Vienna Workshop: Auf ein altes Bild

At my recent workshop “German for Opera Singers” in Vienna, we discussed the text of the song “Auf ein altes Bild” by the Slovenian-born Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. The song is from the late romantic period, probably written in 1888. At that time Wolf was interested in the themes of Eduard Friedrich Möricke’s works, one of them the six-line poem “Auf ein altes Bild” (auf = here: about, on; das Bild = picture).


Vienna: St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Möricke was a Swabian pastor, poet, and translator who refers with “Auf ein altes Bild” to the religious content of a painting by Albrecht Dürer. It depicts the Knäblein Sündelos (“sinless little boy” or better: the little boy called sinless; the author gives him a name) as it plays in the lap of the Madonna (Jungfrau).The wood of one of the trees in the background will be used to make a cross – the very cross where the child will be crucified many years later.



die Landschaft = landscape
der Sommer = summer, der Flor = bloom, Sommerflor = bloom, blossoming of summer
das Schilf = reed
das Rohr = giant reed
spielen = to play, ich spiele, du spielst, es (das Knäblein) spielet (today: spielt)
der Schoß = lap
der Wald = forrest, woods
wonnesam = (old) filled with bliss, blissful (today: wonnevoll)
grünen = to become green, er (der Stamm) grünet (today: grünt)
das Kreuz = cross
der Stamm = trunk of a tree



Albrecht Dürer: Madona with Child


In these six lines Möricke uses the genitive case three times, creating richness in meaning and substance in that little poem. A case describes the role a noun plays in a sentence. The genitive determines possession or dependence, and changes the article (der, die, das) accordingly.

(today:) der Sommerflor der Landschaft (here: in the “poet’s genitive” in der Landschaft Sommerflor)
(today:) der Schoß der Jungfrau (here:
der Jungfrau Schoß)
(today:) der Stamm des Kreuzes (here:
des Kreuzes Stamm)

Auf ein altes Bild

In grüner Landschaft Sommerflor,
Bei kühlem Wasser, Schilf und Rohr,
Schau, wie das Knäblein Sündelos
Frei spielet auf der Jungfrau Schoß!
Und dort im Walde wonnesam,
Ach, grünet schon des Kreuzes Stamm!

To an Old Picture

In the summer’s blossoming of a green landscape,
Close to cool water, and small and giant reeds,
Look, how the little boy named sinless
Plays freely in the Madonna’s lap!
And there in the forrest filled with bliss,
Alas, the trunk of the cross turns already green!

The following YouTube video provides a recording of the song by the English tenor Ian Bostridge:






Vienna Vignettes: Notes from the City of Music

The following vignettes and some of the photos were recently published on my Facebook page “Ach ich fühl’s” when I reported about my trip to the birthplace of European classical music to give a language workshop to Vienna-based singers from Australia and USA.


COMPOSERS’ HANGOUT. Johannes Brahms drunk wine here with old friends like the violinist Joseph Joachim. For decades writers, artists, and singers debated, celebrated or debunked ideas, art, or themselves at this place: Cafe Sperl on Gumpendorferstraße, close to Naschmarkt. Opened in 1880, it is a landmark today, a corner cafe where you can eat Nockerln and drink Melange and choose from more than a dozen newspapers and magazines that are spread on a giant table. There are many waiters if you consider their ratio to the number of guests, but they do not seem to be idle. Walking back and forth in their uniform, they scan the customers’ faces for any sign of need. The wooden panels on the walls have been darkend by time and cigarette smoke. The chairs and tables have seen better times; the place looks verlebt (raddled) and the best service it gives tonight is to charm the visitors. The guests are from the neighborhood. They pop in just for a little bit to eat, mostly with friends or colleagues with whom they have to discuss urgent matters, at least that’s how some conversations sound. The sing-sang of the Viennese accent floats through the room, pinched by the clicking sound of billiard balls from the end of the room.



FIGARO’S HALLWAY. Don’t take the elevator, take the stairs. He ran them up and down, a melody in his head you treasure today as the most beautiful. Mozart and his wife Konstanze lived on the first floor (in America the second floor) in Domgasse 5, one of 13 apartments he had in Vienna. (Consecutively, not in the same time – he was not in real estate.) The apartment encircles the staircase, has two entrances and seven rooms in which he and Konstanze crammed 18 chairs, seven tables, several canapes, wardrobes, and cabinets. In the large room, facing the Domgasse, the six famous quartets which Mozart had dedicated to Haydn were played. The older composer was present and wrote later to Mozart’s father, ”Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.”


