Of His Grace and You Donkey

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (part II): How the characters address and insult each other.



The second article in my series about the language of this Strauss opera examines the relationships between the characters in the Vorspiel. These relationships are expressed in salutations and insults of different degrees.


The characters in the Vorspiel seem to negotiate place and time of their performances, but in reality they displays the sentiments of their social classes and their views on art.

Each side thinks the other side has no right to make demands, either because of their inferior rank in the courtly society or because of their ignorance against the ennoblement of music. At the end, it all depends on the wishes of the patron, the gnädige Herr.



Personal and possessive pronouns: Sie, Er und Euer Gnaden

The patron never appears in the Vorspiel. He has his underling, the Haushofmeister. He is the contact person between the patron and the artists – or better the Musiklehrer; he never speaks to the Komponist or to Zerbinetta directly. The Haushofmeister thinks that he is closer to his master on the social ladder than to the lower classes, and therefore knows how to speak a pompous language. It takes a while during the exchange with the Musiklehrer until he addresses him with the Sie and the possessive Ihre, a recognition of the same class:

Ich wüsste nicht, wer außer meinem gnädigen Herrn, in dessen Palais Sie sich befinden und Ihre Kunstfertigkeiten heute zu produzieren die Ehre haben, etwas zu gestatten – geschweige denn anzuordnen hätte!”

The Komponist interacts mostly with the Musiklehrer, with the Lakai, the Perückenmacher, the Tenor, the Primadonna, and eventually with Zerbinetta.

Komponist to Lakai: At first he calls the lackey lieber Freund (dear friend) followed by an imperative without a bitte which makes it an order rather than a polite request:

Lieber Freund! Verschaffen Sie mir die Geigen. Richten Sie ihnen aus, dass sie sich hier versammeln sollen zu einer letzten, kurzen Verständigungsprobe.”

Only after the Lakai has denied the Komponist access to the backstage room where he believes to be his Primadonna, he resorts to the imposing third person Er, a way normally nobility used to address the servants.

Weiß Er, wer ich bin? Wer in meiner Oper singt, ist für mich jederzeit zu sprechen!”

Earlier, the Lakai has informed the Offizier about the woman he will find behind this door, addressing him with Euer Gnaden (your grace).

Hier finden Euer Gnaden die Mamsell Zerbinetta. Sie ist bei der Toilette. Ich werde anklopfen.”

Impatient and upset about the lackey’s overzealousness, the officer pushes him aside and says, using the imperative of sein lassen (= to refrain from something) and zum Teufel gehen (= go to hell!):

Lass Er das sein und geh’ Er zum Teufel.”

Although equal in rank, the Komponist addresses the Perückenmacher in third person, not with Er, but with a colloquial title: der Herr. He asks politely for a piece of paper to write down a musical idea:

Hat der Herr vielleicht ein Stückerl Schreibpapier?”

We encounter few possessive pronouns like the Haushofmeister’s Ihre Kunstfertigkeiten or samt Ihrem Eleven (samt = including, leads to dative; der Eleve = old for music student). When the Tenor complains about the wig the Perückenmacher has offered him, the Perückenmacher protests his bad behavior (misshelliges Betragen), using a very old personal pronoun: dero (your).

Now, how do the characters talk about the elephant in the room, the patron, early on described as the richest man in Vienna who is about to entertain his guests by showing them Zerbinetta’s vaudeville show and the composer’s opera, and, as the highpoint of the evening, grand fireworks?



The Haushofmeister speaks of him as der gnädige Herr (gracious lord) and conjugates the verbs attributed to him as if he was third person plural, not a mistake but a way to emphasize the nobility of the Herr:

Der gnädige Herr haben sich nunmehr wiederum anders besonnen.” And: “Mein gnädiger Herr belieben das von ihm selbst genehmigte Programm umzustoßen.”

