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).

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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.

 

Vocabulary:

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

 

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Albrecht Dürer: Madona with Child

Grammar:

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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