When Richard Wagner wrote the last scene of Lohengrin singing farewell to the swan, the composer did not know that he had created a colloquial phrase as strong and lasting as his music.
Once in a while, everybody of German tongue says the phrase mein lieber Schwan. People show with mein lieber Schwan either surprise or an indignation they do not mean really seriously.
“Mein lieber Schwan! Das hast du aber gut gemacht!” (I did not really expect that you did so well; aber is here an intensifier.)
“Mein lieber Schwan! Du kommst heute das dritte Mal zu spät.” (Oh my, today you are late the third time.)
In the opera the swan becomes Gottfried. In the German language the swan becomes the verb schwanen. We use it with the dative. The synonym is ahnen, a word for forebode or to have a premonition.
“Mir schwant Böses.”
“Mir schwant, dass er morgen das vierte Mal zu spät kommt.”
However, the verb schwanen is older than the opera. The Grimm brothers wrote about it decades before Lohengrin was created. In ancient fables and myths, mysterious and prophetic women often appear in the guise of a swan. Usually, they do not tell things one can look forward to. They predict bad things. So, be aware: If someone utters the verb mir schwant followed by dass du or dass Sie, you better run without listening to the end of the sentence. You will know that your future does not hold good things for you.
In German, all nouns have a gender, at least one of the three: der (masculine), die (feminine), or das (neuter). Which one gets the most nouns?
The masculine article takes nouns ending with –ismus (Optimismus, Kapitalismus), or with –ing (Zwilling = twin, Flüchtling = refugee) as well as terms of the weather (Wind, Sturm) or terms of the calendar (seasons, months, days) or alcoholic beverages (except Bier which is neuter) or brand names of cars (Mercedes, BMW). The feminine article takes nouns ending with –ung (Wohnung, Rechnung), –heit (Freiheit = freedom, Feinheit = fineness, subtlety), –schaft (Freundschaft = friendship), – keit (Höflichkeit = politeness), –ei (Bäckerei) as well as all names of trees and flowers (Eiche, Rose). The neuter article takes all nouns ending with –chen or –lein (diminuitive: Vögelchen, Engelein), –ment (Instrument), –fon (Telefon), –nis (Bildnis) as well as names of metals (Gold, Silber).
So, who won?
The winner is … the feminine article! According to the Duden, the official dictionary, 46 percent of all nouns are feminine, 34 percent are masculine, and 20 percent are neuter. Only 0.1 percent of all nouns do not need an article at all, e.g. Aids, Nahost (Middle East), Allerheiligen (All Saint’s Day).
How many words has the German vocabulary? The Wortschatz (vocabulary; Wort = word; Schatz = treasure) changes constantly because ever-changing science, technology, media, and the influence of other cultures etc. bring us new words every day.
The editors of the Duden, the official German dictionary, estimate a Wortschatz between 300.000 and 500.000 words. A Muttersprachler (native speaker) uses around 12.000 to 16.000 words, among them 3.500 Fremdwörter (foreign words). The passive vocabulary, meaning words a person understands but does not use, is much higher: 50.000. However, Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749 – 1832), our great poet and provider of lyrics for many Lieder, had a Wortschatz of 90.000 words, according to the Goethe-Wörterbuch, a project of four German universities.
The most recent entries in the Duden are Klubkultur (feminine) and the verb vertwittern. The noun Klubkultur describes all cultural phenomena associated with techno clubs, like the music itself, the influence the clubs have on the life of a city and its young generation, dance, certain clothing, etc. The word came up during the covid pandemic when all clubs had to be closed for many months which threatened this important part of cultural life in Germany The verb vertwittern stems from the name of the Twitter service and has two meanings:
vertwittern = to spread a message through Twitter; to tweed. And reflexive: sich vertwittern = to send erroneously flase information through Twitter.