The Musiklehrer slaps his forehead. He is indignant of this last-minute change of plans, but does not lose his countenance. He calls the patron Seine Gnaden although he conjugates sich vorstellen (to imagine) as third person singular as if he is talking about a regular mortal:

Ja, wie um aller Götter willen stellt sich denn Seine Gnaden das vor?”

Insults are the peppercorns of relationships

Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal spices up the dialogs to different degrees:

Komponist to the Lakai:
Eselsgesicht, sehr unverschämter frecher Esel, Eselskerl (der Esel = donkey; unverschämt = impertinent; frech = cheeky): The Komponist feels offended, appalled.

Komponist about Bacchus, and what Bacchus is not:
Kein selbstgefälliger Hanswurst mit einem Pantherfell (selbstgefällig = self-complacent; der Hanswurst = tomfool; das Pantherfell = fur of a panther; Hanswurst in einem Pantherfell = a pretencious person)

The Tenor rants agains the Perückenmacher:
der Lump (= rascal)

The Primadonna expresses to the Musiklehrer her displeasure that she has to be on stage with the coquettish Zerbinetta:
“Uns mit dieser Sorte von Leuten in einen Topf!” (= to be likened with these kind of people, to be put in the same category as these kind of people.)

Geht alles am Schnürchen?

The Linguistics of “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Part One.


S-Bahn, Tempelhof Feld

This is my first article of a series about the linguistics of the Strauss opera “Ariadne auf Naxos”. The series is based on a workshop, I recently conducted with cast members of the Berlin Opera Group. The Group will perform the opera this April in Berlin.

The Language

The opera is divided into two parts, the Vorspiel and the Oper, and accordingly, we find two language styles in the libretto.

The language of the Vorspiel tends to be more casual, almost a spoken language, a language of a conflict about the question when and how two artistically opposing pieces of musical theater should be performed. In the roughly fourty-five minutes of the Vorspiel and with a few characters, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal manages to present us a wide range of sentiments: Arrogance, hurt feelings, outrage, forgiveness and relief, outbursts of joy, vanity, and appeasement. In personal pronouns and in curse words as well, he shows us the relationship between the social classes. He strews particles throughout the Vorspiel, little words that express emotions of attitudes, and with that helps the singers to find out how to emphasize particular section.


The second part, the actual opera Ariadne auf Naxos, merging with the vaudeville improvisations of Zerbinetta’s troupe, speaks a much more contained language, not less passionat, but simple and poetic, that adapts to the drama and beauty of the music. The columns, dedicated to this part, will examine particular arias.


Today: Twenty Words and Phrases from the Vorspiel

Find important words and phrases, spoken and sung by some characters in the Vorspiel. Some of them are explained in German, some are translated into English.
Old words that are outdated or rarely used today, are marked with the color red.

vb = verb
adj = adjective
adb = adverb
m = masculine, gender of a noun
f = feminine, gender of a noun
n = neuter, gender of a noun


pressiert adj = unter Druck sein, hier: unter Zeitdruck; the verb: pressieren
gesonnen adj = in der Stimmung sein, to be in the mood for something
ausrichten vb = hier: eine Information an eine andere Person geben

The MUSIKLEHRER ‘s words:

Aufregung f = Nervösität
wider advb = gegen, today used in compound nouns like Widerstand (resistance), Widerspruch (objection, contradiction), Widersacher (adversary)
erzürnen vb = wütend werden, getting angry; the verb erzürnen stems from der Zorn (wrath)
ein starkes Stück colloquial = Skandal, Unverschämtheit (impudence)


The KOMPONIST’s words:

verschaffen vb = organisieren, besorgen, to get something
eintrichtern vb = The verb eintrichtern stems from der Trichter (funnel) and from an 16th century pedagogic textbook that suggests teaching and learning through drill and dull repetition.
Sinnbild n = symbol
schmachten vb = to yearn for someone or something melancholically
trachten (nach) vb = etwas haben und machen wollen, to pursue

