Psst, sey discreet!

Whoever moves through a realm of thousand rules, will be ruled by one command, less to act but rather to be in a certain way. And thus, the stage is set for Die Zauberflöte. Part 2 of the series about the imperative highlights the use of sein (to be).

With Die Zauberflöte we enter a world of rituals and pyramids and a rock-solid paradigm, the world of Freemasonry, where hierarchy demands obedience for the sake of good. Free will is of limited value unless its goals are Stärke, Schönheit, and Weisheit, the trinity of strength, beauty, and wisdom, praised by the priests in the opera’s final bars. As a result, the language is filled with orders and encouragement, for which grammar gives us the imperative—by cutting the verbs to the core and putting them at the beginning of the sentence.

zittern = tremble

Ich zittre, du zitterst are declarative statements but the Königin der Nacht seeing Tamino actually trembling has only a demand for him: Zittre nicht! Where a command is received there is doubt and fear, at least in Zauberflöte, and where there is fear there are speculations. For these, and for expressing a desire, grammar provides us with the subjunctive. O, wär ich eine Maus. But where there is fear, there might be courage too. Running full circle, the imperative occurs again with a little word that often appears when bold decisions need a strong character: sei or as it was spelled in Mozart’s times: sey.

Sein is the infinitive of sei (modern spelling) and an irregular verb: Ich bin, du bist; er, sie, es ist; ihr seid; wir, Sie, sie sind.

If we want to give a command to a person to whom we usually say du, we simply cut off the -n of sein. For the other pronouns we change accordingly:

After Papageno gets upset about Tamino’s wish to see the Königin der Nacht, Tamino tries to appease him: Sei nicht ungehalten. (Do not be angry.) The Drei Knaben tell Tamino, Sei standhaft, duldsam und verschwiegen. (Be steadfast, forbearing, and discreet.)

We also use the imperative when we want to encourage ourselves or others. Pamina makes the attempt to flee and cries out, Sei es gewagt! (wagen = to dare). During the initiation ceremony, Tamino entreats, Weisheitslehre sei mein Sieg. Earlier, hoping to get the Drei Damen to bring him to Sarastro’s temple, he calls for Pamina’s rescue: Pamina sei gerettet! (Pamina shall be rescued!)

Read soon part 3 of the imperative series: What the lustigen Weiber von Windsor want you to do.

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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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