Aria Linguistics: O wär ich schon mit dir vereint

To get a better understanding of a German aria, many of my singer students have been asking me to translate and interpret its language. Most translations in the English versions of the libretti are made to fit the music and subsequently, some of the meaning gets lost or altered.

Here I am presenting the linguistics of Marzelline’s “O wär ich schon mit dir vereint” from Beethoven’s “Fidelio”. With the permission of the New York-based Opera Singers Initiative, I have added a video with soprano Samantha Britt (also known as Samantha Grenell-Zaidman) who sings the aria.

The Opera Singers Initiative introduces itself as “a collaborative, dynamic, arts and professional development organization that supports emerging professional classical performers. We are committed to teaching business education and entrepreneurial skills to opera and classical singers which we accomplish by providing artists with one-on-one mentoring and career development sessions with business and arts professionals, performance opportunities, and funding to pursue continued study and entrepreneurial ventures in opera.”

This aria is filled with hope and wishes. Marzelline loves Fidelio and she fantasizes about their life together as husband and wife. Nothing what Marzelline tells us is reality. It did not happen and it is not happening (and never will, as we will learn in the course of the opera). For more than three minutes, set into beautiful music, she presents us a thought experiment. So, no wonder that she begins her daydream with a subjunctive. She changes the verbs sein and dürfen into their subjunctive form, the proper form for thought experiments.

O wär ich schon mit dir vereint

Und dürfte Mann dich nennen!

In German grammar we call it subjunctive II (there are two of them). We can chose to create it with the auxiliary verb würden + infinitive (Ich würde mit dir vereint sein. Ich würde dich Mann nennen dürfen.) or by changing the verb altogether into its subjunctive form (sein = wären, dürfen = dürften).

By putting the subjunctive in first position, we not only express a wish to ourselves, but give it also a certain sense of urgency.

Wär ich schon… Dürfte ich …

She wishes to be with him vereint which is more than merely zusammen (together). Vereint means united. You find the word ein in it. Marzelline wants to be one with Fidelio, and she wishes to be able to call Fidelio her husband.

To be allowed = dürfen, (here: wish to be able to), husband = Mann

Listening to the beginning of the aria and to its words, we feel that Marzelline can barely restrain her longing.

She reassures to herself the custom of the times that a girl can admit only half of what she really means.

Ein Mädchen darf ja, was es meint,

Zur Hälfte nur bekennen.

The verb dürfen appears again, this time as indicative.

zur Hälfte = half of it

bekennen = to admit, to confess

The word ja serves here as an intensifier, saying, “as we all know”.

The reassurance doesn’t last too long. Marzelline restricts the statement with the conjunction doch (same meaning as aber) and the conditional wenn. She launches into a “if-than”-statement, and through five lines of “ifs” she keeps us in the dark. Note, that she has given up the subjunctive. She uses wenn as conditional, basically talking about future events.

Doch wenn ich nicht erröten muss,

Ob einem warmen Herzenskuss,

erröten = to blush

ob = here: because of + dative (the preposition wegen is more common, today)

der Herzenskuss = kiss of the heart

Wenn nichts uns stört auf Erden –

When nothing bothers us in this world

auf der Erde = (with article) on this earth,

auf Erden = in this world

Die Hoffnung schon erfüllt die Brust

Mit unaussprechlich süßer Lust,

Hope fills her bosom already (schon)

With unspeakably sweet desire (die Lust, not to confuse with lust.)

So, wenn, wenn, wenn

Now what?


Wie glücklich will ich werden!

How happy I want to become.

Now she goes further. In verse two she imagines the domestic life with Fidelio, the daily routine of happiness. No, wishful subjunctive, no conditional “ifs”, anymore – she lays out the future in present tense. Nothing is more certain for her than her everlasting bond with Fidelio.

In Ruhe stiller Häuslichkeit

Erwach ich jeden Morgen

She wakes up (erwachen) every morning into the restfullness (die Ruhe) of the quiet domesticity (well, that’s what it says). Ruhe stiller Häuslichkeit is the only genitive in this aria.

Wir grüßen uns mit Zärtlichkeit,

Der Fleiß verscheucht die Sorgen.

We greet each other with tenderness,

Hard work drives away the worries.

Und ist die Arbeit abgetan,

Arbeit abtun is an old phrase for finishing a day of hard work.

Dann schleicht die holde Nacht heran,

Dann ruhen die Beschwerden.

Then, the night approaches,

Than, the worries rest.

The separable verb heranschleichen actually means to creep up, but not when the night is hold (old word for dear, sweet). It describes the night as it descends, slowly and quietly.

Die Beschwerde (here in plural) normally means complaint.

The rest we know from verse one.

Marzellina feels happy just through her imagination.

Wie glücklich will ich werden!

Next update: Sunday, March 25th

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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