The TANZMEISTER’s words:

Es geht wie am Schnürchen colloquial = alles funktioniert perfekt, das Schnürchen = eine dünne Schnur (string, cord)
entflohen adj, vb participle of entfliehen = to flee


Gemütsaufwallung f surge of emotions, emotionality; das Gemüt = mind, Aufwallung = surge

The LAKAI’s words:

Leidenschaft f = passion
Tafel f = table with delicious food


Verstiegenheit f = Exzentrik (in a negativ way)
töricht adj = foolish; stems from der Tor = the fool; das Tor (different article!) = gate
das Brandenburger Tor (Berlin landmark), der Brandenburger Tor (fool from Brandenburg)

The PRIMADONNA’s (Ariadne’s) word:

in einen Topf werfen colloquial = to put someone under one category with others – unjustifiedly; der Top = the pot; werfen = to throw



Sei’n wir wieder gut: The Composer’s Relief

Examine the aria “Sei’n wir wieder gut” – a warm-up for the upcoming workshop “Ariadne auf Naxos” on February 6th. More information below.


Sei’n wir wieder gut” is an aria of the opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. In it the character of der Komponist, performed by a mezzo-soprano, praises music as “the sacred one among the arts,” die heilige unter den Künsten.

He has endured some humiliation after he arrived at the palace of Vienna’s richest man. He was to present his opera seria “Ariadne auf Naxos,” when he learned that he has to share the stage and the performing time with the commeddia dell’arte troupe of the coquettish performer Zerbinetta. At first, der Komponist had refused, but then Zerbinetta persuaded him in the most flirtatious way to play along – successfully.

The tension falls away from his heart, when he proclaims to his impresario (der Musiklehrer) in an imperative, “Sei’n wir wieder gut.”


die Tiefen (plural) = die Tiefe, noun created from the adjective tief (deep)

die Tiefe = depth

das Dasein = existence as a philosophical term; da (there, here) + sein (to be)

unermesslich = immeasurable, fathomless; messen = to measure

manches = some things, derived from the pronoun and the article word manch = some, e.g. manchmal = sometimes

unterlegen = here: to add text to music; legen = to lay, under = unter

recht gut = pretty good; recht stems from richtig = correct.

lieblich = lovely

fürchterlich = horrible, dreadful; die Furcht = fear

der Mutige = noun indicating a person and derived from the adjective mutig; a person who is courageous. In German we can derive a noun describing a person from any adjective: der Ungeduldige (the impatient one, male), die Schnelle (the fast one, feminine), du Guter (the good one, male)

versammeln = to gather (people); sammeln = to gather, collect things

The aria begins with an imperative; the Komponist addresses himself and his impresario, so, he has to conjugate the verb sein accordingly (for first person plural wir).

Lets be good again!”
The verb sein is irregular. In imperative: (du) sei, (Sie) seien Sie, (ihr) seid, (wir) seien wir

Ich sehe jetzt alles mit anderen Augen!

It continues with a statement of change and reconciliation, a phrase German-speaking people would say also today when they change their view on things.

Now, I see everything with different eyes.”

Die Tiefen des Daseins sind unermesslich!
Mein lieber Freund,

Es gibt manches auf der Welt,

Das lässt sich nicht sagen,

In a straightforward language, the Komponist ends the statement with a conclusive thought.

The depths of existence are immeasurable! My dear friend,
There are some things in the world
That cannot be said. (Or: That cannot be expressed.)”

The combination reflexive + lassen + infinitive expresses a form of the passive voice when something can be done or is possible to be done. Das lässt sich nicht sagen = literally it lets itself not be said.

Die Dichter unterlegen ja recht gute Worte, recht gute.

Jedoch, jedoch, jedoch, jedoch, jedoch! –
Mut ist in mir, Mut, Freund!

