“An die Musik” (Franz Schubert) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

“An die Musik” (Franz Schubert) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

Translation, pronunciation guide and text analysis
(interpretation tips) of
“An die Musik” by Franz Schubert

 

Du holde Kunst,
in wie viel grauen Stunden
wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden,
hast mich in eine bessre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir
den Himmel bess’rer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

Oh noble art,
in how many grey hours
when life’s fierce orbit weaved around me,
did you kindle my heart to warm love
did you carry me away to a better world!

Often has a sigh, pouring from your harp,
a sweet, holy chord of you,
unlocked the heaven of better times
oh, noble art, I thank you!

 

Historical and political background

In 1817, when this poem was written (and the song composed), the Napoleonic wars had just ceased a few years ago and Europe and its borders had been reordered in the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The goal was of course, to avoid further wars in Europe. Yet, the price for this prescribed peace was the suppression of national and liberal as well as democratic aspirations.

Every movement was watched suspiciously and censorship was extreme. Whenever something was to be published, even novels or poems it had to undergo a strict examination. Many works were censored, their writers even prosecuted. It was forbidden to bring books across a border.

In these times of post-war and restauration, severe suppression of free opinion and speech, Schubert and his circle (among it many poets) were in a constant conflict between the desire to express themselves and their thoughts and the need to stay out of conflict with the law.

It’s no wonder, they wished for a “better world” and I’m sure they meant it when – as in Schober’s poem – they used the arts to get there. Music helped (and helps!) to forget the sorrows and woes and to escape to some otherworldly place.

 

Franz von Schober

Franz von Schober (1796 – 1882) was an Austrian poetrist, librettist, lithograph, actor and “Legationsrat”. He was close friends with Franz Schubert, the sometimes even called themselves “Schobert”.

From 1818 they lived together in Schober’s apartment in Vienna. Schober loved the arts and was well acquainted with many artists, especially the ones in Schubert’s circle. It’s also due to him that Franz Schubert’s work became known during his life time and beyond.

Franz Schubert set 13 of Schober’s poems to music, one of them “An die Musik” in 1817.

 

The song

The poem is an expression of thanks to music. In these two stanzas the author (musician, singer,…) thanks music, the “noble art” for helping them getting away into a “better world”.

In his poem, Schober praises the Romantic view of music – or art in general – as a place of refuge and a means to alleviate the sorrows and pains of earthly presence like in a prayer. Art plays the role of a spiritual act as a kind of religious service.

This song is an expression of thanks as well as a prayer.

In this blog article, we’ll tackle the song line by line, analysing the obvious and underlying meaning of the text and looking at its pronunciation. let’s dive right in:

 

Du holde Kunst

You’re addressing music like a person, yet it is taken as the most abstract form: art. If Schober hadn’t given his poem the title “An die MUSIK”, we wouldn’t know (at least not now) that he meant music. Art is the umbrella term here and could mean anything: music, poetry, painting, drawing, singing,…

The German word “hold” means friendly, lovely, graceful – words we usually attribute to a woman and which are here attributed to music.

In this line, the U of “Du” is the only closed vowel. Make sure that all the other vowels are open, especially the U in “Kunst” as contrast to “Du”. As “Kunst” has to be held rather long, it may be a bit of a challenge to fing the right colouring.

 

In wie viel grauen Stunden

It’s interesting that Schober doesn’t refer to “dark” (= black) but “grey” hours. Grey is a rather neutral color that doesn’t stand out, and thus doesn’t necessarily represent gloom or tragedy but the gnawing distress of constant worrying, sorrow, boredom, dullness,

I guess we all know these hours of nothingness, where we feel burdened, bored and frustrated. Times like these make us either feel trapped and bound, not to be able to do what we want; or bored and frustrated because we cannot see a way out. Either way, it’s a mixture of anger, frustration and hopelessness that makes hours “grey”.

The I in “in” is open whereas the I in “wie” and “vielen “ are closed.
Make sure you get the diphthong in “grauen” right: hold the [a] for approximately three quarters of the note length and then glide over to the [ɔ]. You’ll find more information on how to pronounce German diphthongs correctly here.

Pronounce the U in “Stunden” open. This may be a bit of a challenge as the note is relatively long. Nevertheless, don’t get tempted to close the vowel too much (see “Kunst” in the preceding line).

 

Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt

What an incredibly poetic use of words! We can see life weaving a net around us that gets tighter and tighter. And why does Schober use the word “wild”? Did he really mean fierce – which would imply some malicious intent? Or did he mean “uncontrollable”, meaning that life’s a series of (sometimes bad) incidents? These may seem petty thoughts but it’s important that you as a singer make up your mind about them. What’s your impression in this case? Although no one will ask you about it, it’ll mirror in your interpretation.

The O in “Wo” and the first E in “Leben” are the only closed vowels in this line. Make sure the CH-sound in “mich” is not to throaty – you’ll find invaluable information on the different CH-sounds in German here.

You can either pronounce the -er in “wilder” as a schwa: [ə] or with a one-flap R which alters the vowel to [Ɛɾ]. There’s more information on the different uses of R in German in this article. Make your choice and stick to it throughout the whole song.

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden

How great a contrast between this and the preceding line, between “life’s fierce orbit” and the “kindling of warm love” in one’s heart. It’s a bit like being in the eye of the storm: no matter how insane things are around you, you are calm and safe, warm and full of love – thanks to music.

In order to hold the legato line, we must make several implosions here, for example “has-du”, “en-tsunden”. The succeeding Zs in the term “Herz zu” are a bit tricky because you must pronounce the double sound TS twice in rapid succession. (More on the Z here).

The -er of “warmer” is pronounced similar to “wilder” in the preceding line (see there).

Make sure to articulate every sound of the TZ in “entzunden” very clearly: [Ɛnt-tsun-dƐn]

Hast mich in eine bessre Welt entrückt

A better world. What better place to get put into, especially when things are hard and you don’t have any control on the ongoings in the world’s turmoil around you.

