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Old words that are outdated or rarely used today, are marked with the color red.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



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.

One thought on “Geht alles am Schnürchen?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s