Vienna Workshop: Heine’s Grammar Lovefest

At my Vienna workshop “German for Opera Singers,” we examined Wagner arias, and songs from Wolf and Schumann, one of them “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen.”


View from the Domgasse

This poem appeared in 1827 in “Buch der Lieder” by the German poet Heinrich Heine, a compilation of 237 poems, which were groundbreaking in German poetry because of their clear and simple style, a style of folk songs everybody could understand. More than half of these poems are about broken hearts and unanswered love, and therefore source for many works by some of the greatest composers. In this poem, Heine draws us into a grammar lovefest, which Robert Schumann has put into beautiful music. Verbs sparkle in all forms, in past tense (Präteritum), perfect tense (needing an extra verb, haben or sein), perfect tense, and the imperative. That’s why it is called das Gedicht (poem). It comes from dicht (dense). The art to densify thoughts, observations, or emotions to few words with all language tools at one’s disposal is called dichten (to write poetry).


wandeln = to stroll, to promenade
der Gram = (old) grief
wehtun, es tut weh = to ache
schleichen = to creep, to sneak
lehren = to teach
erzählen = to tell
immerfort = (old) constantly
wunderschlau = (Heine’s compound noun) super smart
trauen = to trust

What it says:

Broken-hearted, the narrator strolls under the trees when birds appear in the skies and sing. His heart aches even more. Talking to them he demands to be quiet and to refrain from that Wörtlein (diminuitive for word = das Wort; das Wörtchen or, prefered in the South of Germany, and in Austria, das Wörtlein). He never speaks out that word, neither do the birds who respond by telling him that they caught it from a young woman (Jungfräulein). He suspects they tell this story only to cheer him up, and concludes that it is best to trust no one anymore.

We at the workshop, looking out of the window at the Viennese trees that lined the street and had started to blossom, thought the word might be Liebe.


Text and grammar:

In the first stanza, the narrator reminisces in simple past which provides some verbs in a short, one-vowel version: Ich komme (present tense) turns into ich kam, ich schleiche into ich schlich.

Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen
mit meinem Gram allein;
da kam das alte Träumen
und schlich mir ins Herz hinein.

Now, he speaks to the birds, using the perfect tense of lehren with the auxiliary verb haben: Wer hat gelehrt? It follows the imperative of schweigen, a command to the birds to be silent: Schweigt still! After that, he explains his order with a conditional: wenn … dann.

Wer hat euch dies Wörtlein gelehret,
ihr Vöglein in luftiger Höh’?
Schweigt still! wenn mein Herz es höret,
dann tut es noch einmal so weh.

The birds respond, beginning with the simple past of kommen (Die Jungfrau kam), and adding the participle of gehen (gegangen):Die Jungfrau kam gegangen. By today’s use of the language, the combination of kommen and gegangen sounds strange and outmoded. In Heine’s times it meant neither kommen nor gehen, but coming unexpectedly and passing by.
Past tense of sie singt = sie sang.
The birds continue with the perfect tense of fangen = Wir haben gefangen.

Es kam ein Jungfräulein gegangen,
die sang es immerfort,
da haben wir Vöglein gefangen
das hübsche, goldne Wort.“

In the last stanza, the narrator speaks in present tense, adding the modalverb sollen to erzählen, which basically means, “Don’t tell me that!”

Das sollt ihr mir nicht mehr erzählen,
Ihr Vöglein wunderschlau;
ihr wollt meinem Kummer mir stehlen,
ich aber niemandem trau’.

Below you find a recording of this song by the German baritone Stephan Genz, accompanied by pianist Claar Ter Horst.



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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