“Entrückt” is an interesting word: in the beginnings of its use, it meant something like “being taken with force”, but later on it got a spiritual touch, meaning that mind or soul (or both) went or were taken beyond material boundaries into a spiritual world.

This line is repeated, showing us its significance. The stress in the first time lies on “Welt”, whereas at the repetition it lies on “bessre”. With the repetition and the different stresses, Schubert covers both important words.

Except for the A-sound in “eine”, we only have open vowels here.

Prolong the (open) A of „hast“ and speak the STM (“hast mich”) as late as possible to uphold the legato.
The same goes for “bessre”: prolong the first E (which is open) and take the S as beginning of the next syllable (-re).

We have a glottal onset at the beginning of “entrückt”, but make sure that it’s only a very slight one by speaking the T of the preceding word “Welt” almost as beginning of “entrückt”: Wel -t I e-ntrü-ckt
If you are not sure how to pronounce an authentic German Ü, this article may be interesting.

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf‘ entflossen

Here we have the image of music as a human being, holding a harp that sometimes pours out “sighs” (which get specified in the next line). When at first, music was addressed as “art”, that is an abstractum, we now have a personification. This increases the intimacy of the second stanza, giving it the touch of a love song.

Again, we have only one closed vowel in this line and that is the A-sound in “deiner”. All other vowels are open.

Make a small caesura after “Seufzer” – the comma is often a good indicator when to make a pause or draw a breath.

 

Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir

A “sweet” and “holy chord”. The words already tell you how to sing the phrase: sweet and holy.

The holiness of this prayer-like song finds its reflection in the “holy chord”

Make sure to pronounce the S at the beginning of “süßer” voiced, the ß unvoiced. Again, you can make a small caesura between “süßer” and “heiliger” – not only because of the comma but also because these two words describe very contrary characteristics.

Although I’d recommend pronouncing the -er of “süßer” and “heiliger” as schwa-sounds, you may also articulate a discreet one-flap R if that makes it easier for you to combine them with the following words.

The R in “Akkord” must be clearly audible.

“Dir”, however, is pronounced without the R-sound: [di:a]

Den Himmel bessrer Zeiten mir erschlossen

In the first stanza we were “taken to a better world”, presupposing that this world exists now, maybe parallel to our world or the circumstances we live in.

In this line, however, music unlocks the “heaven of better times”. We have switched from locality to temporality, indicating that right now we do not have good times but that they will come.
One could argue that this is only a hope expressed. Yet, in my opinion the poet/singer already feels the energy of this not yet visible paradise, either implying that its appearance is right around the corner or – by imagining and feeling it – we play an active role in materializing it.

Be aware that “erschließen” not only means to unlock but also to (make) understand something. As “heaven” implies a spiritual place (not a material one), this may refer to experiencing spiritual bliss.

The E in “den” and the A-sound in “Zeiten” are the only closed vowels in this line.

As in the preceding line, the -er of “bessrer” and “erschlossen” as well as “mir”s may be pronounced as schwa-sounds or with a one-flap R.

“Himmel” may be a bit of a challenge here, especially making sure that the I is open throughout the relatively long note. As a trick, you could think(!) of an Ü to give the vowel the right colouring.

 

du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür

Similar to the end of the first stanza, Schubert switches the musical focus and thus the stress in the repetition: the first stress lies on “dir”, the second one on “danke”. The song ends (almost) with the same words as it has begun “du holde Kunst”, forming wonderfully a closed circle.

Be careful that the A in “danke” doesn’t get too nasal. This is a common issue with vowels followed by NG or NK. Be very strict with yourself and pay close attention to the production of a clear and brilliant A.

All vowels, except the E in “danke”, are closed which makes it very easy in this context.

Do not pronounce the R at the end of “dafür”; you may make the R in “dir” a one-flap R – but only the first time when it is followed by “dafür”. In the repetition where the line ends with “dir”, the R shouldn’t be pronounced.

 

Summary

Although the song is considered a beginner’s level it has its challenges.

The first is to keep the vowels open even on long notes. Vowel coloring is very important

Next, we have the legato lines. Thankfully enough, there are no difficult consonant clusters to be taken care of here; nevertheless, the fluent combination of words is not always easy.

And last but not least there’s the challenge to sing this song with a real intention of thanks. Don’t become tempted to get overly sentimental or pathetic. Schubert is anything but that!

 

As usual, I add two recordings of this wonderful song. The first one is sung by the late Christa Ludwig:

 

Whereas this version of the song is interpreted by Julian Prégardien:

“Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Franz Schubert) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

“Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Franz Schubert) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

Translation, pronunciation guide and text analysis (interpretation tips) of “Gretchen am Spinnrade” by Franz Schubert

Text and Translation

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                    My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer                                                             my heart is heavy
Ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr.                           I’ll never and nevermore (again) find peace.

Wo ich ihn nicht hab, ist mir das Grab,                             Where I don’t have him, mine is the grave
die ganze Welt ist mir vergällt.                                           The whole world is bitter to me
Mein armer Kopf ist mir verrückt,                                     my poor head is crazed
mein armer Sinn ist mir zerstückt.                                    My poor mind is shattered

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                 My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer                                                           my heart is heavy
Ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr.                         I’ll never and nevermore (again) find peace.

Nach ihm nur schau ich zum Fenster hinaus,                For him only I look out of the window
nach ihm nur geh ich aus dem Haus.                               For him only I leave the house
Sein hoher Gang, seine edle Gestalt,                                His walk walk, his noble appearance
seines Mundes Lächeln, seiner Augen Gewalt,              his mouth’s smile, his eyes‘ power
und seiner Rede Zauberfluss,                                            And his speech’s magic flow,
sein Händedruck und ach, sein Kuss!                              the press of his hand and oh, his kiss!

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer                                                          my heart is heavy
Ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr.                        I’ll never and nevermore (again) find peace.