View from the room where Mozart and his friends played cards, billiard, and music, amongst others the Haydn quartets.

Next door, I step into Mozart’s study, in a glas box a golden musical clock. French teenage students rush in, turn around and vanish, a whirlwind of youthfull ignorance, leaving me alone for a couple of minutes. I approach the six score sheets that hang on the wall, each with 12 lines of music, Mozart’s daily output. I stare at the notes on the yellowed pages, meticulously written down without corrections, without blots or scratches, and it is impossible not to turn around and look at the room – three by four meters – and turn back to the pages and realize, that these notes had been written, that this music, Le Nozze de Figaro, had been created in this very space.


ACCOUNTANT’S COMPARISSON: A sign in Mozart’s apartment on Domgasse details the annual income of various professions compared with Mozart’s in ducats, the currency of the time:
Prince 100.000 – 500.000 ducats
Count 20.000 – 50.000 ducats
Mozart 3.000 – 4.000 ducats
School teacher 120 – 150 ducats
Choir singer 25 – 60 ducats



MOZART’S DEATH: We heard of his death in the early morning hours. We hurried to his house, Rauensteingasse 8. Thirty of us, maybe 35. It was a mild morning for early December. Someone said they have brought him to the St. Stephan Cathedral already. We saw light in the first floor windows; shadows moved. We heard, he had been working on a Requiem, and he, his wife and his student practiced it a few hours before he died. In around sixty years the house will be torn down and replaced with another one, and after sixty more years a department store will be errected at this place.


In around 150 years, a war will rage, so terrible that the words of our time fail to describe it. So much can be said that the department store will go up in flames. It will be rebuild and named Steffl, will be remodeled, it will catch fire again, this time by a technical failure, be renovated, sold and resold. A man from Duisburg, Germany, will come in 1980. He will discover the Mozart bust in the sports department between bikes and sports suits and running shoes. He will photograph the bust, but he will lose the black-and-white picture. He will return in 2017 and he will be surprised how the store has changed. It has marble floors. The sales people are better dressed. It offers fine clothes; women’s clothes in the first floor, on the left side. Here, between the racks with silk dresses, wardrobe of Philosophy and Boss Orange, is the space where Mozart wrote the Zauberflöte, and where he took his last breath.


The apartment was huge for a family of three, 145 square meters; it even had a billiard table. The man from Duisburg finds a leather sofa. In his head, he hears “Ach ich fühl’s” until he notices that he is staring at changing cubicles. From time to time a curtain is drawn back, and a women looks into the mirror, a price tag dangling on the elegant clothes she is wearing. The man prepares an excuse in case a sales person approaches him. He would say, he is waiting for his wife, but nobody asks him. He gets up and sees a young fellow, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans, and an old jacket. It seems the young fellow is not interested in the clothes but moves like a thief and looks furtively around. The man from Duisburg knows the young fellow is searching for the bust, too. They will find it on the top floor, next to the department store’s restaurant. A sign says it is the first Mozart bust ever created, some years after his passing. The man from Duisburg will take pictures and upload them into eternity.

It started to rain, and it is getting cold. Someone said, a storm is brewing. As we left, we wondered if Konstanze will follow the coffin up to the St. Marx cemetery the next day, a long road, through the mud, the wind, the icy rain, and through her sorrow, which soon will be, few of us sense it already, the sorrow of mankind.


MUSIC LOVERS’ TOILET. If you need to relieve yourself, you will find a special public toilet in the subway station Karlsplatz, close to the Staatsoper, a vintage restroom with an opera theme, subsequently called Opern WC.


When you throw 70 cents into a box, the turnstile opens. At the wall next to the sink hang pictures of singers and stage designs. From loudspeakers, opera recordings are played. Here, the diva is the smell; it dominates the space and gets on your nerves like acid. Across the pissoirs restricting the space stands a piano. A player could hunch over the keyboard and play without disturbing the customers unless the customers would like to be a little bit more active and extend their business at the urinal. No player is in sight, though. Calls to the toilet management to inquire about the vacancy of the pianist post have not been returned.




