Vienna Workshop: Auf ein altes Bild

At my recent workshop “German for Opera Singers” in Vienna, we discussed the text of the song “Auf ein altes Bild” by the Slovenian-born Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. The song is from the late romantic period, probably written in 1888. At that time Wolf was interested in the themes of Eduard Friedrich Möricke’s works, one of them the six-line poem “Auf ein altes Bild” (auf = here: about, on; das Bild = picture).

Vienna: St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Möricke was a Swabian pastor, poet, and translator who refers with “Auf ein altes Bild” to the religious content of a painting by Albrecht Dürer. It depicts the Knäblein Sündelos (“sinless little boy” or better: the little boy called sinless; the author gives him a name) as it plays in the lap of the Madonna (Jungfrau).The wood of one of the trees in the background will be used to make a cross – the very cross where the child will be crucified many years later.



die Landschaft = landscape
der Sommer = summer, der Flor = bloom, Sommerflor = bloom, blossoming of summer
das Schilf = reed
das Rohr = giant reed
spielen = to play, ich spiele, du spielst, es (das Knäblein) spielet (today: spielt)
der Schoß = lap
der Wald = forrest, woods
wonnesam = (old) filled with bliss, blissful (today: wonnevoll)
grünen = to become green, er (der Stamm) grünet (today: grünt)
das Kreuz = cross
der Stamm = trunk of a tree


Albrecht Dürer: Madona with Child


In these six lines Möricke uses the genitive case three times, creating richness in meaning and substance in that little poem. A case describes the role a noun plays in a sentence. The genitive determines possession or dependence, and changes the article (der, die, das) accordingly.

(today:) der Sommerflor der Landschaft (here: in the “poet’s genitive” in der Landschaft Sommerflor)
(today:) der Schoß der Jungfrau (here:
der Jungfrau Schoß)
(today:) der Stamm des Kreuzes (here:
des Kreuzes Stamm)

Auf ein altes Bild

In grüner Landschaft Sommerflor,
Bei kühlem Wasser, Schilf und Rohr,
Schau, wie das Knäblein Sündelos
Frei spielet auf der Jungfrau Schoß!
Und dort im Walde wonnesam,
Ach, grünet schon des Kreuzes Stamm!

To an Old Picture

In the summer’s blossoming of a green landscape,
Close to cool water, and small and giant reeds,
Look, how the little boy named sinless
Plays freely in the Madonna’s lap!
And there in the forrest filled with bliss,
Alas, the trunk of the cross turns already green!

The following YouTube video provides a recording of the song by the English tenor Ian Bostridge:






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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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