Mein Busen drängt sich nach ihm hin,                           My bosom urges towards him
ach dürft ich fassen und halten ihn                                oh if only I could seize and hold him
und küssen ihn, so wie ich wollt                                      and kiss him as I want
an seinen Küssen vergehen sollt,                                   in his kisses I would die
oh könnt ich ihn küssen wie ich wollt,                           oh if only I could kiss him as I want
an seinen Küssen vergehen sollt!                                    In his kisses I would die

Meine Ruh ist hin                                                                My peace is gone
Mein Herz ist schwer…                                                      my heart is heavy…

Historical background

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The above poem was written by no less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great German poet. It’s integrated in his great drama “Faust – Der Tragödie erster Teil“, the most important work in German literature!

Goethe’s “Faust” premiered in 1808.

Franz Schubert

In October 1814, October 19 to be exact, Franz Schubert set the poem to music. As a title he simply chose the stage directions “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. Many consider this extraordinary song the first real “German Lied” and the date of its composition is sometimes declared “the birthday of the Romantic Art Song”.

Schubert was only seventeen years old when he wrote this masterpiece!

The story of “Faust”

Let me just sum up the plot of Goethe’s “Faust” so that we get to know a bit more about Gretchen’s situation:

“Faust” tells the story of the scientist Heinrich Faust who sold his soul to the devil.

Although very well educated, Faust is weary of the fact that he can’t find out more about the essential secrets of life. In his depression he wants to kill himself but is kept from suicide by the devil.

Why the devil? Before the actual drama, there is a prologue where God muses about good and evil. God is convinced that man is by nature good and that not even a sceptic like Faust could be tempted by evil. The devil holds against it, and they make a bet.

Faust then is lured to make a pact with the devil: Mephisto (the devil) promises to be at Faust’s service and to grant him every wish he has. In return, Faust promises his soul to the devil if he wants to grasp a happy moment. From now on, the devil is at Faust’s side.

Faust meets Gretchen

Gretchen und Faust.

When Faust sets his eyes on Gretchen for the first time he is charmed by her. He demands from Mephisto that he helps him making Gretchen his lover.

They meet, first in the garden house than at her neighbour’s garden and Faust is desperate to have sex with her. He gives Gretchen a sleeping drug for her mother so that they can meet undisturbedly (which they do). The mother, however, dies from the drug.

Gretchen confides her affair with Faust to her brother Valentin who wants to take revenge on her and challenges Faust on a duel. Mephisto, however, intervenes with magic and Faust kills Valentin. In dying, Valentin curses Gretchen and makes her affair public. When Gretchen goes to church to pray, a demon appears and confirms her suspicion that she is pregnant.

Faust in the meantime has fled with Mephisto. At one point, he gets news that Gretchen has become crazy, drowned her new-born baby and was now in prison to await her death sentence. He urges Mephisto to free her and they get into prison. Gretchen, however, refuses to come with him, dies and her soul is saved.

Mephisto takes Faust with him.

 

Musical and textual background

Gretchen spinning

Goethe placed the poem shortly after the first romantic encounter between Gretchen and Faust. She’s infatuated with the overwhelming feelings of first love. We must not forget that she is very young, sixteen to be exact and totally unexperienced when it comes to love.

Further, she is a very good girl, pious, innocent and pure. Now she has seen a different world, and she’s on the brink of transitioning from child to adult. No wonder, she’s overwhelmed by all the feelings Faust stirs in her!

The song starts with one and a half bars of piano accompaniment, a regular beat symbolizing the motion of the spinning wheel. The rhythm in the left hand acts as the pedal movement Gretchen does with her foot but also as her heartbeat.

“Gretchen am Spinnrade” – Pronunciation guide and analysis

We’ll tackle this song line by line and gather insights regarding pronunciation and interpretation by looking closer at the text and analyzing it:

Meine Ruh ist hin

Start this song very silently. The sound level for the piano is set as pianissimo and the same goes for the voice. Remember it’s an inner monologue Gretchen does, her thoughts flying off while she’s working automatically.

Carry out the diphthong [ae] in “Meine” by holding the [a] for approximately three quarters of the note and finish the last quarter off with the [e]. If you want to dig deeper in the matter of German diphthongs, here’s the article for you.

Sing the U in “Ruh” long and closed, but the I in “ist” and “hin” as open vowels. Make sure that the H in “Ruh” is silent.

mein Herz ist schwer

This and the preceding line are the quietest, most introvert and – above all – most legato lines in the whole song. This is valid for all three times these lines are repeated during the song.

Gretchen each time becomes immersed in the monotony of spinning and the endless wheel of her thoughts reflecting the movements of the spinning wheel.

In “Herz” we have a consonant cluster as the Z represents two sounds, a [t] and an [s]. Although tempting, none of the three consonants ([rts]) must be omitted. You may read more on how to tackle German consonant clusters here.

I sometimes hear that the R is turned into a schwa-sound but that’s wrong! You needn’t roll the R (you can if you want) but a one-flap R it should be at the least.

The final R in “schwer” on the other hand is a schwa-sound: pronounce it gently as [ɐ]

Make the E in “Herz” as well as the I in “ist” open, but the E in “schwer” long and closed before you glide over to the schwa [ɐ].

ich finde sie nimmer und nimmermehr

The finality of her fate – that she’ll never find again peace and calmness again – hits Gretchen. And although we could brush this off as the over-dramatic views of a teenage girl, we already know that she is right: she’ll get drawn in deeper and deeper into the spiral of evil, entangling herself so much that there will be no way back to her calm and quiet life.

For this reason, “nimmer” as well as “nimmermehr” should be sung with a little more emphasis.

All I-sounds are open, except the one in “sie” which is long and closed.

The same goes for the second E in “nimmermehr”: it’s long and closed before it glides over to the schwa-sound (see the preceding line).

Wo ich ihn nicht hab, ist mir das Grab

This is quite a dramatic statement and I know how tempted one can become to sing it dramatically. But remember the scene: Gretchen is sitting at the spinning wheel doing work and having an inner(!) monologue.

You should stress the words according to their meaning, of course, but don’t do a dramatic outburst (yet.) Gretchen is certainly not throwing things around in a tantrum.

