Of Joy and Murder

Fidelio has many languages: The language of Jein (neither ja nor nein as Leonore has to evade the romantic approaches of Marzelline, the prison ward’s daughter) or the language of rising and dwindling hope (of the prisoners and particularly Florestan), or the language of possession and dependence. (Here, the genitive kicks in!) However, nothing poses a greater contrast than the languages of murder and of joy. Read part 3 of the series about the origin and linguistics of Beethoven’s Fidelio with excerpts of my book Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.

Language of Murder.

The verb prefix zer- is a tool of destruction. You can reißen (to tear, to rip) something, e.g., a document, but it can still be restored. If you add zer-, you will have zerreißen, and the document is gone, torn to shreds. The participle of zerreißen is zerrissen: der Rache Dunkel sei zerrissen, as Pizarro cries out when he faces his enemy Florestan. May the darkness of vengeance be ripped to pieces.

The verb fleischen stems from Fleisch (meat) and means inflicting a flesh wound. Being fleischen (or gefleischt sein), the wounded person can heal and live on, but there is no chance of survival when the perpetrator adds a zer-. The victim will be zerfleischt—mauled, mangled. Pizarro goes for Florestan’s heart. Florestan shall know, wer ihm sein stolzes Herz zerfleischt.

Other terms of murder and fright are fürchten (to fear), Dolch m (dagger), Mörder m (murderer), Mörderlust f (lust to kill), Rächer m (avenger).

Language of Joy.

The German language provides expressions for joy beyond words with a little trick: it says what it is not by using un- as prefix or -los as suffix—or it simply adds über. Leonore and Florestan’s joy is namenlos (nameless), unnennbar (indescribable), and not only groß but übergroß. They feel himmlisches Entzücken (heavenly rapture). When Leonore removes Florestan’s shackles, both rejoice, Welch ein Augenblick, unaussprechlich süßes Glück. What a moment, unspeakably sweet happiness.

Read soon part 4 of the Fidelio series: The Language of Time.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s