ADMIRER’S KISS. Johannes Brahms got the kiss. Streets, even a bus line, pass through the Central Cemetery in Vienna, with more than 2 two million inhabitants the largest in Europe. The most famous of them are situated around a Mozart statue. Beethoven to the left, then Schubert, then Johann Strauss, and eventually, on the right, Johannes Brahms. Fans brought flowers and put them at their feet. One admirer wearing thick lipstick, left a mark of love on Brahms’ tombstone.



RESISTANCE’S LANGUAGE. The sign “O5”, scratched into the wall of the St. Stephan cathedral, was the secret code of the Austrian resistance against Hitler after the annexation of their country in March 1938. (First thing the nazis did was bringing the Austrian gold reserve from Vienna to Berlin to finance the preparations of the war.) For the nazis Austria did not exist anymore, just the region “Ostmark”. But the resistance thought otherwise: The number 5 in the code stands for the fifth letter in the alphabet, the “E”. Put “O” and “E” together you have “OE” which is the way to write an “O” with umlaut: Ö. The Ö stands for Österreich (Austria). Nearby, next to the Sacher Hotel, in front of the Albertina museum: In April 1945, few days before the end of the war, a bomb hit a house killing more than 100 people who had sought shelter in the basement. The “Memorial Against War and Fascism”, created by the great Austrian sculptor Alfred Hrdlicka, reminds of the tragedy. It is build with granite from the quarry in Mauthausen which was also a concentration camp, not far from Vienna. Thousands of prisoners from all of Europe worked and died here.







Workshop April 10: The Linguistics of Fidelio


If you are looking for Beethoven, you can find him in two places: in the Vienna central cemetery, under bouquets of flowers, as I have seen last week, or in Prachtwerk Cafe at my Fidelio workshop under a sometimes flowery, sometimes heroic language.
When? April 10, 7 pm – 9pm.
Where exactly? Prachtwerk Cafe, conference room, Ganghoferstraße 2, Berlin-Neukölln.
Topic: O namenlose Freude – The Linguistics of Fidelio
Goal: The participants will understand the language of the libretto, the vocabulary and its subtleties, and how meaning, emotions and attitudes are expressed in the structure of sentences.
Content: Using chosen arias and excerpts of recitatives we will examine the
– language of fear and and worries, and the vocabulary of the dungeons,
– language of love and hope, and what is hidden in the subjunctive and the conditional sentence,
– language of heroism and freedom, and what emotions the imperative carries
– language of tyranny, and the power of the imperative.We will look at words and phrases, and their meanings, of arias, duets and trios by Leonore, Marzelline, Rocco, and Florestan.
What you can do: Bring your questions and your arias to discuss their language.
Who consults: Bernd Hendricks, German Language Consultant and author of the book Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing.
Price: The workshop is free. A small donation to cover the rent of the room would be appreciated.
Review: I would like to ask the participants to rate and review the workshop in social media, and for this blog. The workshop will be documented with photos, in a video or/and with an article for blogs and other publications.



Ariadne’s Reich

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (last part, part V): A ride into the future tense.


Berlin-Neukölln, S-Bahn Station


We hear this aria relatively early in the second act, in what is called die Oper, after three nymphs, Dryade, Najade, and Echo had found her weeping, mourning, and lying in front of the cave on the deserted island. Zerbinetta and her group have appeared on that island, too, a result of the patron’s request to merge opera and vaudeville. They try to cheer her up but find it “hard, very hard to comfort her.” Zerbinetta asks the troupe to “try it with music.” They do but of no avail. Ariadne, oblivious of the furor around her, dreams of the Reich, das Totenreich, the realm of death.

In just a few lines of this aria, we go through three tenses:

1. present tense (es gibt, ist, hat, heissen),
2. past tense (kam – from kommen),
and dominantly
3. the future tense. Ariadne talks about the future, and what will happen when der schöne, stille Gott arrives.

The future tense is build with the auxiliary verb werden and the infinitive.

Wir werden singen.

