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.”