With the recitative and aria Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? Fidelio who has just overheard Pizarro’s order to kill the prisoner in the dungeon, becomes Leonore. She turns inward. Her aria is reflective and passionate. Therefore, she must speak and sing in a more complex language. For the next seven minutes or so—and in the last part of the series about Beethoven’s opera—she leads us through everything German grammar has to offer.
abscheulich = abhorrent; Abscheulicher = a person who is abhorrent hineilen sep. = to hurry to a place vorhaben sep. = to intend Grimm m = fierceness Tigersinn m = conscience of a tiger, conscience of a brave person Meereswoge f = wave of the sea, pl. Meereswogen Farbenbogen mobs. = rainbow niederblicken sep. = to look down widerspiegeln sep. = to reflect
The Poet’s Genitive
des Mitleids Ruf = cry of compassion, a call to be compassionate, today: der Ruf des Mitleids der Menschheit Stimme = voice of humanity, today: die Stimme der Menschheit der Seele Zorn und Wut = wrath and anger of the soul, today: Zorn und Wut der Seele
Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin? Was hast du vor in wildem Grimme? Des Mitleids Ruf, der Menschheit Stimme— rührt nichts mehr deinen Tigersinn?
She has expressed her dismay of Pizarro’s excess of hatred and lack of compassion. Now, two worlds collide—Pizarro and Leonore, Meereswogen and Farbenbogen, dark (dunkel) and bright (hell), somewhat interlinked through a conditional construction, which is enhanced by two identifiers, doch and so, but comes without the introductory word, the connector wenn. She could say, Wenn auch Zorn und Wut wie Meereswogen dir in der Seele toben, leuchtet mir ein Farbenbogen. Because she wants to be concise, she says instead:
Doch toben auch wie Meereswogen dir in der Seele Zorn und Wut, so leuchtet mir ein Farbenbogen, der hell auf dunklen Wolken ruht:
Note, the subject of this sentence, the things that do the toben (to rampage, to rage) are Zorn and Wut. Where do they do the toben? In der Seele (soul). In what way? Wie Meereswogen. Also note the last part of the sentence in which Leonore says, der hell auf dunklen Wolken ruht. The article der relates to the masculine noun Farbenbogen. Der Farbenbogen ruht auf dunklen Wolken. Not only that:
Der blickt so still, so friedlich nieder, der spiegelt alte Zeiten wider, und neu besänftigt wallt mein Blut.
In these last lines, Leonore’s Farbenbogen prevails over Pizarro’s Meereswogen. Since Farbenbogen is a masculine noun, it is represented by the pronoun der. It looks down quietly (still) and peacefully (friedlich) and it reflects (widerspiegeln refl.) those old times, when Florestan was free and and unfettered by Pizarro’s despotism. Hence, soothed again, her blood flows through her veins (wallen).
dringen = here: to get through, to reach; zur Stelle dringen = to get through to the place erbleichen = here: to fade erhellen = to lighten Gattenliebe f = marital love in Fesseln schlagen = to clap in irons = to shackle, simple past: [in Fesseln] schlugen, ich schlug tragen = here: to bear, simple past: trugen, ich trug
Trieb m = drive wanken = to waver
Her outrage has given way to calm. She calls upon hope by using the imperative three times, with three urgent requests: komm, lass, and erhell. Hope is light; that is what she intends to bring to the dungeons.
Komm Hoffnung, lass den letzten Stern der Müden nicht erbleichen! O komm, erhell’ mein Ziel, sei’s noch so fern,
She does not know how far away her goal (Ziel n) is. For her it does not matter, which she expresses with subjunctive 1, turning sein into sei: Sei es (be it) noch so fern (as far away as can be). It is love that moves her forward, love that will accomplish the Ziel. Note the future tense with the helping verb werden: Die Liebe wird es erreichen.
Die Liebe, sie wird’s erreichen. Ich folg’ dem inneren Triebe, ich wanke nicht, mich stärkt die Pflicht der treuen Gattenliebe!
The verb in the last statement is stärkt (to strengthen). Who or what strengthens whom or what? Does mich (Leonore) strengthen the duty (Pflicht) or does the duty strengthen mich (Leonore)?
