Der Hölle Rache – The Genitive, Part 2

Frontpage headline with a genitive: Opern-Revolution des Jahres

For reasons I don’t know the genitive case is fading from spoken and written German. This has nothing to do with its function to express possession and dependency. Both themes are of undying interest of human beings, no matter what language they speak. Instead, the dative, this big, fat grammatical case, has bullied its way into the realms of the genitive, swinging the preposition von like a stick, even backstage. In front of the dressing room of soprano Frau Nachtigall lies a bouquet of flowers with a little card carrying a note of an anonymous admirer.

“Das sind die Blumen der Sopranistin, Frau Nachtigall”, would be a great statement. Frau Nachtigall will be happy.

It is also possible that we hear, “Das sind die Blumen von der Sopranistin, Frau Nachtigall.”

Big mouth dative blocks the door with its von and eliminates all subtleties. That is to say, the latter statement indicates that the Sopranistin herself provided the flowers. She bought them and put them here in front of the door of her dressing-room. It is better to say, “Das sind die Blumen der Sopranistin. Die Blumen sind von einem Bewunderer.” (der Bewunderer = admirer; bewundern = to admire)

Luckily, the genitive is preserved in the librettos of the most beautiful operas and in the greatest arias. More than that, it appears refined. The words are not just connected by the articles des (for masculine and neuter nouns) or der (for feminine nouns and plural). Often they are beautifully arranged. The phrase die Rache der Hölle becomes der Hölle Rache.

I like to call this form the “poet’s genitive” because it sounds elegant and sophisticated. What sounds normal for English ears, sounds noble to German ears. For me, the English phrase “the soprano’s flowers” sounds beautiful; the phrases “the other guy’s car” or “the taxpayer’s money” are filled with light and wonder.

The genitive heats up the aria “Der Hölle Rache” four times, twice in form of the poet’s genitive.

Der Hölle Rache (1) kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro Todesschmerzen (2 – a compound noun with the genitive’s -es in the middle),
So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Verstoßen sei auf ewig und verlassen,
Zertrümmert alle Bande der Natur (3),
Wenn nicht durch dich Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört Rache, Götter! Hört der Mutter Schwur (4 – poet’s genitive, der Schwur der Mutter.)

Other examples of the “poet’s genitive” are :

In des Lebens Frühlingstagen = in den Frühlingstagen des Lebens (Florestan’s aria in Fidelio),

des Meeres tiefsten Schlund = der tiefste Schlund des Meeres, der Schiffe furchtbar’ Grab = das furchtbare Grab der Schiffe, des Meer’s barbar’scher Sohn= der barbarische Sohn des Meeres (just three from a barrage of genitive in the Fliegender Holländer’s “Die Frist ist um”), and, of course, last but not least, Pamina’s

Ewig hin der Liebe Glück = das Glück der Liebe.

Next update, Sunday, June 10th : Statt, wegen, trotz – The Genitive, Part 3

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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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