Of His Grace and You Donkey

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (part II): How the characters address and insult each other.


The second article in my series about the language of this Strauss opera examines the relationships between the characters in the Vorspiel. These relationships are expressed in salutations and insults of different degrees.


The characters in the Vorspiel seem to negotiate place and time of their performances, but in reality they displays the sentiments of their social classes and their views on art.

Each side thinks the other side has no right to make demands, either because of their inferior rank in the courtly society or because of their ignorance against the ennoblement of music. At the end, it all depends on the wishes of the patron, the gnädige Herr.



Personal and possessive pronouns: Sie, Er und Euer Gnaden

The patron never appears in the Vorspiel. He has his underling, the Haushofmeister. He is the contact person between the patron and the artists – or better the Musiklehrer; he never speaks to the Komponist or to Zerbinetta directly. The Haushofmeister thinks that he is closer to his master on the social ladder than to the lower classes, and therefore knows how to speak a pompous language. It takes a while during the exchange with the Musiklehrer until he addresses him with the Sie and the possessive Ihre, a recognition of the same class:

Ich wüsste nicht, wer außer meinem gnädigen Herrn, in dessen Palais Sie sich befinden und Ihre Kunstfertigkeiten heute zu produzieren die Ehre haben, etwas zu gestatten – geschweige denn anzuordnen hätte!”

The Komponist interacts mostly with the Musiklehrer, with the Lakai, the Perückenmacher, the Tenor, the Primadonna, and eventually with Zerbinetta.

Komponist to Lakai: At first he calls the lackey lieber Freund (dear friend) followed by an imperative without a bitte which makes it an order rather than a polite request:

Lieber Freund! Verschaffen Sie mir die Geigen. Richten Sie ihnen aus, dass sie sich hier versammeln sollen zu einer letzten, kurzen Verständigungsprobe.”

Only after the Lakai has denied the Komponist access to the backstage room where he believes to be his Primadonna, he resorts to the imposing third person Er, a way normally nobility used to address the servants.

Weiß Er, wer ich bin? Wer in meiner Oper singt, ist für mich jederzeit zu sprechen!”

Earlier, the Lakai has informed the Offizier about the woman he will find behind this door, addressing him with Euer Gnaden (your grace).

Hier finden Euer Gnaden die Mamsell Zerbinetta. Sie ist bei der Toilette. Ich werde anklopfen.”

Impatient and upset about the lackey’s overzealousness, the officer pushes him aside and says, using the imperative of sein lassen (= to refrain from something) and zum Teufel gehen (= go to hell!):

Lass Er das sein und geh’ Er zum Teufel.”

Although equal in rank, the Komponist addresses the Perückenmacher in third person, not with Er, but with a colloquial title: der Herr. He asks politely for a piece of paper to write down a musical idea:

Hat der Herr vielleicht ein Stückerl Schreibpapier?”

We encounter few possessive pronouns like the Haushofmeister’s Ihre Kunstfertigkeiten or samt Ihrem Eleven (samt = including, leads to dative; der Eleve = old for music student). When the Tenor complains about the wig the Perückenmacher has offered him, the Perückenmacher protests his bad behavior (misshelliges Betragen), using a very old personal pronoun: dero (your).

Now, how do the characters talk about the elephant in the room, the patron, early on described as the richest man in Vienna who is about to entertain his guests by showing them Zerbinetta’s vaudeville show and the composer’s opera, and, as the highpoint of the evening, grand fireworks?



The Haushofmeister speaks of him as der gnädige Herr (gracious lord) and conjugates the verbs attributed to him as if he was third person plural, not a mistake but a way to emphasize the nobility of the Herr:

Der gnädige Herr haben sich nunmehr wiederum anders besonnen.” And: “Mein gnädiger Herr belieben das von ihm selbst genehmigte Programm umzustoßen.”

The Musiklehrer slaps his forehead. He is indignant of this last-minute change of plans, but does not lose his countenance. He calls the patron Seine Gnaden although he conjugates sich vorstellen (to imagine) as third person singular as if he is talking about a regular mortal:

Ja, wie um aller Götter willen stellt sich denn Seine Gnaden das vor?”

Insults are the peppercorns of relationships

Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal spices up the dialogs to different degrees:

Komponist to the Lakai:
Eselsgesicht, sehr unverschämter frecher Esel, Eselskerl (der Esel = donkey; unverschämt = impertinent; frech = cheeky): The Komponist feels offended, appalled.

Komponist about Bacchus, and what Bacchus is not:
Kein selbstgefälliger Hanswurst mit einem Pantherfell (selbstgefällig = self-complacent; der Hanswurst = tomfool; das Pantherfell = fur of a panther; Hanswurst in einem Pantherfell = a pretencious person)

The Tenor rants agains the Perückenmacher:
der Lump (= rascal)

The Primadonna expresses to the Musiklehrer her displeasure that she has to be on stage with the coquettish Zerbinetta:
“Uns mit dieser Sorte von Leuten in einen Topf!” (= to be likened with these kind of people, to be put in the same category as these kind of people.)

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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