The Komponist explains why some things cannot be expressed with words, which are after all the tools of poets. At first he praises the poets. They unterlegen (to add text to music or to highlight) pretty good words (recht gute Worte) but he modifies the praise with the particle ja, preparing the listener for an opposing or restrictive statement which opens with jedoch (however) – five times!
“Courage is in me, courage, friend!”

Die Welt ist lieblich

Und nicht fürchterlich dem Mutigen.

This sentence begins and ends with a noun, and in between the Komponist describes how the world relates to the courageous person. To the courageous person, the world is lovely and not terrible.

The phrase fürchterlich dem Mutigen appears as dative. Der Mutige is the indirect object and therefore must be expressed as dative while the adjective belongs to the predicate of the sentence. (Die Welt ist lieblich und nicht fürchterlich.)

Und was ist denn Musik?

Now, the Komponist begins to muse about music and to praise music, here adding the intensifier denn, making this a rhetorical question.

Musik ist eine heilige Kunst zu versammeln

Alle Arten von Mut wie Cherubim

Um einen strahlenden Thron, das ist Musik.

The librettist von Hofmannsthal, chose a word order similar to English:
“Music is a sacred art to gather
all kinds of courage, like cherubim
Around a shining throne; that is music.”

As in English, cherubim is plural for cherub, a biblical angel who guards paradise.

Und darum ist sie die heilige unter den Künsten.

And therefore, it is the sacred one among the arts.”

The pronoun sie stands for die Musik. Please note that the Komponist does not say that music is the most sacred art. He says, there is only one art that is sacred: music.

Workshop “Seien wir wieder gut – The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos”
Monday, February 6,
7 pm – 9 pm
Prachtwerk Cafe (Conference room), Ganghoferstraße 2, Berlin-Neukölln.

The event is free. Register at



The text of this article is an excerpt from the book “Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing”.
More information about the book: Click.




Workshop: The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos

In this house in Berlin on Heerstraße 2 in Charlottenburg, near Theodor-Heuss-Platz (U2), Richard Strauss wrote Ariadne auf Naxos in 1916. A little bit than 100 years later, we will talk about the language of this opera – in Berlin as well, on Ganghoferstraße 2 in Neukölln, near Karl-Marx-Straße (U7).



The fourth workshop of the series “German for Opera Singers” has the topic:

Seien wir wieder gut – The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos

Goal: The participants will understand the language of the libretto, the vocabulary and its subtleties, and how meaning, emotions and attitudes are expressed in the structure of sentences.

Content: Using chosen arias and excerpts of recitatives we will examine

- personal pronouns (Er, dero etc.) and what kind of relationships they reflect between the characters,
– word order (involving dative, accusative etc.) and where the librettist wants to put his emphasis,
– genitive and where and how it appears,
– particulates (doch, halt, noch etc.) and the emotions and attitudes they carry,
– swearwords and how strong and grave they are,

- fixed phrases, so called collocations (connections of words), that help to memorize parts of the text
– Viennese phrases and their charms, and what they reveal or hide.

What you can do: Bring your questions and your arias to discuss their language.

Who consults: Bernd Hendricks, German Language Consultant and author of the book

Ach ich fühl’s – German for
Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing.

Time: Monday, February 6, 7 pm – 9 pm

Place: Prachtwerk Cafe, conference room, Ganghoferstr. 2

Price: The workshop is free. A small donation to cover the rent of the room would be appreciated.

Review: I would like to ask the participants to rate and review the workshop in social media, and for the blog “Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers”. The workshop will be documented with photos, in a video or/and with an article for blogs and other publications.

Register: www.facebook.com/events/234371370305623/




Strauss lived in this building on Heerstraße 2 between 1913 and 1917. The plaque on the wall mentions that he composed here also Die Frau ohne Schatten. He left Berlin in Mai 1918 to work for the Hofoper in Vienna.


In the Eye of the Sopranos

What do singers say about the workshops
“German for Opera Singers”?