In this line we have a regular change between open and closed vowels:

Wo   ich   ihn  nicht  hab    ist     mir  das    Grab [o:] – [i] – [i:] – [i] –   [a:] – [i] –   [i:] – [a] – [a:]

Although the consonants in this line make it relatively easy to bind the words to a smooth legato, there are a few parts you must pay attention to:

“nicht hab” may be a bit tricky due to the two different H-sounds in rapid succession. Pronounce the CH in “nicht” as well as in “ich” as [ç] which is the light version of the CH-sounds (about which you can read up here) and the H in “hab” is even lighter and pronounced [h].

The challenge is to not only to get these two different sounds right but also combine them with the T of “nicht” (which must be audible).

Die ganze Welt ist mir vergällt

„vergällt“ literally means ‘made of bile’ which is said to be one of the most bitter substances known. You might bear this in mind when singing the bitterness.

Be careful that you don’t add a shadow sound like N before “die”.

If you make a small caesura after “Welt” or not is up to you and your interpretation of the song. You might also hold the legato line until “vergällt”. In that case, you should implode the T, that is : prolong the L of “Welt” and add the T at the very last moment, almost as beginning of “ist”.

Mein armer Kopf ist mir verrückt

Gretchen’s dispair increases as she fears she’s gone crazy. If you want to make the text sound breathless and agitated, you may make a short break after “Kopf” but you may also sing on to the end of the line to stress the “verrückt”.

„verrückt“ literally means ‘out of place’, ‘shifted’. So when the head is no longer at it’s place, you are out of your mind…

Be careful that no H-sound sneaks in before “armer”; as for the R at the end of the word: you may pronounce it as schwa-sound but if you are unsure about the right E-sound, I recommend doing the R as a one-flap trill.

The double R in “verrückt” however, must be rolled.

Mein armer Sinn ist mir zerstückt

„zerstückt“ actually is quite a brutal word, its literal translation being ‘cut up’ or ‘chopped’.

The short outburst of emotions comes to a fatigued end on the word “zerstückt” which also symbolizes in the piano accompaniment.

Pronounce the second R in “armer” as schwa, followed by the voiced S of “Sinn”.

In “zerstückt” we have again a consonant cluster as the ST has to be pronounced [ʃt].

Nach ihm nur schau ich zum Fenster hinaus

While in the first few lines Gretchen muses about her feelings, her heart, head and mind, she now shifts her attention to Faust, his appearance (Gestalt) , his brains (Rede)  and his sensuality (Kuss).

That means her focus changes from inward to outward view. Nevertheless, it’s still an inner monologue.

The CH in “nach” is the slightly harsh [x]-sound.

However small, there is a tiny glottal onset between “schau” and “ich”. Pay attention that you don’t add a shadow H.

Nach ihm nur geh ich aus dem Haus

Gretchen is urged outside by her longing for Faust: she can’t help but look out of the window for him every so often and go out of the house to see if he’s coming.

Be careful: the H in „ihm” as well as the one in “geh” are silent

All vowels except the I in „ich“ are closed, the diphthong AU is pronounced [ao].

Sein hoher Gang, sein edle Gestalt

The tone becomes sweeter than before as Gretchen is remembering lovingly Faust’s image. She visualizes him and indulges in his appearance, “hoher Gang” meaning “upright posture” (i.e. the posture of a member of the upper class, someone used to command).

And we learn about Faust’s “noble” physique, probably as a contrast to the somewhat stout and plump looks of the simple people.

Bearing in mind that she is a plain girl of no high rank, it’s no wonder she got caught by his attention towards her.

The first H in “hoher” is an audible [h], the second, however, is silent. The same goes for the second G in “Gang”: it’s silent, as N and G form an [ŋ]-sound.

Pronounce the S in “sein” voiced, and keep in mind that the ST in “Gestalt” is pronounced [ʃt].

Seines Mundes Lächeln, seiner Augen Gewalt

We’re zooming in from Faust’s figure to his face, his mouth and eyes to be exact, which are the two parts of the face that people permanently scan when facing someone the like.

Also, there is the contrast between “Lächeln” (smile) and “Gewalt” which not only means ‘power’ but also ‘violence’, describing the spell Gretchen feels when she’s looking into Faust’s eyes.

The vowels in “Mundes”, “Lächeln” and „Gewalt“ are all open.

To make it easier for you to hold the legato line and also to make sure you get the right sound, I recommend making the R of “seiner Augen” a one-flap trill.

Und seiner Rede Zauberfluss

I’m not quite sure if Faust really got some magic in his speech by the devil or if it is just the huge difference in the use of language between Faust’s scholarly background and Gretchen’s simple one. In the end, it’s of no importance WHY his words have mesmerized her only that they did.

The agitation that has started earlier (when exactly is up to you, whether you already start it at the description of his figure or at the face) becomes more intense.

To bind “und seine “ smoothly together, prolong the N at the end of “und” a bit and set the T (D at the end of a word is pronounced T) as the starting sound of the next word: un-tseine

The first E in “Rede” is closed, the second one is open. Both syllables are on the same note length and should be sung accordingly.

I recommend pronouncing the R in “Zauberfluss” as vocalic R (i.e. dropping it off), because this is easier for the legato line.

Sein Händedruck und ach, sein Kuss

Gretchen is reliving her last encounter with Faust when he had kissed her. The agitation culminates in this kiss and Gretchen even stops the paddle of the spinning wheel (or slips off it) when lingering on the remembrance of the kiss.

Ä and E in “Händedruck” sound almost the same which can complicate the matter a bit but with a bit of practice you’ll manage to pronounce it as [hƐndə].

The U in Kuss is open which may be a challenge regarding that the word is sung on a fermata.

Mein Busen drängt sich nach ihm hin

“Busen” means ‘bosom’ and is also a synonym for ‘heart’ which is interesting as both, her love but also her awakening lust push her towards Faust.

The following vowels in this line are closed: U in “Busen”, A in “nach” and I in “ihm”.

Alhough tempting, don’t breathe after “sich” but hold the legato until “hin”.