O du, für den ich alles trug, könnt ich zur Stelle dringen, wo Bosheit dich in Fesseln schlug, und süßen Trost dir bringen!
In the first line, Leonore leaves no doubt for whom (für den) she bore everything: O du. Next, she proclaims her desires using the subjunctive könnte (could), the verb form for thought experiments. Because könnte only appears with infinitive verbs we can identify the actions she is longing to do: dringen and bringen. Könnte ich zur Stelle dringen und süßen Trost dir bringen. She wishes she could get to the place and bring him sweet comfort. Using wo, she adds extra information about that place. She tells us what happened there: Bosheit (here: evil) put him in shackles.
Ich folg’ dem inneren Triebe, ich wanke nicht, mich stärkt die Pflicht der treuen Gattenliebe!
Pizarro, the tyrant steps into the dungeon where his prisoner shall face his last moments and know—at least this is Pizarro’s plan—who will murder him with a dagger and the language of revenge. Read part six of the series about the linguistics of Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera.
Ha, welch ein Augenblick!
die Rache kühlen = lit. to cool revenge. “Revenge has cooled” means the avenger has satisfied his urge for revenge. Geschick n = here: fate wühlen = to rummage dahinstrecken sep. = here: to lay out, to strike to the floor
Ha, welch ein Augenblick! Die Rache werd ich kühlen, dich rufet dein Geschick! In seinem Herzen wühlen, O Wonne, großes Glück!
The prospect of killing his enemy thrills Pizarro so much that out of the first five lines, three end with an exclamation mark—the first after he cries out in excitement over the moment (Augenblick) that has finally arrived, the next after he evokes the fate that calls (rufet) Florestan. By beginning the sentence with dich (Florestan’s pronoun du when it receives an action), Pizarro seems to point at his victim, the receiver of fate’s call. Exhilarated by his imaginings he does not need a subject for in seinem Herzen wühlen as long as there is Wonne and Glück (happiness) and an exclamation mark. Of course, the subject, the person who is doing wühlen, is he, Pizarro.
Schon war ich nah, im Staube, dem lauten Spott zum Raube, dahingestreckt zu sein.
He looks back on a moment in which he was almost humiliated. He was nah (close) imStaube dahingestreckt zu sein (to be laid out in the dust). Why? What happened? After Staube he places a comma and inserts extra information, the phrase dem lauten Spott zum Raube, two nouns in the dative case. This tells us they cannot be active in the sentence. He fell victim to a Raub, a kind of a robbery, and the robber is Spott (mockery). We do not know what the mockery was about, but it came close to bringing down Pizarro.
Nun ist es mir geworden, den Mörder selbst zu morden; in seiner letzten Stunde, den Stahl in seiner Wunde, ihm noch ins Ohr zu schrein: Triumph! Der Sieg ist mein!
The steel in Florestan’s heart, the cry of victory—these images of triumph spur him on to the murder he is about to commit. The first line is the most important one in helping us understand what drives Pizarro, and it is strange as well: he could say, “Now it is my intention” or something similar, but once Rocco has declined to kill the prisoner, and with the minister’s arrival looming, Pizarro feels it is destiny that guides his actions: now, “it (es) has become (geworden) to him,” meaning it has become his fate to act. To finish this thought, he has to precede the verbs morden and schreien with zu. It has become his fate to murder and to scream.
Listen to Ha! Welch ein Augenblick! sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
The next parts of the Fidelio series are about the language of important arias. Today: Rocco’s famous Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben. Read excerpts from my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.
The Gold-Arie was Beethoven’s idea. He could not write an opera of liberation without including some observations on the power of gold—what it offers and what it oppresses. Rocco lectures Fidelio and Marzelline that marital life is worthless without monetary stimulus. Love is nothing if one cannot appease one’s hunger. Only money puts food on the table; not only that, money brings happiness to life and power to fruition. In the 1805 version of the aria, librettist Sonnleithner went so far as to list what else money can do: it can turn dignitary positions, jewels, and girls into goods. Money, Rocco sings in the second stanza, satisfies pride and revenge; the rich “should be ashamed,” he declares.
