When the Witch Barks Orders

Expressing passion requires the use of the imperative. German operas are full with it.

In a series of three parts, we will examine the use of the command, the imperative. Read in part 1 how Hänsel and Gretel get bossed around by the Hexe.

The iron rule of the German word order–placing the verb always in the second position–must be broken by everyone who wants to take control and give a command. Then, the verb will ellbow its way to the first position, and here it will appear concise and brusque.

If we want to direct a command to a person we address with the informal du or to a group of familiar persons (ihr), we alter the verb accordingly and omit the pronoun. The imperative for the formal Sie and also wir needs the pronoun. The verb “sein” is irregular.

The witch has caught the hungry children, locked Hänsel in a cage, and got Gretel as a compliant assistant to help her to fatten up the boy— or as it seems. Now, with Hokuspokus, Hexenschuss! she puts a spell on them.

Hokuspokus, Hexenschuss!


rühren = here: to move
Fluss m = here: stream of magic energy
bannen = to put under a spell
starr = stiff
Genick n = neck
Zauberknopf m = magic button
Tropf m = fool, ninny
lokus Lat. = place
bonus Lat. = good
malus Lat. = bad
jokus Lat. = prank

Hokuspokus, Hexenschuss!
Rühr dich, und dich trifft der Fluss!
Nicht mehr vorwärts, nicht zurück,
bann dich mit dem bösen Blick.
Kopf steh starr dir im Genick!
Hokuspokus, nun kommt Jokus!

Kinder, schaut den Zauberknopf!
Äuglein, stehet still im Kopf!—
Nun zum Stall hinein, du Tropf!
Hokuspokus, bonus, jokus,
Malus lokus, hokuspokus!

The spell of the witch is nothing other than a sequence of commands, verbs in imperative, sent out into the ether. When she addresses a child or a thing, here Hänsel and his head, she simply removes the -en ending of the infinitive.

rühren refl. Imperative (du): rühr. In the second stanza, as she demands Gretel not to move, she adds an -e: Rühre dich nicht von der Stell’!

stehen. Imperative (du): steh.

The verb bann (bannen) is short for ich banne. She talks about herself: Ich banne dich mit bösem Blick.

When she addresses both children and their eyes (Äugelein), she must use ihr, the plural of du. For the imperative (ihr) she removes the -en ending of the infinitive and adds a -t or an -et.

schauen. Imperative (ihr): schaut.

stehen. Imperative (ihr): stehet.

She bewitches Hänsel and orders him not to move vorwärts (forward) or zurück (backward). Eventually, she directs him zum Stall hinein (hin describes a position in relation to a movement).

In the last stanza, the Hexe turns to Gretel with a friendlier demeanor, starting with the imperative of sein (to be), an irregular verb: sei.

She even uses the first person plural, wir, and wollen (to want) as if she and Gretel shared common interests.

vernünftig = reasonable
Stelle f = here: spot

Nun, Gretel, sei vernünftig und nett!—
Der Hänsel wird nun balde fett.
Wir wollen ihn, so ist’s am besten,
mit süßen Mandeln und Rosinen mästen.
Ich geh ins Haus und hole sie schnell—
Du, rühre dich nicht von der Stell’!

Read soon in part 2: The imperative in Die Zauberflöte

Learn more about the imperative in German opera—among many other things—in my latest book “Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.”

Available at: lulu.comamazon.com and bookstores

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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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