The consonant cluster in “drängt sich” may be a challenge: pronounce every consonant clearly, EXCEPT the G and bear in mind that the S in “sich” is voiced.

Ach, dürft ich fassen und halten ihn

The movement becomes more passionate.

„fassen“ is not exactly ‘touching’ but rather ‘seizing someone (passionately)’ which is what Gretchen wants to do with Faust. The fact that she thinks about her becoming active is unusual for the time where the man had the active part and the woman the receiving one. This is why she says ‘if only I were allowed to…’

Both, “ich” and “ihn” start with a little glottal onset. To hold the legato, I recommend not doing the onset too harshly but smoothly bind “dürft ich” and “halten ihn” together – without smearing two words into one, of course!

Und küssen ihn, so wie ich wollt

Gretchen not only wants to grab Faust and hold him but also kiss him (and probably more). She gets completely caught up in her desire.

Pronounce the S in „so” voiced (the double S in “küssen” is, of course, unvoiced).

„ihn“ vs. „ich“: the first I is long and closed, the second one is open.

“so” vs. “wollt”: the first O is long and closed, the second one is open

An seinen Küssen vergehen sollt

„vergehen“ is translated as ‘dying’ but actually it means vanishing, melting or dissolving. In this case, I guess, Gretchen speaks of ‘melting into Faust’ or ‘becoming one’ with him.

‘Dying as translation, however, is also justifiable when we become aware that in French a sexual climax is sometimes referred to as “la petite mort”, ‘the small death’.

I know it’s tempting to add H’s to “seinen” and “vergehen”, especially as they are sung on several notes but please pay attention that you don’t do that. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf would turn in her grave.

Summary

Gretchen is a very young, plain girl who has fallen madly in love and can’t talk about it to anyone but only to herself in an inner monologue.

She is very authentic in her feelings as she is not used to pretending or lying.

Transporting her inner turmoil, her restlessness, her despair, the butterflies in her stomach, her desire and love is the high art of this song. You as a singer are to show us these alternating emotions without becoming overly dramatic.

Below I’ve attached YouTube videos with recordings of this song.

The first is with Christa Ludwig:

The second is sung by Barbara Bonney:

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (Robert Schumann) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (Robert Schumann) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

Translation, pronunciation guide and interpretation tips on
“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” by Robert Schumann

 

Text and translation

 

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai                                          In the beautiful month of May
als alle Knospen sprangen,                                                  When all buds were bursting open
da ist in meinem Herzen                                                      In my heart
die Liebe aufgegangen.                                                        Love has burst open.

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai                                         In the beautiful month of May
als alle Vögel sangen                                                            When all birds were singing
da hab ich ihr gestanden                                                    I confessed to her
mein Sehnen und Verlangen.                                            My yearning and desire.

 

Historical background

This wonderful, dreamy song is the first of the sixteen songs that form the song cycle “Dichterliebe” (‘Poet’s Love’) by Robert Schumann.

A picture of Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847
Robert and Clara Schumann, 1847

All poems Schumann used for “Dichterliebe” were written by the German author and poet Heinrich Heine as part of his cycle “Lyrisches Intermezzo“ (lyric intermezzo).
Schumann set 20 of these poems to music but removed four songs before pubishing the cycle.

Robert Schumann wrote the whole cycle in just one week in May (!) 1840.

In that year, he finally married his long-term love, Clara Wieck. Clara’s father had been strictly against that relationship and did everything he could to separate the lovers. The letters they wrote to each other during this difficult time are still available and I strongly recommend reading them as they give insight of their mutual ups and downs.

 

Musical and textual background

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai“ consists of two stanzas and is written as a strophic song.

It starts with a short piano opening that doesn’t make it quite clear if it’s set in a major or minor key (the original was written in F# minor). Although at first sight (or rather: listening) it appears to be a sweet reminiscence of a spring love, the musical setting implies a small bitterness to the sweetness. In fact, the whole cycle “Dichterliebe” tells the story of a love that in the case of events is rejected and thus shows a series of emotions, from love to disappointment, anger and sadness.

 

Pronunciation and interpretation

We’ll tackle this song line by line and I’ll give you insights regarding pronunciation and interpretation by taking a closer view of the text:

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”

The I and U in the first two syllables are open vowels, with the U a bit more challenging due to the long note. Nevertheless, make sure to pronounce it open. A trick that might help you is to think (!) of a closed O while singing the open U.

“wunderschönen” bears a further difficulty, the “-er”. Although I recommend pronouncing it as a schwa-sound [ə] and in doing so omitting the R, it might be easier for you to actually pronounce the R with one flap to get the preceding E-sound right. Here you’ll find an article on the different German R-sounds.

The O in “Monat” is closed whereas the A is open. For further information on German diphthongs like the AI in “Mai”, read this article.

The whole atmosphere at the beginning of this song is dreamy and reminiscent. The narrator is lost in thoughts about a certain period of his life that has been over now. He knows the outcome of the whole story (that is: the cycle) but at that stage we as audience do not know yet.

“als alle Knospen sprangen”

In this line we have only open vowels and unvoiced S. The SP in “Knospen” is pronounced as written, [sp], but the SP in “sprangen” must be pronounced as [ʃp].

Unlike for example in English, G in the NG of “sprangen” must not be heard. Just pronounce the [ɳ].

The sixteenth notes on the O of “Knospen” might be a bit tricky, especially the drop down to the third note. Make sure you sing this part very flexible and pay attention that you sing a clean legato.

This line is a natural description of buds bursting into bloom, describing the beauty of spring.

“da ist in meinem Herzen”

Both A in “da” and in “meinem” are closed, the remaining vowels are open.

Between “da” and “ist” we have a slight glottal onset which I recommend you should carry out. I’ve heard version where these two words are slightly bound together but the risk to blur the sounds too much is relatively high.