In 1806, the aria was removed from the score. Whether it fell victim to the censors or to the need to shorten the opera, we do not know. It reappeared in a benefit concert for a Rocco singer. Because the audience liked it, Beethoven decided to include it with some revisions in the 1814 version of the opera.
beineben obs. = besides, today: nebenbei fortschleppen refl. sep. = to drag oneself away einstellen refl. sep. = to appear, to rise
When the appeal of money is being pondered and its pros and cons are being weighed, the conditional clause must rule the sentence. It carries the conditions of having money on the side (Gold beineben), being happy (glücklich sein) and of gold coins clinking and rolling nicely in your pocket (in der Tasche fein klingelt und rollt). Wasting no time, Rocco begins his sentences with the conditional and lets the main statement follow.
He also deploys two ways to express the conditional: with and without an introductory word, a connector—here, wenn (if, when). He begins the aria with the conditional without a connector. In this case, he has to place the verb in position number one.
Hat man nicht auch Gold beineben, kann man nicht ganz glücklich sein; traurig schleppt sich fort das Leben, mancher Kummer stellt sich ein.
He starts with a description of what happens if you do not have money set aside. Your life drags on, worries will set in. He does not use the introductory word: Wenn man nicht auch Gold beineben hat, kann man nicht ganz glücklich sein. The wenn shows up when he changes the mood, when he describes the bright side of having money.
Doch wenn’s in der Tasche fein klingelt und rollt,
da hält man das Schicksal gefangen,
He pairs the wenn in the conditional clause with da in the main clause. Although da is not necessary, it keeps the balance between the two parts of the sentence. Money in one’s pocket keeps one’s fate (Schicksal) under control (here: gefangen). The verbs in the following sentence are verschafft and stillet. What is doing the verschaffen and stillen? What is the subject of the sentence? Macht? Liebe? Gold? Verlangen?
Und Macht und Liebe verschafft dir das Gold und stillet das kühnste Verlangen, das Glück dient wie ein Knecht für Sold, es ist ein schönes Ding, das Gold.
Here, wie does not mean “how.” It functions as a comparative particle. It tells us that two things are the same: happiness serves the way a servant serves for money.
verbinden = here: to go with Summe f = sum drum = therefore, also: darum Zufall m = coincidence Beutel m = here: purse for carrying money lenken = here: to guide
Wenn sich nichts mit nichts verbindet, ist und bleibt die Summe klein; wer bei Tisch nur Liebe findet, wird nach Tische hungrig sein.
One more conditional clause: if (wenn) nothing goes with nothing, the sum will be and will remain (bleibt) small. Have-nots will gain nothing if they do not strive for gold, Rocco believes. The next statement starts with wer—normally a question word inquiring about a person, but here a pronoun that relates to an unknown person in the relative clause. “The one who” (wer) finds only love at the table will be hungry after the meal. Note the different prepositions for table—bei and nach. The meaning changes depending on the preposition: am Tisch means just being at the table, bei Tisch being at the table and eating, and nach Tisch means just “after the meal.”
Drum lächle der Zufall euch gnädig und hold und segne und lenk euer Streben;
What or who does lächle, segne, and lenk? What or who is the subject of the sentence? Zufall? Euch? Streben?
Note that Rocco expresses a wish without using the helping verb mögen: Möge der Zufall lächeln, segnen und lenken. Instead, he indicates his desire by changing the spelling of the verb, using the so-called subjunctive 1: der Zufall lächle, segne, lenk. However, in the last part he introduces mögen. He wishes that Fidelio and Marzelline may live through many years, embrace each other, and have money in the purse.
Das Liebchen im Arme, im Beutel das Gold, so mögt ihr viel Jahre durchleben. Das Glück dient wie ein Knecht für Sold, es ist ein mächtig Ding, das Gold.