The verb werden must be conjugated:

ich werde                                      wir werden
du wirst                                         ihr werdet
Sie werden
er, sie, es wird                               sie werden

rein = pure
heißen = here: to give a name: sie heißen den Mann Hermes.
der Stab = staff in the sense of: stick
welk = withered
reinigen = to clean, participle: gereinigt = here: cleansed
nicken = to nod, here: to greet
die Feierkleider = festive clothes
die Glieder = limbs
geben = to give, here in past tense: gab

Es gibt ein Reich, wo alles rein ist:
Es hat auch einen Namen: Totenreich.
Hier ist nichts rein!
Hier kam alles zu allem!
Bald aber nahet ein Bote,
Hermes heißen sie ihn.
Mit seinem Stab
Regiert er die Seelen:
Wie leichte Vögel,
Wie welke Blätter
Treibt er sie hin.
Du schöner, stiller Gott!
Sieh! Ariadne wartet!


Ariadne talks about a realm where everything is pure and has also a name: Totenreich. Then she refers to the island: Here, nothing is pure.
The next line consists of four grammatical rules:
The past tense (kam > kommen), the nominative case alles (the thing that is active in the sentence), everything), the dative case allem (here: the form the object of the sentence takes when it is preceded with the preposition zu; note the different word endings.), and last but not least the word order. (We always place the verb on the second position.)

The next line indicates the future with the words bald (soon) and nahet (today: naht; to approach), an omen of what she will foresee.

She described the messenger Hermes, the Greek god of transitions, who rules the souls with his staff. Here, we find a poetic use of the word order by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal:
Wie leichte Vögel,
Wie welke Blätter
Treibt er sie hin.
The (separable) verb is hintreiben and the subject, the one who treibt is er, almost at the end of the sentence, followed by sie, the pronoun for the souls.

In the last part of the aria, I marked the future tense with bold letters for the auxiliary verb (werden), and underlined the infinitive verbs. (nicken, sein etc.) Only once, the verb werden appears as main verb (marked with *), which means to become.

Ach, von allen wilden Schmerzen
Muss das Herz gereinigt sein,
Dann wird dein Gesicht mir nicken,
Wird dein Schritt vor meiner Höhle.
Dunkel wird auf meinen Augen,
Deine Hand auf meinem Herzen sein.
In den schönen Feierkleidern,
Die mir meine Mutter gab,
Diese Glieder werden bleiben,
Stille Höhle wird* mein Grab.
Aber lautlos meine Seele
Folget ihrem neuen Herrn,
Wie ein leichtes Blatt im Winde
Folgt hinunter, folgt so gern.

Dunkel wird auf meinen Augen
Und in meinem Herzen sein,
Diese Glieder werden bleiben,
Schön geschmückt und ganz allein.

Du wirst mich befreien,
Mir selber mich geben,
Dies lastende Leben,
Du, nimm es von mir.
An dich werd‘ ich mich ganz verlieren,
Bei dir wird Ariadne sein.

At the end, von Hofmannsthal unleashes some pronoun pyrotechnics: du, mich, mir, es, dir.
Ariadne knows (or believes to know) that Hermes will liberate her (mich befreien), and give her the gift of: herself!
Du gibst mich = you give me.
To whom?
We use the dative for indirect object: mir (dative pronoun first person)
and as an amplifier, Ariadne adds selbst (myself).
Then she asks the god, “This burdensome (lastende) life, take it (es) from me.” The preposition von must be followed by a dative (mir).
The next line has even three pronouns. She (ich) will lose herself (mich) totally to him (dich). She will be with him: The preposition bei leads to a dative, thus bei dir. She does not say mit dir which would imply that she wants to accompany the god. She wants more and says bei, making herself completely available to him.

Kiri te Kanawa sings the aria, presented on Youtube:

Three sopranos talk about my recent workshop on the linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos:

Zerbinetta’s Despair

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (part IV): No sorrow without subjunctive.


Three voices – great voices I must say (they are sopranos) – about my recent workshop on the linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos:


With her great aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin”, Zerbinetta, this coquettish vaudeville dancer who charmed the Komponist just to mock his opera afterwards, is getting serious. Now, thrown into the opera and touched by Ariadne’s surrender to loneliness and death, she has send away her troupe that had tried to fill the deserted island with joy.