Remember that the Z in “Herzen” actually consists of two sounds, adding up to three when we count the preceding R. The mini consonant cluster must be carried out like this [rts]

Now we come to the main point of the story: the narrator recounts falling in love (which he will tell in the next line) and the music is building up tension. Make sure to hold this tension to the next line:


“die Liebe aufgegangen”

“die” and “Liebe” have long, closed I-sounds and again we have a glottal onset. This time between “Liebe” and “aufgegangen”.

As with “sprangen” in the second line, the G in the NG in “-gegangen” remains silent.

The crescendo which has already started in the preceding line increases. Naturally, it would culminate in “Liebe” but the Schumann’s music leads us to the climax in “aufgegangen”.

But please bear in mind: this is a romantic art song, not an aria. Don’t overdo the emotions here.

The second stanza starts with the exact same words as the first: “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”. The narrator has fallen back into sweet reminiscence, the line being sung in piano again.


“als alle Vögel sangen”

Again we have the glottal onset between “als” and “alle”, just like in the second line. And similar to that line, the sixteenth notes, here on “Vögel” must be sung as legato and flexible as possible.

If you want to read more on the German Umlaute like the Ö in “Vögel” you will find an article here.

 

“da hab ich ihr gestanden“

In this line we have two glottal onsets, one before “ich”, the other before “ihr”. The first one might be omitted and slightly bound with the preceding “hab”, but the second one is necessary.

All A-vowels in this line are long and closed, as is the I in “ihr”; the other vowels are open.

The ST in “gestanden” is actually pronounced [ʃt].

As in the stanza before, the tension rises in this line, supported by a crescendo. Hold the tension. The audience can barely remain on their seat as they are dying to know what he confessed to her!

 


“mein Sehnen und Verlangen”

The A-sounds in “mein” and “Verlangen” are closed, as is the first E in “Sehnen”.

Also, the S of “Sehnen” is voiced.

The tension builds up further in revealing the confession: finally, we know that the narrator not only has fallen in love but that he actually confessed his feelings to the beloved.

 

Summary

This song bears several stumbling blocks or rather things you should watch out for:

One of the challenges, in my opinion, is to hold that balance between the sweetness of reminiscence on one side and the little bitter nuances we sometimes sense in the accompaniment and changes from major to minor.

Another difficulty is to hold the legato line while at the same time making sure to pronounce the text articulately.

And lastly, articulate pronunciation is one thing but it should never be overdone and interrupt the musical flow.

 

As in all pronunciation and interpretation guides, I have attached two recordings of “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”. The first is sung by the “King of Lied”, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

 

 

Usually, we expect “Dichterliebe” to be interpreted by a man. I’ve found a recording, however, with the wonderful soprano Christine Schäfer. A very intriguing interpretation:

“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai”, Christine Schäfer
“Von ewiger Liebe” (Johannes Brahms) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

“Von ewiger Liebe” (Johannes Brahms) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

Translation, pronunciation guide and interpretation tips on “Von ewiger Liebe” (Johannes Brahms)

Text and translation

Dunkel, wie dunkel in Wald und in Feld!                                             Dark, how dark in forest and in field!
Abend schon ist es, nun schweiget die Welt.                                     Evening it’s already, now the world is silent.
Nirgend noch Licht und nirgend noch Rauch,                                   Nowhere any light, and nowhere any smoke,
Ja, und die Lerche sie schweiget nun auch.                                        Yes, and the lark is silent, as well.

Kommt aus dem Dorfe der Bursche heraus,                                     Comes out of the village the boy,
Gibt das Geleit der Geliebten nach Haus,                                          escorting his beloved home,
Führt sie am Weidengebüsche vorbei,                                               Leads her past the willow bushes,
Redet so viel und so mancherlei:                                                         talks so much and of so many things:

„Leidest du Schmach und betrübest du dich,                                  „Do you suffer disgrace and are you sad,
Leidest du Schmach von andern um mich,                                      Do you suffer shame by others because of me,
Werde die Liebe getrennt so geschwind,                                          Our love shall be sundered quickly then,
Schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind.                                             As quickly as we were united in the past.

Scheide mit Regen und scheide mit Wind,                                       Sunder with rain and sunder with wind,
Schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind.“                                            As quickly as we were united in the past.”
Spricht das Mägdelein, Mägdelein spricht:                                      Says the maiden, maiden says:

„Unsere Liebe sie trennet sich nicht!                                                „Our love does not sunder!
Fest ist der Stahl und das Eisen gar sehr,                                        Strong are steel and iron very much
Unsere Liebe ist fester noch mehr.                                                   Our love is even stronger
Eisen und Stahl, man schmiedet sie um,                                         Iron and steel can be reforged
Unsere Liebe, wer wandelt sie um?                                                 Our love, who could change it?
Eisen und Stahl, sie können zergehn,                                              Iron and steel can be melted
Unsere Liebe muß ewig bestehn!“                                                    our love must remain forever!”

Historical background

The poem was not written – as sometimes indicated – by Joseph Wentzig but goes back to a Sorbian folksong which August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben translated and adapted. It was first published in 1837. Johannes Brahms set it to music in 1864 and later added it to his Op.43 “Vier Gesänge”, a collection of four more or less unrelated songs which, nevertheless, have become some of the most sung songs by Brahms.

Pronunciation and interpretation

We’ll tackle this song line by line and I’ll give you insights regarding pronunciation and interpretation by taking a closer view of the text.

Dunkel, wie dunkel in Wald und in Feld!

The songs starts with the narrator describing a scene outside a village at night.

How beautiful that we have an U here that underlines the darkness described in this phrase!
Nevertheless, make sure it is an open U.
In fact, the only closed vowel in this line is the I in “wie”, all other vowel sounds are open.
Also, bear in mind that the D at the end of “Wald” and “Feld” is pronounced T.

Bind “Wald und in” as well as possible without slurring the words

Strictly speaking, nothing happens in these first lines, the girl just describes the lack of light and sound in “Wald und Feld”: “dunkel”, “schweiget”, nirgend noch Licht/Rauch”.

These are internal thoughts, kind of an inner monologue. When you do this song, imagine what you are seeing, watch these surroundings, then tell your audience.

Abend schon ist es, nun schweiget die Welt.