In a few days, you will be able to improve your writing skills for creating an e-mail audition request and putting together a CV in German.

What? With the topic “Ich komme. Haben Sie Zeit?”, I will conduct the third workshop of the series German for Opera Singers.

Bring your CV, cover letter, e-mail drafts etc.

Where? Prachtwerk Cafe, Ganghoferstraße 2, Berlin-Neukölln, conference room

When? Monday, January 23, 7 pm – 9 pm

How much? The workshop is free. A small donation to cover the (really low) rent of the room would be appreciated.

What do participants of previous workshops think?



It was really helpful! The entire session was done in German, which was really good for me as a non-native speaker. I would absolutely recommend friends work with Bernd. He focused on the things I needed to work on and was able to adapt to my language level without dumbing it down. He also gave me feedback on my CV, which was hugely helpful. I will absolutely work with Bernd again and I wholeheartedly recommend him to others!
Danielle Musick, Soprano, USA



For me, writing in German is not an easy task, especially when it comes to formal letter writing, and even more so when it comes to the oh so scary task of writing for agents!
Bernd’s workshop attacked all these issues, and in such a friendly and practical manner that the task really doesn’t seem as scary as before!

Maayan Goldenfeld, Soprano, Israel


I thought it was wonderfully interactive; I like how we had to say example email sentences that were written on the board. There is often a gap between speaking and writing and this class helped to close that gap. For instance, I have good example email drafts which I frequently reuse because I’m afraid that I don’t quite understand the nuances of the written German enough to change things for the situation. However, there are many instances in which I want to create new sentences for emails and feel intimidated and turn immediately to ‘google translate’ for help. I brought my computer to the workshop, but I thought it was great that we did not use our computers. We had to try to formulate sentences on our own and then we discussed them.
Samantha Britt, Lyric Coloratur Soprano, USA

Register here: https://www.facebook.com/events/161135214373900/

“Ich komme. Haben Sie Zeit?”



Come to the third workshop of the series German for Opera Singers.

Topic: “Ich komme. Haben Sie Zeit?”

Goal: Practice to write an e-mail request for a Vorsingen to an agency or opera house and put together a Lebenslauf in German.

Location: Prachtwerk Cafe, Ganghoferstraße 2, Berlin-Neukölln, conference room

Date: Monday, January 23, 7 pm – 9 pm

What you can do: Bring your CV, cover letter, e-mail drafts etc.

The teacher: Bernd Hendricks, German Language Consultant and author of the book
“Ach ich fühl’s – German for
Opera Singers in Three Acts:
Studying, Speaking, Singing”

Get a taste of my teaching style with my video.

Price: The workshop is free. A small donation to cover the (really low) rent of the room would be appreciated.

Review: I would like to ask the participants to rate and review the workshop in social media, and for the blog “Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers”. The workshop will be documented with photos, in a video or/and with an article for blogs and other publications.

Register here: https://www.facebook.com/events/161135214373900/




Linguistics: In des Lebens Frühlingstagen

In a cold, dark prison, Beethoven’s Florestan thinks back and cries out for light and his saving angel.


As the temperatures are dropping and the skies are filled with gray clouds, at least here in Berlin, we think about the fate of Florestan, the suffering prisoner in Beethoven’s Fidelio. In this aria he believes himself to be in the winter of his life, when he reminisces about des Lebens Frühlingstage. In my book “Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing” I analyse the vocabulary and the linguistics of this short and moving aria. Here are excerpts:

Background, content, style

For two years Florestan has been jailed in a state prison near Seville by the prison’s governor Pizarro, and for the past month he has been given less and less food and drink. Pizarro wants Floristan, his rival, the man who speaks the truth, a freedom fighter, to be dead. He is willing to kill Florestan himself, since the jailer Rocco has refused to do the bloody deed. Florestan is not aware that, determined to find and free him, his wife Leonore has entered the prison disguised as a young man called Fidelio. And so, in the darkness of the dungeon, Florestan cannot see any hope for escape or rescue anymore. While dramatic events are looming over his head, he makes peace with himself and the world.