Zerbinetta reaches out to Ariadne – with a subjunctive for verstehen. She will speak (or better: sing) the subjunctive several times in this aria. The subjunctive makes it possible to experiment with thoughts (what if …), make suggestions (you could …) and polite requests (would you …) and at the beginning of this aria, to express empathy (who would not …). The subjunctive form of verstehen (understand) is verstünde.

Vocabulary of the first part:
erlaucht = (old) respected
erhaben = sublime
das Maß = (here) degree, dimension
gemein = (here) common (also: mean)
der/die Sterbliche = mortal

Großmächtige Prinzessin, wer verstünde nicht,
Dass so erlauchter und erhabener Personen Traurigkeit
Mit einem anderen Maß gemessen werden muss
Als der gemeinen Sterblichen.

The character of the sentence: A rhetorical question. Who would not understand …

The statement of the sentence: A measurement. The verb: messen.


Zerbinetta uses the passive voice (werden + participle, here: gemessen)
Something has to be measured mit einem anderen Maß (in a different degree/dimension, better: seen in a different way). The words anderen (different) and als (as) imply a comparison.
Zerbinetta compares die Traurigkeit (sadness) of people. What people?
Of erlauchte, erhabene Personen (like Ariadne) and gemeine Sterblicher.

Vocabulary of the second part:
unbegreiflich = unfathomable
die Schwachheit = frailty, weakness
eingestehen = to admit
zucken = tremor (here: wildly longing for something)
die Gruft = grave
die Vertraute = confidant
der Fels = cliff

– Jedoch
Sind wir nicht Frauen unter uns, und schlägt denn nicht
In jeder Brust ein unbegreiflich, unbegreiflich Herz?
Von unserer Schwachheit sprechen,
Sie uns selber eingestehen,
Ist es nicht schmerzlich süß?
Und zuckt uns nicht der Sinn danach?
Sie wollen mich nicht hören –
Schön und stolz und regungslos,
Als wären Sie die Statue auf Ihrer eigenen Gruft –
Sie wollen keine andere Vertraute
Als diesen Fels und diese Wellen haben?

Zerbinetta asks Ariadne four rhetorical questions:
Are we not women? (intensified with unter uns = between us, no man disturbs us right now.)
Does not beat a heart in our chest? (even more intensified with 2 unbegreiflich = incomprehensible, by the way without regard for the correct adjective ending as it was common back in the day.)
Isn’t it schmerzlich süß (painfully sweet) to speak of one’s Schwachheit, to admit sie (pronoun for die Schwachheit) uns selber (to ourself)?
She steps up her pleading with the dramatic question whether their mind does not zucken for that (= danach).
Zerbinetta laments that she does not get a reply (this time Sie is the second person pronoun for Ariadne), introduces another subjunctive, this time wären (for sein), “as if you were the statue on your own grave,” and continues with another question: “Do you want no other confidants than this rock and these waves?”

Vocabulary of the third part:
erstarren = to freeze (one’s heart, movement etc.)
durchleiden = suffer through
ausgesetzt = abandoned
ihrer mehrere = (referring to earlier mentioned islands) several of those
verfluchen = to curse
sinds = Viennese accent for sind es
das Wehen = waft
hastig = hurried, hasty
gefeit gegen = (old) immune, protected against
die Verwandlung = transformation

Prinzessin, hören Sie mich an – nicht Sie allein,
Wir alle – ach, wir alle – was Ihr Herz erstarrt,
Wer ist die Frau, die es nicht durchgelitten hätte?
Verlassen! in Verzweiflung! ausgesetzt!
Ach, solcher wüsten Inseln sind unzählige
Auch mitten unter Menschen, ich – ich selber
Ich habe ihrer mehrere bewohnt
Und habe nicht gelernt, die Männer zu verfluchen.
Treulos – sie sinds!
Ungeheuer, ohne Grenzen!
Eine kurze Nacht,
Ein hastiger Tag,
Ein Wehen der Luft,
Ein fließender Blick
Verwandelt ihr Herz!
Aber sind wir denn gefeit
Gegen die grausamen – entzückenden,
Die unbegreiflichen Verwandlungen?

