Mendelssohn: Auf Flügeln des Gesanges

March 016


In 1834, Felix Mendelssohn set into music (= vertonen) a poem by Heinrich Heine, called “Auf Flügeln des Gesanges.” This Lied is as romanic as the poem; the words are light and shaped to flow on a soft wave on music. Heinrich Heine was already a renowned poet when he published this poem seven years earlier in his first poetry collection, “Buch der Lieder” (book of songs). The book was the ultimate expression of a new style in poetry that was less distinguishable from folk songs than previous styles. It stood out in its simplicity.

Auf Flügeln des Gesanges” weaves together images of love and music, and sends the reader and – with Mendelssohn’s help – the listener on a trip on the wings of song (der Gesang = singing, song, but not “the” song). The language learner can join on a dream-like journey through all important aspects of German grammar.

Grammar is a complicated machinery, but a master like Heinrich Heine can use all its possibilities to create a simple poem, a jewel of language.

At the end of this article, you will find an interpretation of the song by the great American soprano Barbara Bonney. It was taken from YouTube.

Vocabulary, first stanza:

die Flügel (pl.) = wings
der Gesang = the singing, song (but not “the” song)
das Herzliebchen = little sweetheart (Herzliebe = sweetheart, the ending -chen makes it small, diminuitive)
die Flur, pl: die Fluren = meadow
der Ganges = (great river in Asia with religious significance to Hindus)
wissen = to know (ich weiß, du weißt, wir wissen etc.)
der Ort = place

Auf Flügeln des Gesanges,
Herzliebchen, trag’ ich dich fort,
Fort nach den Fluren des Ganges,
Dort weiß ich den schönsten Ort.

In the first four lines, we already encounter all four cases of the German language. A case describes the role a noun plays in a sentence. If the role changes, the article has to change accordingly (der > den, dem, or des; die > der; das > dem or des, plural die > den, der).

In line 1 and 2 we learn that “ich”, the first person narrator, carries dich, Herzliebchen, meaning “you, little sweatheart” away (fort). Where does the narrator carry dich? On the wings. If we assign die Flügel as a place of our action, we have to apply a case, called “dative.” There is a definite article for plural (die = the), but no indefinite article for plural, neither in English nor in German. In German thoug, there is a little “n” attached to Flügel. It tells us: Die Flügel are a place of action, namely tragen (to carry).

The first line tells us, the wings are a part of something, of song (der Gesang) in this instance. Therefore, the next case occurs: the genitive. A genitive tells us, a noun (here der Gesang) is possessing another noun (die Flügel). The article der turns into des, and the “s” walks up to the end of Gesang and claims, “Right now, I am the owner of Flügel!”

The nominative, the person or thing (ich) that is active in the sentence and associated with the verb follows in the second line. In the third line, the preposition nach leads to a dative (die Fluren turn into den Fluren). Following, we find a genitive (des Ganges), and eventually, the fourth line presents us the object of the sentence, the thing that is receiving the action (wissen, ich weiß), namely der Ort (the place). If a masculine noun is passive and not associated with the verb, then its article der turns into den.

On wings of song,
Little sweetheart I carry you away,
Away to the meadows of the Ganges
There I know the most beautiful place
(beautiful = schön, superlative = schönster Ort)

Vocabulary, second stanza:

liegen = to lie, here: to situate
rot = red, blühen = bloom, blossom, here compound word: rotblühend,
probably refering to a garden of red flax
der Mondenschein = moonlight
die Lotusblume = lotus flower
erwarten = to expect
traut (old), today: vertraut = close, intimate
das Schwesterlein = little sister; the ending -lein creates a diminuitive like the ending -chen.
(You also can say Schwesterchen.)

Dort liegt ein rotblühender Garten
Im stillen Mondenschein;
Die Lotosblumen erwarten
Ihr trautes Schwesterlein.

There lies a red and blooming garden
In the quiet moonlight;
The lotus flowers expect
Their close little sister.

Vocabulary, third stanza:

die Veilchen = violet flower
kichern = to giggle
kosen = to fond
schauen = to look, to gaze
der Stern, pl.: die Sterne, dative: den Sternen = the star, stars
empor = up
heimlich = secretly
erzählen = to tell
duften = to scent, duftend = fragrant
das Märchen = fairy tale
das Ohr = ear

The word “sich” in the fourth line signifies something reflexive. Die Rosen erzählen duftende Märchen ins Ohr. To whom? To each other, thus, sie erzählen sich …

Die Veilchen kichern und kosen,
Und schaun nach den Sternen empor;
Heimlich erzählen die Rosen
Sich duftende Märchen ins Ohr.

The violets giggle and fond,
And gaze up at the stars;
Secretly, the roses tell,
fragrant fairy tales into each other’s ear

Vocabulary, fourth stanza:

hüpfen = to hop, to bounce
herbei = adverb indicating a movement towards the place of reference
lauschen = to listen intensively
fromm = pious
klug = intelligent
die Gazelle = gazelle
die Ferne = distance
rauschen = to whoosh, to rustle
heilig = holy, der Strom = die Welle, pl.: die Wellen = the wave

Heine does something interesting with the gazells and with the waves. He puts them at the very end of the thought and places their activities, the verbs (hüpfen, lauschen, and rauschen) at the beginning. It is possible to do that by using the pronoun “es” in the beginning. In line 4 we see another genitive, the old-fashioned “poet’s genitive” des heiligen Stromes Wellen. Today we would say, “die Wellen des heiligen Stromes.”

Es hüpfen herbei und lauschen
Die frommen, klugen Gazell’n;
Und in der Ferne rauschen
Des heiligen Stromes Well’n.

Hopping and listening
the pious, smart gazelles come together (= herbei)
In the distance are whooshing
the sacred river’s waves

Vocabulary, fifth stanza:

wollen = to want
niedersinken = here: to lay down
unter = under
der Palmenbaum = palm tree
die Ruhe = rest

träumen = to dream
selig = blessed

In its structure and grammar, the last stanza is the simplest of the poem.

Dort wollen wir niedersinken
Unter dem Palmenbaum,
Und Liebe und Ruhe trinken,
Und träumen seligen Traum.

There we will lay down
Under the palm tree
And drink love and rest
And dream a blissful dream.




Published by


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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