Umlauts, horses, Lieder, etc.

You know this intriguingly nightmare-inducing production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail? And how at the end Selim is reciting poetry and Konstanze says something like “oh, Selim, that’s beautiful!” ?

Well, I was minding my own business the other night, listening to Werner Güra sing some Hugo Wolf songs, and there was some business in one of them about a pine tree and two black horses and it began to seem to me that I had heard this somewhere before. I had, of course, not two weeks previous from Dorothea Röschmann courtesy of the Edinburgh Festival. But I had heard it somewhere even more before than that.

Oh yes. The poem that Selim recites is Eduard Mörike’s “Denk es, o Seele!” which was set by Hugo Wolf. He even says so, right there in the opera. (He says that it was by Mörike, not that it was set by Wolf.) But I didn’t take any notice at the time, as I had no reason then to know who Mörike was.

The first time I heard the poem, and indeed the first few times I heard the song, I thought of it as being addressed to another person, not as the title and the repetition of the title as a line in the song indicate (though I guess “my soul” could refer to someone else in a sort of metaphorical sense). This made the poem feel sort of creepy and threatening, as it’s about telling whoever is listening that the horses are out there which will draw your hearse; the tree is out there that will grow on your grave, etc. But if the speaker is just chatting up his own soul, it’s yet another dark little meditation on death, and Romantic poetry has baskets and baskets of those.

As far as interpretation of Entführung goes, though, I am not sure that adding Hugo Wolf to the mix would necessarily clarify much of anything.

I do wonder though – perhaps someone will be able to tell me – would Mörike be recognizable to your average opera-house crowd in Germany? I mean, if I was at the Met and someone interrupted a Mozart opera and started reciting Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, I’d figure that we were intended to get the reference, since we all had to read those two in high school. With, say, Amy Lowell I would not assume familiarity. But I have no idea where Mörike would fall on the familiarity spectrum.

(Also, I’ve finally memorized the Mac keyboard shortcut for umlauts. I äm nöw thë qüeen of speedilÿ rendered diacritical märks! Yåy!) (As an English speaker, I of course secretly believe that adding little dots and things to vowels to indicate how they are actually pronounced is a sign of weakness and a failure of character. Bootstraps, etc.)

35 thoughts on “Umlauts, horses, Lieder, etc.

  1. Yes, Mörike is pretty well known still in Germany and the Bildungsbürgers in the opera crowds probably should recognize the text.
    And, as a German, let me put in a quick word for the umlaut and ask if it’s so much cleverer to have the average Ausländer ponder and scratch his head at the right pronunciation of things like head and heat …

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    1. As a Scandinavian I have also jump in to defend the umlauts (or the scandics as we call them). It is far easier with clear spelling rules where you now (know?) how to spell and pronounce the words…

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      1. I was being a bit ironic/self-mocking there about contempt for diacritical marks 🙂 It would not be a bad idea at all to be able to distinguish in English on paper between the vowels in head and heat or words like bow (“the tenor blushed at the roar of applause and stepped forward to take his bow”) and bow (“the principal cellist loathed the conductor and daydreamed of driving to his summer cottage and running him through with her bow”).

        After reading Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language” about learning German I always wondered if there were versions of this written by people learning English. Between the spelling/pronunciation and probably a bunch of other things I imagine there’s plenty to say.

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            1. …and unless the conductor were really really frail, I’m afraid the cello bow wouldn’t do much damage, other than annoying him. Hmm, I know a conductor who has a summer cottage…and I have a cello bow…

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        1. Given that English is really three (+) languages stuffed haphazardly into a bag, I think anyone who learns it should be given the requisite credit for making the slog.

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          1. Word.

            I had a Russian colleague in grad school who explained to me how perplexing and often deeply irritating she found English definite/indefinite articles, since they don’t have them in Russian. She never made a mistake with them, though, as far as I ever noticed.

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            1. Think how hard it is learn English when your native language don’t have articles, gender, irregular verbs, and everything is written exactly as said…

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              1. That does sound terrifying. (It sounds like a magnified version of me and German adjective endings the first time: the whole business seemed sort of unnecessary and deliberately cruel to the non native speaker)

                I bet you began learning English pretty young, though?

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                1. I wonder whether they ever did or whether it was essentially a literary language and demotic speech was rather simpler.. I ask myself the same thing about Old English. That said, I have met people who could converse quite happily in Latin so maybe at least the educated classes spoke that way.

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                2. Maybe so. I’m guessing you’re correct and there were probably different registers of formality/complexity for different people/situations – someone must have done research on what ordinary Romans sounded like.

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                3. I was 9. English was my second new language after Swedish, which helped; Swedish is like simplified version of English or German

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                4. Really? I always thought Latin was the Mr Potatohead of languages — all you do is take a root and stick things onto it, then you toss it anywhere you want in a sentence because like the Romans could give a damn about syntax. What could be simpler? Whereas with German you can do things like frontload a sentence with a person’s entire cv plus vital statistics and you’re half a page on before you even mention their name or the primary fact that they were getting on the bus.

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                5. Simple for the writer, perhaps, but the poor reader is left tearing her hair out as to whether that thing in the ablative is connected to that other thing in the ablative, or perhaps that third thing in the ablative on the other side of that suspicious-looking conjunction – and meanwhile the verb is cooling its heels in the shade of four subordinate clauses on the other side of the hill. It’s madness.

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                6. Actually I think they are pretty similar in terms of root-suffix and word positioning issues. The big difference is that Latin has more cases, more declensions, more moods, more conjugations and so on.

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                7. But isn’t Latin a little more flexible than German in terms of word order? It’s been a while, but I don’t remember anything similar to the German “the verb is nearly always the second thing in the sentence” rule for Latin.

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                8. In Latin, the verb nearly always comes at the end of the sentence (like a past participle in German) which I always found really hard as in “bit (3rd person singular past tense second declension).

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                9. I remember – I thought it was a convention rather than a hard and fast rule, though; my sense that one has more freedom to rearrange sentence elements in Latin than in German (or English). But I’ll take your word for it; my Latin was pretty limited fifteen years ago, and it’s even more so now . . .

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                10. I dunno, even with the additional cases, moods, etc., Latin seemed pretty straightforward in a tables-memorizing way that German isn’t. I find tenses governed by suffixes more efficient, somehow, than German (or English) verbs once you get beyond the present and simple past. Though I grant the ablative can be a bit whack conceptually.

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              2. The ablative is one of the bits of Latin that I found frustrating – I remember trying to translate descriptions of things where the text just seemed a jumble of words in the ablative that might or might not pair up in various ways. Probably more practice would have helped with that, though.

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    1. I had to think hard about Mörike’s period but my first thought when I read the posting was “well he could hardly mention Wolf” though really I’m not sure why I say that as for all I know this production could be set on a space station in the 23rd century.

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        1. That all being said, and since you brought it up, the acting, non-singing portion of the cast really perked up when Selim mentioned Mörike (after nearly collapsing during the singing of the final chorus). So probably mentioning Hugo Wolf would not have been any more anachronistic than the poem itself. Or the many other strangenesses in that production.

          But who really recited that poem? Selim, or the actor?
          That production is so weird, and I love it so much!

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    1. One person looked at it yesterday, but that’s all – maybe they’re not clicking the link from your post to mine, or they’ve gone somehow straight to the “DR an appreciation” site?

      BTW, speaking of DR fandom, via M I hear that we have a recital CD to look forward to sometime early next year.

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