Inside, the jolly Zerbinetta is lonely as well, having lived even amongst people (mitten unter Menschen) on such empty islands, too.
Another rhetorical question, with hätte durchgelitten.
Die Frau leidet durch. (present tense, indicative = real)
Die Frau hat durchgelitten = (perfect tense, indicative = real)
Die Frau hätte durchgelitten = (past, subjunctive = speculative)

She produces the vocabulary of despair which we have not expected from her so far:
Verlassen, ausgesetzt, in Verzweiflung.
She has not learned to curse men, those unfaithful (treulos) monsters (Ungeheuer) who have no limits (ohne Grenzen). A few unpleasant things (a short night, a hectic day, a waft) change their heart. She asks, “Are we immune against those cruel, enchanting, unfathomable transformations?”

Vocabulary of the fourth part:
betören = to lure, to tempt
verstohlen = covert
zuweilen = (old) sometimes
die Laune = (here) spirit, feeling
beklommen = fearful, dreadful
um und um = (here) through and through
hingegeben = surrendered

Noch glaub’ ich dem einen ganz mich gehörend,
Noch mein’ ich mir selber so sicher zu sein,
Da mischt sich im Herzen leise betörend
Schon einer nie gekosteten Freiheit,
Schon einer neuen verstohlenen Liebe
Schweifendes freches Gefühle sich ein!
Noch bin ich wahr, und doch ist es gelogen,
Ich halte mich treu und bin schon schlecht,
Mit falschen Gewichte wird alles gewogen –
Und halb mich wissend und halb im Taumel
Betrüg’ ich ihn endlich und lieb’ ihn noch recht!

Hugo von Hofmannsthal uses a narrative device, creating suspense between the words noch (still, at first) and da (here: then, suddenly) and schon (already). Still, she believes she belongs to him (zu ihm gehörend, zu leads to dative ihm), still, she is so sure of herself, then, suddenly a feeling of a new, covert love trickles into her heart. The librettist gives us a “poet’s genitive”:
einer Freiheit Gefühl, einer Liebe Gefühl …
Today we would say: ein schweifendes freches Gefühl einer nie gekosteten Freiheit,
ein schweifendes freches Gefühl einer neuen verstohlenen Liebe.

And now, in a brilliant piece of poetry, von Hofmannsthal amplifies Zerbinetta’s passion by throwing us back and forth between contradictions:
Between true (wahr) and lied to (gelogen),
faithful (treu) and bad, evil (schlecht);
everything is weighed with false stone weights (mit falchen Gewichten),
half knowingly (wissend) and half in delirium (Taumel)
she cheats (betrügen) on him eventually (endlich), and still loves him well.

So war es mit Pagliazzo
Und mit Mezzetin!
Dann war es Cavicchio,
Dann Burattin,
Dann Pasquariello !
Ach, und zuweilen,
Will es mir scheinen,
Waren es zwei!
Doch niemals Launen,
Immer ein Müssen!
Immer ein neues
Beklommenes Staunen.
Dass ein Herz so gar sich selber,
Gar sich selber nicht versteht!

Zerbinetta lists her lovers; and sometimes there were two at once, but she never was with them for fun (here: Launen); there was always a Müssen (the verb must as a noun), always astonishment that a heart can not understand itself. The particle gar works as an intensifier. (We can say nicht, or we can say gar nicht = not at all.)

Als ein Gott kam jeder gegangen,
Und sein Schritt schon machte mich stumm,
Küsste er mir Stirn und Wangen,
War ich von dem Gott gefangen
Und gewandelt um und um!

Als ein Gott kam jeder gegangen,
Jeder wandelte mich um,
Küsste er mir Mund und Wangen,
Hingegeben war ich stumm!
Kam der neue Gott gegangen,
Hingegeben war ich stumm!

Everyone of them (jeder) came as a god. His steps (Schritt) made her silent (stumm). He kissed her forehead and her cheeks. She was captured by the god, and transformed (gewandelt) over and over.

Zerbinetta’s aria performed by Edita Gruberova in a 1978 production:

Eben darum – Hidden Emotions

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (part III): Particles tell what the characters feel.



Ariadne auf Naxos” contains two types of language: A noble language expressing suffering or joy or virtues as honesty, courage, love, faithfulness, or altruism; and a language we normally speak when we engage in little jokes, gossip, aggressive or soothing statements etc.


