The Language of Time

In Fidelio we listen to the characters singing beautiful music. What the characters hear is the clock ticking without mercy. If they do not solve their problem by a certain time, everything will fall apart for them—and: They have to use the appropriate language. Read part 4 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.

Florestan’s life hangs in the balance, at the mercy of the clock. While he, the enemy of the powerful, has made peace with his fate to die in the dungeon, his wife Leonore has no time to lose. She does not know of governor Pizarro’s plans to murder Florestan, but she must free her husband before the day prison guard Rocco has set for the wedding with his daughter Marzelline, the day when the governor intends to leave for Sevilla. Rocco’s humanity is tested. The pressure increases by the minute. How ought he act? Will he, the obedient servant of a tyrant, rise up at the end? Rocco’s passive resistance delays Pizarro’s plan. He spends time in the garden, spends time handing out extra rations to the prisoners, spends time inquiring if Fidelio can be with him in the dungeons. Rocco’s assistant Jaquino is getting impatient with Marzelline since his wooing is getting him nowhere. Marzelline snaps: Kein Wort, ich will nichts mehr hören. Be quiet, I do not want to hear anything more.

No one feels the urgency of the moment as keenly as the tyrant himself. Pizarro knows of the minister’s imminent arrival; he must act swiftly. His means is the imperative, the way of giving orders.

To give orders to a person you address with du, cut off the -en ending of the verb (Besteig! = climb!) and with irregular verbs, e.g., sehen, change the vowel:

Besteig den Turm! Sieh auf die Straßen!

To give orders to a person you address with Sie, follow Pizarro: Hauptmann! he yells at the captain, besteigen Sie den Turm, sehen Sie auf die Straßen von Sevilla. He uses the temporal connector sobald (as soon as): Sobald the Hauptmann sees a carriage, lassen Sie ein Signal geben (make the order to give a signal). Pizarro adds augenblicklich (immediately). He expects the “greatest promptitude” (größte Pünktlichkeit). Fort! auf eure Posten, he shouts.

He asks Rocco to murder Florestan, but Rocco refuses. Pizarro decides to do the bloody deed himself, laying out his plan in short breathless phrases: Ein Stoß – und er verstummt! One strike, and Florestan will fall silent! He only wishes Florestan could have more time to suffer: Er sterb in seinen Ketten, zu kurz war seine Pein. May he die in his chains, too short was his pain.

Eile f (hurry) and eilen are Pizarro’s words. He calls them out; Rocco calls them back.

Pizarro: Eile ihm sein Grab zu graben, zögre länger nicht, steig in den Kerker nieder.

Rocco: Nein, Herr, ich zögre länger nicht, ich steige eilend nieder. Here, Rocco turns the verb eilen into an adjective by adding a -d.

Rocco urges Fidelio with the adjective hurtig (swift). Fidelio must not hesitate, he insists: Nicht zaudern! Digging the grave, he tells him, will not take very long: Es währt nicht lang—währen means to last.

As the action drives toward the climax, as the enemies face each other for the first—and last!—time, with dagger and pistol and a fierce resolve between them, the tension becomes almost unbearable. Anything can happen, every second counts, and, yet, they hesitate—they look for the one-and-only moment to act. Words of intent become threats and curses, and as a result the subjunctive invades their speech. The subjunctive is a mode of verbs that expresses a wish; here it is a tool to heighten the suspense. We call it subjunctive 1, while subjunctive 2 indicates a thought experiment.

Pizarro wants Florestan to die. Instead of stating the fact er stirbt, he uses subjunctive 1: Er sterbe. May he die. He snarls at Florestan his intention to “rip the darkness of revenge to pieces”—to kill openly, in the light of day. Instead of stating the fact with der Rache Dunkel ist zerrissen, he says, der Rache Dunkel sei zerrissen. (In their poetic mind, the librettists see darkness as a shroud that can be torn or ripped to pieces.)

The subjunctive 1, also used for indirect speech, uses the first-person verb form (ich) sterbe for the third person (er, sie, es sterbe). The verb sein plays a special role. It changes from bin (ich bin) and ist (er ist) to sei, from sind (wir, sie sind) to seien.

Before Pizarro can thrust his dagger into Florestan’s heart, Leonore steps forward in this, the final moment that remains to her to act. Let him pierce her bosom first, she cries out, raises a pistol and warns, Der Tod sei dir geschworen für deine Mörderlust. May death be pledged to you (dir) for your murder-lust.

Soon read part 5 of the Fidelio series: No Happiness without Gold.

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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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