There is a third method of establishing a conditional clause, the hypotheticals, the thought experiment with wären, hätten, würden, etc. But examining what-ifs never crosses Rocco’s mind. Life is not made of blah-blah but of clear-cut alternatives: either you strive for money and have a good life or you don’t.
In Fidelio we listen to the characters singing beautiful music. What the characters hear is the clock ticking without mercy. If they do not solve their problem by a certain time, everything will fall apart for them—and: They have to use the appropriate language. Read part 4 of the series about the origin and linguistics of Beethoven’s Fidelio with excerpts of my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.
Florestan’s life hangs in the balance, at the mercy of the clock. While he, the enemy of the powerful, has made peace with his fate to die in the dungeon, his wife Leonore has no time to lose. She does not know of governor Pizarro’s plans to murder Florestan, but she must free her husband before the day prison guard Rocco has set for the wedding with his daughter Marzelline, the day when the governor intends to leave for Sevilla. Rocco’s humanity is tested. The pressure increases by the minute. How ought he act? Will he, the obedient servant of a tyrant, rise up at the end? Rocco’s passive resistance delays Pizarro’s plan. He spends time in the garden, spends time handing out extra rations to the prisoners, spends time inquiring if Fidelio can be with him in the dungeons. Rocco’s assistant Jaquino is getting impatient with Marzelline since his wooing is getting him nowhere. Marzelline snaps: Kein Wort, ich will nichts mehr hören. Be quiet, I do not want to hear anything more.
No one feels the urgency of the moment as keenly as the tyrant himself. Pizarro knows of the minister’s imminent arrival; he must act swiftly. His means is the imperative, the way of giving orders.
To give orders to a person you address with du, cut off the -en ending of the verb (Besteig! = climb!) and with irregular verbs, e.g., sehen, change the vowel:
Besteig den Turm! Sieh auf die Straßen!
To give orders to a person you address with Sie, follow Pizarro: Hauptmann! he yells at the captain, besteigen Sie den Turm, sehen Sie auf die Straßen von Sevilla. He uses the temporal connector sobald (as soon as): Sobald the Hauptmann sees a carriage, lassen Sie ein Signal geben (make the order to give a signal). Pizarro adds augenblicklich (immediately). He expects the “greatest promptitude” (größte Pünktlichkeit). Fort! auf eure Posten, he shouts.
He asks Rocco to murder Florestan, but Rocco refuses. Pizarro decides to do the bloody deed himself, laying out his plan in short breathless phrases: Ein Stoß – und er verstummt! One strike, and Florestan will fall silent! He only wishes Florestan could have more time to suffer: Er sterb in seinen Ketten, zu kurz war seine Pein. May he die in his chains, too short was his pain.
Eilef (hurry) and eilen are Pizarro’s words. He calls them out; Rocco calls them back.
Pizarro: Eile ihm sein Grab zu graben, zögre länger nicht, steig in den Kerker nieder.
Rocco: Nein, Herr, ich zögre länger nicht, ich steige eilend nieder. Here, Rocco turns the verb eilen into an adjective by adding a -d.
Rocco urges Fidelio with the adjective hurtig (swift). Fidelio must not hesitate, he insists: Nicht zaudern! Digging the grave, he tells him, will not take very long: Es währt nicht lang—währen means to last.
As the action drives toward the climax, as the enemies face each other for the first—and last!—time, with dagger and pistol and a fierce resolve between them, the tension becomes almost unbearable. Anything can happen, every second counts, and, yet, they hesitate—they look for the one-and-only moment to act. Words of intent become threats and curses, and as a result the subjunctive invades their speech. The subjunctive is a mode of verbs that expresses a wish; here it is a tool to heighten the suspense. We call it subjunctive 1, while subjunctive 2 indicates a thought experiment.
Pizarro wants Florestan to die. Instead of stating the fact er stirbt, he uses subjunctive 1: Er sterbe. May he die. He snarls at Florestan his intention to “rip the darkness of revenge to pieces”—to kill openly, in the light of day. Instead of stating the fact with der Rache Dunkel ist zerrissen, he says, der Rache Dunkel sei zerrissen. (In their poetic mind, the librettists see darkness as a shroud that can be torn or ripped to pieces.)
