Eben darum – Hidden Emotions

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (part III): Particles tell what the characters feel.


Ariadne auf Naxos” contains two types of language: A noble language expressing suffering or joy or virtues as honesty, courage, love, faithfulness, or altruism; and a language we normally speak when we engage in little jokes, gossip, aggressive or soothing statements etc.


In the latter more then in the first, we often use particles, little words that never change, and consequently are never subjected to declension. They are scattered throughout our language in such a large number that we are tempted to call them its glue, although a sentence can express our thoughts sufficiently without them. However, particles are words that tell us the attitudes or feelings of the speaker (or singer). They emphasise, amplify, confirm or affirm, show surprise or hesitation, and they tell the singers the underlying emotions of the sentence they are singing. Those words have often a primary meaning, but in context they function as particles: doch, gerade, noch, halt, eben, so, ja, gern, nämlich, ganz etc. There are many more.

The libretti of Hugo von Hofmannsthal are full of them, especially when they describe scenes in which the characters are uncertain or passioned, or about to act with courage or want to hide intentions. We find many of them in “Der Rosenkavalier”, and some of course in “Ariadne auf Naxos”, especially in the Vorspiel. Here are examples:

The Haushofmeister informs the Musiklehrer that the opera has to be curtailed to the needs of the patron and his guests who want to be entertained by a vaudeville show as well. The Musiklehrer expresses his indignation:

Die Opera seria Ariadne wurde eigens für diese festliche Veranstaltung komponiert.

He can say that without the word eigens, but he wants to make a point: This opera exists only because of these festivities and of nothing else.
eigens = specifically, ad hoc

Although distressed by the ill treatment he and his opera has to suffer, the Komponist continues to compose. He has a musical idea, wants to write it down and asks the Perückenmacher for a piece of paper (ein Stückerl Schreibpapier, Stückerl is Viennese for a little piece.):

Hat der Herr vielleicht ein Stückerl Schreibpapier?
Hätt’ mir
gern was aufnotiert!
Ich vergess’
nämlich gar so leicht.

We can sense his fear of getting rejected again behind this polite request. He addresses the Perückenmacher in the very polite third person der Herr, and asks if the gentleman has vielleicht (maybe) a piece of paper. Although to say that in this context it is not necessary, he then indicates the reason (was aufnotieren), only to make it sound cute and humble, almost submissive, with the word gern.
He gives also an apology: He forgets easily. With nämlich gar he portaits himself as an amiable absent-minded man. Who would deny him a little piece of paper?

When the Komponist later indicates to the Musiklehrer that he would like to withdraw the opera altogether, the Musiklehrer advises to stay on, to compromise and to make the changes as requested. This is the first time the Komponist is presenting his work, and he should not mess up this opportunity with a scandal. The Musiklehrer weighs in his life experience. He is thirty years older than the Komponist (Jahr’ln = Viennese for Jährchen, deminuitive for years, “little years”) and knows how “to behave in this world”. (sich schicken = old for to behave)

Mein Freund, ich bin halt dreissig Jahrl’n älter als wie du und hab’ halt gelernt, mich in die Welt zu schicken.

He adds halt, a word we hear often in conversations in German culture. With halt people say, “There is nothing that I can do”, es ist halt so.
Der Wecker ist halt kaputt. Deshalb komme ich zu spät.
My alarm is broken, there is nothing we can do about it. That’s why I am late.

After the Haushofmeister conveys his master’s complaint about the opera’s stage design of an deserted island, the Tanzmeister adds that there is “nothing more tasteless” than that. When the Komponist replies the island is a symbol for loneliness the Tanzmeister quips:

Eben darum braucht sie Gesellschaft.

He could say, “Darum braucht sie Gesellschaft” (darum = that’s why. That’s why she needs company.) but he includes eben. In this context, it means “exactly.” Exactly that’s why she needs company.



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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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