The four elements that comprise this peace are cast into this aria: the better days worth remembering, truth that has brought him chains and suffering, contentment for having spoken the truth, and, eventually, the knowledge that Leonore will appear as an angel and lead him to heaven, to his ultimate freedom. The text and its sentence structure are simple and rhyming and alternates between different tenses.


fliehen = to flee, participle: geflohen
wagen = to dare
kühn = bold
der Lohn = wage, here: reward
willig = willing
schmählich = disgraceful
die Bahn = here: path
linde = gentle, sweet, soothing (old, mostly for air, wind)
säuseln = to whisper (old), here: to speak or sound softly
erhellen = to illuminate
rosig = rosy
trösten = to comfort, here: to console
himmlisch = heavenly
das Reich = realm, here: kingdom

The structure of the language and its intricacies

In des Lebens Frühlingstagen
Ist das Glück von mir geflohn!
Wahrheit wagt’ ich kühn zu sagen,
Und die Ketten sind mein Lohn.

Florestan’s first sentence is heartbreaking. He lost his happiness in the spring days of his life (des Lebens Frühlingstage, the “poet’s genitive”; today we say die Frühlingstage des Lebens), but he does not simply say “lost.” He connects happiness with a more active verb: Happiness has “fled” him. Fliehen is a verb of movement and therefore needs the auxiliary verb sein for the perfect tense: Das Glück ist geflohen. The reason for his misfortune follows: Wahrheit – truth – he cries it out as the first word in the sentence, followed by the verb (wagte, simple past of wagen) and the subject ich.

I boldly dared to speak the truth
and the chains are my reward”

The verb wagen needs a noun, an adverb, e.g., nichts, alles, or an activity (verb) as predicate. If the verb is the predicate, it must appear as infinitive (sagen) preceded by wagen (conjugated) plus zu: Ich wagt’ (kühn die Wahrheit) zu sagen.

Willig duld’ ich alle Schmerzen,
Ende schmählich meine Bahn;
Süßer Trost in meinem Herzen:
Meine Pflicht hab’ ich getan!

Florestan adds adverbs to verbs. He endures willingly (willig) and ends disgracefully (schmählich).

Willingly I endure all pains,
end disgracefully my path
sweet comfort in my heart:
My duty I have done!”

Und spür’ ich nicht linde, sanft säuselnde Luft?
Und ist nicht mein Grab mir erhellet?
Ich seh’, wie ein Engel im rosigen Duft
Sich tröstend zur Seite mir stellet,

There is no place where a human being longs more for fresh air, bright light, and his or her loved ones than the dungeons of a prison. That is why Florestan assigns not one but three descriptors (attributed adjectives) to the air: linde, sanft, säusenld. Close to death, he asks, whether he does not feel the “sweet, gently whispering” air.

And is not my grave illuminated to me (mir)?”

He sees how an angel smelling of rosy fragrance (der rosige Duft) steps consoling to his side.

Ein Engel, Leonoren, der Gattin, so gleich,
Der führt mich zur Freiheit ins himmlische Reich.

He recognizes that this angel is “so similar” (so gleich) to Leonore, his wife (die Gattin). The dative has to be applied in a comparison using gleich. Er ist seinem Bruder gleich = he looks and acts like his brother. Der Engel ist der Gattin gleich.

Luckely for all of us, it is not common today, but in Beethoven’s time even the name of the person had to be declined in dative.

Leonore, dativ: Leonoren

The first word in the last line, the article der refers to der Engel.

It leads me to freedom into the kingdom of heaven.”

Below you find a YouTube video with a recording of the Canadian tenor John Vickers, introduced by his statement about three things in opera “that are undefinable: Beauty and love and truth.”