In the latter more then in the first, we often use particles, little words that never change, and consequently are never subjected to declension. They are scattered throughout our language in such a large number that we are tempted to call them its glue, although a sentence can express our thoughts sufficiently without them. However, particles are words that tell us the attitudes or feelings of the speaker (or singer). They emphasise, amplify, confirm or affirm, show surprise or hesitation, and they tell the singers the underlying emotions of the sentence they are singing. Those words have often a primary meaning, but in context they function as particles: doch, gerade, noch, halt, eben, so, ja, gern, nämlich, ganz etc. There are many more.

The libretti of Hugo von Hofmannsthal are full of them, especially when they describe scenes in which the characters are uncertain or passioned, or about to act with courage or want to hide intentions. We find many of them in “Der Rosenkavalier”, and some of course in “Ariadne auf Naxos”, especially in the Vorspiel. Here are examples:

The Haushofmeister informs the Musiklehrer that the opera has to be curtailed to the needs of the patron and his guests who want to be entertained by a vaudeville show as well. The Musiklehrer expresses his indignation:

Die Opera seria Ariadne wurde eigens für diese festliche Veranstaltung komponiert.

He can say that without the word eigens, but he wants to make a point: This opera exists only because of these festivities and of nothing else.
eigens = specifically, ad hoc

Although distressed by the ill treatment he and his opera has to suffer, the Komponist continues to compose. He has a musical idea, wants to write it down and asks the Perückenmacher for a piece of paper (ein Stückerl Schreibpapier, Stückerl is Viennese for a little piece.):

Hat der Herr vielleicht ein Stückerl Schreibpapier?
Hätt’ mir
gern was aufnotiert!
Ich vergess’
nämlich gar so leicht.

We can sense his fear of getting rejected again behind this polite request. He addresses the Perückenmacher in the very polite third person der Herr, and asks if the gentleman has vielleicht (maybe) a piece of paper. Although to say that in this context it is not necessary, he then indicates the reason (was aufnotieren), only to make it sound cute and humble, almost submissive, with the word gern.
He gives also an apology: He forgets easily. With nämlich gar he portaits himself as an amiable absent-minded man. Who would deny him a little piece of paper?

When the Komponist later indicates to the Musiklehrer that he would like to withdraw the opera altogether, the Musiklehrer advises to stay on, to compromise and to make the changes as requested. This is the first time the Komponist is presenting his work, and he should not mess up this opportunity with a scandal. The Musiklehrer weighs in his life experience. He is thirty years older than the Komponist (Jahr’ln = Viennese for Jährchen, deminuitive for years, “little years”) and knows how “to behave in this world”. (sich schicken = old for to behave)

Mein Freund, ich bin halt dreissig Jahrl’n älter als wie du und hab’ halt gelernt, mich in die Welt zu schicken.

He adds halt, a word we hear often in conversations in German culture. With halt people say, “There is nothing that I can do”, es ist halt so.
Der Wecker ist halt kaputt. Deshalb komme ich zu spät.
My alarm is broken, there is nothing we can do about it. That’s why I am late.

After the Haushofmeister conveys his master’s complaint about the opera’s stage design of an deserted island, the Tanzmeister adds that there is “nothing more tasteless” than that. When the Komponist replies the island is a symbol for loneliness the Tanzmeister quips:

Eben darum braucht sie Gesellschaft.

He could say, “Darum braucht sie Gesellschaft” (darum = that’s why. That’s why she needs company.) but he includes eben. In this context, it means “exactly.” Exactly that’s why she needs company.



Of His Grace and You Donkey

The Linguistics of Ariadne auf Naxos (part II): How the characters address and insult each other.



The second article in my series about the language of this Strauss opera examines the relationships between the characters in the Vorspiel. These relationships are expressed in salutations and insults of different degrees.


The characters in the Vorspiel seem to negotiate place and time of their performances, but in reality they displays the sentiments of their social classes and their views on art.

Each side thinks the other side has no right to make demands, either because of their inferior rank in the courtly society or because of their ignorance against the ennoblement of music. At the end, it all depends on the wishes of the patron, the gnädige Herr.