Contrary to the line before, we have several closed vowels here: the A in “Abend”, the O in “schon” and again the a in “schweiget”. Remember that EI in German is pronounced [aƐ]. (Here you will find a guide on how to sing German diphthongs (like EI) correctly.)

The word sequences “Abend schon” and “und schweiget die” are challenging regarding the legato.
Both first words end with a T-sound (the D in “Abend” is pronounced as T).
To hold the legato, “implode” the T of “Abend” by prolonging the N and then explode the T into the SCH:
“A -ben – tschon”.

It is similar with “und schweiget die”: “un-tschwei-ge-die”.
The only difference lies in the D as first letter of “die” but the process stays the same:  implode the T and head over to exploding the D (“die”).

See the comma after “es”? Make a small caesura there and breathe if you must.

Nirgend noch Licht und nirgend noch Rauch, ja

Again, all vowels, except the diphthong AU are open.

Bind both “nirgend noch” as described above to “nir-gen-tnoch”, making sure that the T-sound is clearly audible. This is a tricky combination and you must take the utmost care that no shadow vowel sneaks in between T and N.

After “Licht” you might breathe if you must but either way make a short break after “Licht”. The same (without breathing!) goes for “Rauch”: make a short break.

“Ja” here is a sound of realization like “aha” or just “ah”. The girl goes from a visual perspective (no light and smoke) to an audible one in the next phrase (no bird sound) and this “ja” is the bridge between both sensory perceptions.

und die Lerche sie schweiget nun auch.

You already know how to combine “und die” and “schweiget nun”.

The I in “sie” and “die” are closed as is the U in “nun” and the A-sounds in the diphthongs EI and AU.

The CH in “Lerche” is pronounced [ç]. To read up on the different CH-sounds in German, head over to this article.

The S in “sie” is voiced.

Although the word ending “-et” of “schweiget” is unstressed, Brahms has set it on a relatively long note. The trick now is, to hold the note on the open E but head over to this phrases emphasis which is “auch”.

Kommt aus dem Dorfe der Bursche heraus

The piano accompaniment changes and builds up more tension and although the next phrase has the same melody (with slight rhythmic changes) as the first one, it must be sung with a very different colour: bolder, stronger, more vivid and excited. It’s partly from the girl’s point of view, partly from an overall view like from a narrator.

Imagine the boy, what does he look like, what does he wear, how does he move? See him before your inner eye and then put all the excitement you have when he appears into the next words.

Except for “der” and AU in “aus” and “heraus” all vowels are open.

Bind “kommt aus” as described above and use the voiced M to your advantage.

“der” can be challenging regarding vowel coloring: either pronounce a one-flap R when you are not quite sure about the vowel (read up more on the different R-sounds in German here) or make the R a vocalic R and pronounce the word [de:ɐ].

All other Rs in this line must be pronounced.

gibt das Geleit der Geliebten nach Haus,

Hold your tension during the next lines. We are zooming in on the scene, first seeing the boy coming out of the village, now we see him joining his loved one and accompanying her home.

Both “Geleit” and “Geliebten” start with a schwa-sound [ə] but do not be tempted to shorten the notes! In fact, you might think of an Ö (only think!) to get the sound right and keep it on this relatively long note but without putting any stress onto it.

Take a look at the combination of “nach Haus”: we have two different H-sounds here, [x] (“nach”) and [h] (“Haus”). Yet, when we combine them here, we must combine the two to [na: xa:ɔs].

Führt sie am Weidengebüsche vorbei,

We are zooming in even further and now we can see the willow shrub the boy and girl pass on their way.

The Ü in „führt“ as well as the I in “sie” are both long and closed, as is the A-sound in “Weiden-“.

If you roll the R in “führt”, it’ll help you get the right vowel sound and lead on to the TS “führt sie”.

Please remember that the S in “sie is voiced; yet in this case it’s quite complicated to form a voiced S after a T. Do not try too hard to make a perfect voiced S but go on to “Weiden-“.

Make sure to speak the Ü in “-gebüsche” short and open by heading on to the SCH-sound, even dwelling there a tiny bit. Also, as before, the “ge-“ is a schwa-sound.

Redet so viel und so mancherlei:

Now we are so close we can hear what they are talking: the boy (for he is doing the conversation now) talks much “viel” and about various topics (“mancherlei”)

The first E in (“redet”) as well as the O in “so” and the I in “viel” are closed, the S in “so” is voiced – and this time you should clearly make them voiced.

“Mancherlei” might be a bit of a challenge at first but when you know that the CH is a [ç] and you might form a vocalic R, i.e. leave it out after a schwa, it’s actually quite easy (with a little bit of practice ?).

Leidest du Schmach und betrübest du dich,

The boy is speaking now and you must change your singing colour accordingly.
Again, have an image of him in mind.
He’s young, passionate, impetuous, probably agitated because what he is talking about to the girl is not an easy topic:
Will people’s talk influence you to end our love? Are you going to leave me?

“Schmach” is a very strong word, describing shame and (public) humiliation. “Betrübest” as well has two components, sadness and sorrow.

Start the boy’s words with a reasonable loudness, you will have to make a crescendo during the next lines.

The A in “leidest” and “Schmach” are closed, as are the U/Ü in “du” and “betrübest”. Clearly distinguish the CH-sounds in “Schmach” and “dich”.

The succession of “und betrübest” bears the challenge of T-B which must be both audible.

Leidest du Schmach von andern um mich,

The boy repeats the first phrase “Leidest du Schmach” as it seems to be something that has been on his mind for some time, and it seems to be unbearable to him to know that this was the case.

If you can, sing this phrase on one breath.

Bind the words as well as possible but without omitting consonant sounds (like the T in “leidest du”).

Here as well, we have both CH-sounds, the [x] in “Schmach”, however, must be done a bit less than in the line above as here it is succeeded by the F-sound of “von”.

Werde die Liebe getrennt so geschwind,

This line may be interpreted in two ways: 1) he declares that he’d rather separate from the girl than causing her distress. 2) he fears that the girl might separate from him due to people’s talk.

