How to approach a German text

Tips for Your Struggle through German Grammar and Libretti (II)


You chose an aria of a German opera. The music is clear, the words are not. Now what?

While everyone has her or his own process, some singers have told me that they look at the music first when they prepare for a role, a specific aria, or a Lied. Then they turn to the text, not to interpret its meaning but to establish word for word the string of sounds that needs to be formed to produce the music. Of course, it is crucial to know what the text is all about, and for some singers, this is sufficient for a great performance. Others look at the translations first and try to understand word for word what they are singing. It is written to fit the music and therefore loses some of the original meaning. I have met singers who undertake a translation themselves, their smartphone with a dictionary app in one hand and a pencil in the other to scribble the English equivalent into the score. But as advanced as translation technology is, it can still only help up to a certain point. It is often at a loss to grasp the language of earlier time periods, and, especially with German texts, they can get just as confused by quirks of syntax as their human users.

I have developed a simplified approach to a German text which, with the help of a dictionary, gives a thorough view of what the poet or the librettist meant. It turns out that German is not as complicated as you might think—if you follow a few basic rules.

Consider first: in German, all nouns (proper names, things, ideas) are capitalized, as well as verbs and adjectives that have been converted to a noun. [This is called nominalization (e.g., das Singen = singing, das Schöne = beauty).] All other words are written in lower case.

Consider then: the way sentences are built can be different in German, depending on the context, i.e., words show up in places you do not expect. However, consider the iron rule:

In German, all conjugated verbs are in position number twoin the sentence, no matter what occupies position number one:

– Der Hölle Rache kochtin meinem Herzen.

– Im August kochtder Hölle Rache in meinem Herzen.

– In der Bäckerei kochtder Hölle Rache in meinem Herzen.

When reading a new text, please employ the following method:

1. Mark all nouns.

2. Identify the verbs and look at how they are conjugated (changed in form according to the doer of the action: ich, du, er, wir, etc.).

3. Look at the meaning of the verb and find the thing, person, or pronoun that is doing the specific action. For now, disregard adjectives, adverbs, etc.

4. Find the thing, person, or pronoun to whom the activity (the verb) is directed. Put it together and see if it makes sense.

5. Add another layer of meaning by inserting the adjectives, adverbs, etc.

6. Tie up loose ends: Is there anything that would answer where the activity takes place? Look at prepositions like in,auf,über,unter,neben, etc.

By now, you might have a general sense what the text is about. If not—for example, if there are several verbs in one sentence—consider these two questions:

A. Is it possible that the sentence is written in future tense or in past tense?

B. How do the “little words” fit in, e.g., negative pronouns (e.g.,kein,nicht) or words called particlesthat either carry emotions and attitudes or intensify the meaning of the statement (e.g., doch,bloß,noch).

Do a test run with one of Schubert’s Lieder or an aria you like. Even if you do not understand everything, you will understand the structure of what is written. You will come across compound nouns that will move you — Liebeswehand Fieberschauer,Jubelklangand Herzenskuss— and sad or hopeful or romantic phrases the writer seems to have invented just for you to sing. You just might find that discovering the beauty of the language is as rewarding as mastering the beauty of the music.

Read next week: Put it to the test – decipher Schumann’s Lotusblume



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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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