The subjunctive 1, also used for indirect speech, uses the first-person verb form (ich) sterbe for the third person (er, sie, es sterbe). The verb sein plays a special role. It changes from bin (ich bin) and ist (er ist) to sei, from sind (wir, sie sind) to seien.
Before Pizarro can thrust his dagger into Florestan’s heart, Leonore steps forward in this, the final moment that remains to her to act. Let him pierce her bosom first, she cries out, raises a pistol and warns, Der Tod sei dir geschworen für deine Mörderlust. May death be pledged to you (dir) for your murder-lust.
Soon read part 5 of the Fidelio series: No Happiness without Gold.
Fidelio has many languages: The language of Jein (neither ja nor nein as Leonore has to evade the romantic approaches of Marzelline, the prison ward’s daughter) or the language of rising and dwindling hope (of the prisoners and particularly Florestan), or the language of possession and dependence. (Here, the genitive kicks in!) However, nothing poses a greater contrast than the languages of murder and of joy. Read part 3 of the series about the origin and linguistics of Beethoven’s Fidelio with excerpts of my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.
Language of Murder.
The verb prefix zer- is a tool of destruction. You can reißen (to tear, to rip) something, e.g., a document, but it can still be restored. If you add zer-, you will have zerreißen, and the document is gone, torn to shreds. The participle of zerreißen is zerrissen: der Rache Dunkel sei zerrissen, as Pizarro cries out when he faces his enemy Florestan. May the darkness of vengeance be ripped to pieces.
The verb fleischen stems from Fleisch (meat) and means inflicting a flesh wound. Being fleischen (or gefleischt sein), the wounded person can heal and live on, but there is no chance of survival when the perpetrator adds a zer-. The victim will be zerfleischt—mauled, mangled. Pizarro goes for Florestan’s heart. Florestan shall know, wer ihm sein stolzes Herz zerfleischt.
Other terms of murder and fright are fürchten (to fear), Dolch m (dagger), Mörder m (murderer), Mörderlust f (lust to kill), Rächer m (avenger).
Language of Joy.
The German language provides expressions for joy beyond words with a little trick: it says what it is not by using un- as prefix or -los as suffix—or it simply adds über. Leonore and Florestan’s joy is namenlos (nameless), unnennbar (indescribable), and not only groß but übergroß. They feel himmlisches Entzücken (heavenly rapture). When Leonore removes Florestan’s shackles, both rejoice, Welch ein Augenblick, unaussprechlich süßes Glück. What a moment, unspeakably sweet happiness.
Read soon part 4 of the Fidelio series: The Language of Time.
Mozart wrote three operas with one librettist, da Ponte; Ludwig van Beethoven needed three librettists for one opera, Fidelio. It took nine years and three premieres until its final version reached its place in the opera repertoire throughout the world. Here is part 2 about the origin and language of Fidelio with excerpts from my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.
The first librettist, Joseph Sonnleithner, translated the original libretto from French into German, but did little to keep it short and concise. After the premiere in November 1805 fell through, Beethoven immediately went to work revising the opera with another librettist, Stephan von Breuning, a court official and like Beethoven an expatriate from Bonn. Von Breuning decluttered the text and condensed the libretto from three acts to two. The opera premiered again six months later under the title Leonore, before an excited audience and more enthusiastic critics. Only this time, Beethoven and the theater management were at odds with each other. The reason for their argument is not clear. Joseph Röckel, who sang Florestan, claimed Beethoven had accused the theater management of cheating him of his fees. When the management denied the allegation, Beethoven asked for his score and left.