Personal and possessive pronouns: Sie, Er und Euer Gnaden

The patron never appears in the Vorspiel. He has his underling, the Haushofmeister. He is the contact person between the patron and the artists – or better the Musiklehrer; he never speaks to the Komponist or to Zerbinetta directly. The Haushofmeister thinks that he is closer to his master on the social ladder than to the lower classes, and therefore knows how to speak a pompous language. It takes a while during the exchange with the Musiklehrer until he addresses him with the Sie and the possessive Ihre, a recognition of the same class:

Ich wüsste nicht, wer außer meinem gnädigen Herrn, in dessen Palais Sie sich befinden und Ihre Kunstfertigkeiten heute zu produzieren die Ehre haben, etwas zu gestatten – geschweige denn anzuordnen hätte!”

The Komponist interacts mostly with the Musiklehrer, with the Lakai, the Perückenmacher, the Tenor, the Primadonna, and eventually with Zerbinetta.

Komponist to Lakai: At first he calls the lackey lieber Freund (dear friend) followed by an imperative without a bitte which makes it an order rather than a polite request:

Lieber Freund! Verschaffen Sie mir die Geigen. Richten Sie ihnen aus, dass sie sich hier versammeln sollen zu einer letzten, kurzen Verständigungsprobe.”

Only after the Lakai has denied the Komponist access to the backstage room where he believes to be his Primadonna, he resorts to the imposing third person Er, a way normally nobility used to address the servants.

Weiß Er, wer ich bin? Wer in meiner Oper singt, ist für mich jederzeit zu sprechen!”

Earlier, the Lakai has informed the Offizier about the woman he will find behind this door, addressing him with Euer Gnaden (your grace).

Hier finden Euer Gnaden die Mamsell Zerbinetta. Sie ist bei der Toilette. Ich werde anklopfen.”

Impatient and upset about the lackey’s overzealousness, the officer pushes him aside and says, using the imperative of sein lassen (= to refrain from something) and zum Teufel gehen (= go to hell!):

Lass Er das sein und geh’ Er zum Teufel.”

Although equal in rank, the Komponist addresses the Perückenmacher in third person, not with Er, but with a colloquial title: der Herr. He asks politely for a piece of paper to write down a musical idea:

Hat der Herr vielleicht ein Stückerl Schreibpapier?”

We encounter few possessive pronouns like the Haushofmeister’s Ihre Kunstfertigkeiten or samt Ihrem Eleven (samt = including, leads to dative; der Eleve = old for music student). When the Tenor complains about the wig the Perückenmacher has offered him, the Perückenmacher protests his bad behavior (misshelliges Betragen), using a very old personal pronoun: dero (your).

Now, how do the characters talk about the elephant in the room, the patron, early on described as the richest man in Vienna who is about to entertain his guests by showing them Zerbinetta’s vaudeville show and the composer’s opera, and, as the highpoint of the evening, grand fireworks?



The Haushofmeister speaks of him as der gnädige Herr (gracious lord) and conjugates the verbs attributed to him as if he was third person plural, not a mistake but a way to emphasize the nobility of the Herr:

Der gnädige Herr haben sich nunmehr wiederum anders besonnen.” And: “Mein gnädiger Herr belieben das von ihm selbst genehmigte Programm umzustoßen.”

The Musiklehrer slaps his forehead. He is indignant of this last-minute change of plans, but does not lose his countenance. He calls the patron Seine Gnaden although he conjugates sich vorstellen (to imagine) as third person singular as if he is talking about a regular mortal:

Ja, wie um aller Götter willen stellt sich denn Seine Gnaden das vor?”

Insults are the peppercorns of relationships

Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal spices up the dialogs to different degrees:

Komponist to the Lakai:
Eselsgesicht, sehr unverschämter frecher Esel, Eselskerl (der Esel = donkey; unverschämt = impertinent; frech = cheeky): The Komponist feels offended, appalled.

Komponist about Bacchus, and what Bacchus is not:
Kein selbstgefälliger Hanswurst mit einem Pantherfell (selbstgefällig = self-complacent; der Hanswurst = tomfool; das Pantherfell = fur of a panther; Hanswurst in einem Pantherfell = a pretencious person)

The Tenor rants agains the Perückenmacher:
der Lump (= rascal)

The Primadonna expresses to the Musiklehrer her displeasure that she has to be on stage with the coquettish Zerbinetta:
“Uns mit dieser Sorte von Leuten in einen Topf!” (= to be likened with these kind of people, to be put in the same category as these kind of people.)