and caused a dam to break, thereby flooding the village of Cleve in 1809. Reports circulated of her heroism and of her ultimate drowning. The reports were sent to Goethe by a friend who prompted him to write on the subject. After writing his ballad, Goethe sent it to Zelter, who sent the cantata to Goethe in early 1810. Schubert also attempted a composition, but it remains fragmentary. Obviously the heroism of Johanna, not to mention Goethe's memorial, led to many illustrations of the incident, including the "Romanticized" one at the top by Friedrich Bury (who also painted a portrait of Goethe, which I will post at another time).
In 1821, in Über Kunst und Altertum, Goethe compared the ballad form to "a living Ur-egg" that contains all poetic possibilities. The poet makes use of all three genres (Grundarten) in order to express what should stimulate the imagination as well as occupy the mind: "he can begin lyrically, epically, or dramatically and, as he wishes, continue by altering the form and rush to the conclusion or draw it out as long as he wishes. The refrain, the repetition of the same final sound, endows this poetic form [Dichtart] with its distinctive lyric character."
Picture credit: RP-Online