Leonore, a.k.a. Fidelio, would have remained a faint memory as Beethoven’s sole attempt to write an opera, had there not been three Inspizienten (stage managers) at the Viennese Theater am Kärntnertor who at the brink of poverty chose it for a benefit performance eight years later. At that time, in 1814, Beethoven was at the height of his success, and performing his music would attract a huge audience—and with it good money for the Inspizienten. Beethoven happily agreed to donate the opera, but not without major changes. He asked the manager of the Theater an der Wien, Georg Friedrich Treitschke, to work on the libretto. As playwright and director, Treitschke had a better dramatic instinct than his predecessor. He rewrote the dialogues, shortening them. Beethoven duly “tore from the score” what Treitschke considered handlungsleer (devoid of action) and kalt, as he later recalled. He objected to Beethoven’s idea of turning Florestan’s opening piece into a grand aria. A starved prisoner who is close to death would not exhibit such an outburst of energy, Treitschke argued. He changed the text and in the final lines added an angel, Leonoren, der Gattin so gleich, “so similar” to Leonore, who leads Florestan to heaven. Beethoven, grateful for this solution, improvised for hours on Treitschke’s piano to work out the right music. Later he wrote to the librettist that the opera would have earned him, Beethoven, “the crown of a martyr” had Treitschke not “put into it so much effort and useful editing. You saved the stranded ship.”
The theater insisted on calling the opera Fidelio, not Leonore, as Beethoven had intended. The libretto now focused on liberation and on the struggle against tyranny. The opera itself, first performed on May 23, 1814, has been used by singers and directors as a political statement ever since.
No opera is more suited for these days, no opera is more current, more inspiring for those who fight for freedom and peace than Fidelio, Beethoven’s Befreiungsoper (rescue opera). The following series about the origin and the language of the opera is comprised of abstracts from my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.Part 1.
Fidelio celebrates the struggle against tyranny and for liberation, and it was a war that kept the audience from seeing its premiere. The Viennese were up in arms against Napoleon’s invasion. The city had been shelled for a week, when the curtain of the Theater an der Wien was lifted on November 20, 1805. Only the critics, oblivious against any harm that might occur, went to the performance. They dismissed the opera as too long and the text as repetitious. The theater management withdrew the opera after two performances. However, they could not take away its future.
In the previous decades, the liberal ideas of the French Revolution had been sweeping through intellectual and artistic circles in Europe. A new form of opera, the French “rescue opera”, began appearing in theaters everywhere, purveying dramatic stories in which the weak are saved from danger, and humanism triumphs. One of them, Léonore; ou, L’Amour conjugal, composed by Pierre Gaveaux, drew Beethoven’s attention. It had had its premiere in Paris five years earlier and was based on an event its librettist, Jean Nicolas Bouilly, had observed himself: during the bloody phase of the revolution, a noblewoman dressed as a peasant slipped into a jail to get close to her imprisoned husband. When guards appeared flanking him, she raised a pistol to demand his release, but the guards ducked and whisked the man away.
This story was perfect for the free-spirited composer. He teamed up with the poet Joseph Sonnleithner, who translated Bouilly’s libretto but kept the meter of the French original. Beethoven had been toying with the idea of traveling to Paris and presenting the opera in French, but he changed his mind. In Vienna, the words of truth—dangerous words—should be spoken and sung in German.
The greatest measure of success for a piece of art, especially an eighteenth-century libretto, is its failure at the censor’s office. Fidelio received this honor almost from the get-go. The cast had already been chosen and the rehearsals had just begun when the Polizei-Hofstelle, the censors of the Kaiser, banned the text. Obviously, it was not enough that Sonnleithner kept Bouilly’s choice of location, Spain, while moving the time period of the plot to the sixteenth century. The censors considered the libretto’s ideas too dangerous for the aristocratic regime. Sonnleithner responded with a well-worded letter, pleading innocence to the best of his ability. Fidelio portrays nothing more than a “touching image of female virtue and of the evil governor who seeks vengeance solely for private reasons.” Indicating he might enjoy the sympathies of an authority higher than the censors, he wrote that Empress Maria Theresa herself found the text “very beautiful.” Also, and this did the trick, the theater had planned to premiere the opera on the empress’s saint’s day. Three days later, the ban was lifted.