Ariadne’s Reich

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (last part, part V): A ride into the future tense.

Berlin-Neukölln, S-Bahn Station


We hear this aria relatively early in the second act, in what is called die Oper, after three nymphs, Dryade, Najade, and Echo had found her weeping, mourning, and lying in front of the cave on the deserted island. Zerbinetta and her group have appeared on that island, too, a result of the patron’s request to merge opera and vaudeville. They try to cheer her up but find it “hard, very hard to comfort her.” Zerbinetta asks the troupe to “try it with music.” They do but of no avail. Ariadne, oblivious of the furor around her, dreams of the Reich, das Totenreich, the realm of death.

In just a few lines of this aria, we go through three tenses:

1. present tense (es gibt, ist, hat, heissen),
2. past tense (kam – from kommen),
and dominantly
3. the future tense. Ariadne talks about the future, and what will happen when der schöne, stille Gott arrives.

The future tense is build with the auxiliary verb werden and the infinitive.

Wir werden singen.

The verb werden must be conjugated:

ich werde                                      wir werden
du wirst                                         ihr werdet
Sie werden
er, sie, es wird                               sie werden

rein = pure
heißen = here: to give a name: sie heißen den Mann Hermes.
der Stab = staff in the sense of: stick
welk = withered
reinigen = to clean, participle: gereinigt = here: cleansed
nicken = to nod, here: to greet
die Feierkleider = festive clothes
die Glieder = limbs
geben = to give, here in past tense: gab

Es gibt ein Reich, wo alles rein ist:
Es hat auch einen Namen: Totenreich.
Hier ist nichts rein!
Hier kam alles zu allem!
Bald aber nahet ein Bote,
Hermes heißen sie ihn.
Mit seinem Stab
Regiert er die Seelen:
Wie leichte Vögel,
Wie welke Blätter
Treibt er sie hin.
Du schöner, stiller Gott!
Sieh! Ariadne wartet!


Ariadne talks about a realm where everything is pure and has also a name: Totenreich. Then she refers to the island: Here, nothing is pure.
The next line consists of four grammatical rules:
The past tense (kam > kommen), the nominative case alles (the thing that is active in the sentence), everything), the dative case allem (here: the form the object of the sentence takes when it is preceded with the preposition zu; note the different word endings.), and last but not least the word order. (We always place the verb on the second position.)

The next line indicates the future with the words bald (soon) and nahet (today: naht; to approach), an omen of what she will foresee.

She described the messenger Hermes, the Greek god of transitions, who rules the souls with his staff. Here, we find a poetic use of the word order by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal:
Wie leichte Vögel,
Wie welke Blätter
Treibt er sie hin.
The (separable) verb is hintreiben and the subject, the one who treibt is er, almost at the end of the sentence, followed by sie, the pronoun for the souls.

In the last part of the aria, I marked the future tense with bold letters for the auxiliary verb (werden), and underlined the infinitive verbs. (nicken, sein etc.) Only once, the verb werden appears as main verb (marked with *), which means to become.

Ach, von allen wilden Schmerzen
Muss das Herz gereinigt sein,
Dann wird dein Gesicht mir nicken,
Wird dein Schritt vor meiner Höhle.
Dunkel wird auf meinen Augen,
Deine Hand auf meinem Herzen sein.
In den schönen Feierkleidern,
Die mir meine Mutter gab,
Diese Glieder werden bleiben,
Stille Höhle wird* mein Grab.
Aber lautlos meine Seele
Folget ihrem neuen Herrn,
Wie ein leichtes Blatt im Winde
Folgt hinunter, folgt so gern.

Dunkel wird auf meinen Augen
Und in meinem Herzen sein,
Diese Glieder werden bleiben,
Schön geschmückt und ganz allein.

Du wirst mich befreien,
Mir selber mich geben,
Dies lastende Leben,
Du, nimm es von mir.
An dich werd‘ ich mich ganz verlieren,
Bei dir wird Ariadne sein.

At the end, von Hofmannsthal unleashes some pronoun pyrotechnics: du, mich, mir, es, dir.
Ariadne knows (or believes to know) that Hermes will liberate her (mich befreien), and give her the gift of: herself!
Du gibst mich = you give me.
To whom?
We use the dative for indirect object: mir (dative pronoun first person)
and as an amplifier, Ariadne adds selbst (myself).
Then she asks the god, “This burdensome (lastende) life, take it (es) from me.” The preposition von must be followed by a dative (mir).
The next line has even three pronouns. She (ich) will lose herself (mich) totally to him (dich). She will be with him: The preposition bei leads to a dative, thus bei dir. She does not say mit dir which would imply that she wants to accompany the god. She wants more and says bei, making herself completely available to him.

Kiri te Kanawa sings the aria, presented on Youtube:

Three sopranos talk about my recent workshop on the linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos:

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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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