Either way, the agitation increases, it becomes louder (poco più f) and stronger.

Pronounce the first E in “werde” closed [e:], the second one open [ə], which might be a bit tricky to hold on that long note. In fact, we have quite a number of [ə] in this line: “Liebe”, “getrennt” (attention: the second E is [e]!), “geschwind”. Make sure to pronounce them with the right colouring.

The O in “so” is closed and the S is voiced. Here, however, with the preceding T of “getrennt” and the eight notes it’s very hard to voice the S. Thus, don’t put too much focus on it, I don’t think it’s important here. If you can voice it, then go ahead and do so (congrats) but make sure that the legato line is not interrupted.

schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind.

In this line we have two Rs that I recommend using as vocalic R: “wir” [wi:ə] and “früher”
[frü:ə].

The R in the prefix “ver-“, however, must be made a one-flap R to achieve the right vowel coloring and minimize the glottal onset before “-einiget”.

Like in the line above, we have another case of a voiced S following a T-sound “vereiniget sind”. Here, however, a voiced S is a good deal easier to produce as the “-get” is on a longer note and thus you have time to prepare the voiced S.

Scheide mit Regen und scheide mit Wind

We reach the climax in this and the next line, they’re the loudest part in the whole song (sempre più forte). The boy is calling the elements “Regen” and “Wind”; feel the fierceness of rain slashing into your face and the gusts of wind.

While in the previous lines the boy spoke in a passive voice about separation (“werde die Liebe getrennt” – “love is to be separated”), he now demands an action from the girl: “scheide…” – “separate” (if you feel that way).

Roll the R of “Regen” and voice the W in “Wind” to transport this fierceness to your audience.

schnell wie wir früher vereiniget sind

The pronunciation is described above; I just want you to pay attention with the high note of “ver-“: do not put too much stress on it, the emphasis lies on “-ei-“.

Spricht das Mägdelein, Mägdelein spricht:

The narrator makes a short appearance, announcing that now the girl speaks. The tone has already changed considerably (“dolce”), we have a calmer tempo (“quite slow”) and pianissimo.

Do you see how the first part of the sentence almost mirrors the second part?

“Spricht” (das) – “Mägdelein” — “Mägdelein” – “spricht”.

What a great way to put stress on a statement without becoming loud or using extraordinary words.

Make this statement very neutral. Remember, you are the narrator now.

In “spricht” we have a wonderful example of a consonant cluster: six consonants and only one vowel. Let’s break the vowels down into sounds: the SP at the beginning of “spricht” is pronounced as [ʃp]. Do not linger on the P for to long but head straight over to the R.
The CH is one sound [ç], again leading to the T which you should pronounce audibly but without overdoing it. This is a very quiet passage.

As usual, I recommend practising the word by speaking it very slowly and accurately at first.

The Ä of “Mägdelein” is a closed [Ɛ:].

Unsere Liebe sie trennet sich nicht

Now the girl is speaking and her first sentence makes it all clear: their love is a lasting one.

Sing this in a very simple manner, calm and sweet (dolce), to make a contrast to the boy’s fears and agitation before.

The only closed vowels in this line are the I in “Liebe” and “sie”. All S are voiced (“unsere”, “sie”, “sich”) and the CH are both pronounced [ç).

Fest ist der Stahl und das Eisen gar sehr

The girl becomes more animated (un poco animato) as she takes the firmness of iron and steel as a comparison with their love.

Here, the first three words must be combined as above by prolonging the vowels and using the last letters as beginning of the next word: [fƐ – sti – stde:ə -ʃta:l]

Make the S in “Eisen” voiced.

unsere Liebe ist fester noch mehr

The melody reaches a climax in “Liebe” and becomes sweet again in “fester noch mehr”. The essential here is to NOT become pathetic. Make this very simple, very sweet.

The only closed vowels here are – again – the I in “Liebe” and the E in “mehr”.

I would not make a clear glottal onset between “Liebe” and “ist” but bind them slightly so that the legato line is not interrupted.

Eisen und Stahl, man schmiedet sie um

The girl now corrects herself by saying that iron and steel aren’t that firm, because they can be forged and thus changed in form.

This phrase reflects an inner thought which we can see in the cautious melody. The tempo becomes a bit slower (un poco ritardando), the loudness diminishes to piano and the tune becomes sweet again (dolce). The idea seems to have just arisen in the girl.

Make a small caesura after “Stahl” and bind “sie” and “um” without a glottal onset.

The S in “Eisen” and “sie” are voiced. The main vowels in “Eisen”, “Stahl”, „schmiedet“ and „sie“ are closed, all others are open.

unsere Liebe, wer wandelt sie um?

The girl asks the boy a rhethoric question because for here it is unshakingly true that no one can change their love. You could even imagine a reassuring smile on her face when asking, the way you might look at a child who asks if the sun will rise again tomorrow.

Make a short break after “Liebe”.

The Two W in “wer” and “wandelt” are voiced consonants and help you to keep the legato line.

As in the line above, I recommend binding  “sie” and “um” together.

Eisen und Stahl, sie können zergehn

The girl goes even one step further by telling that iron and steel can even be destroyed (despite the firmness and hardness she took as an example in the first line of her speaking part).

Melody and accompaniment become more animated and from “sie können” onward there is a crescendo until the end of the song.

The Ö in “können” is open. If you are not sure how to pronounce a German Ö correctly, you’ll find an article about it here.

The R of the prefix “zer-“ might either be rolled, flapped or left out and made a vocalic R. I personally would recommend rolling it slightly to underline the animation (and to keep the legato). However, it is completely up to you how you pronounce it here. Try out different versions and look what suits you (and the song!) best.

unsere Liebe unsere Liebe muss ewig, ewig bestehn!

This is the song’s climax which is supported by the long high notes on ”Liebe”, “unsere” and “ewig”.

“Unsere Liebe” is repeated, but Brahms did something very clever here: he put the stress in the first phrase on “Liebe” and in the second one on “unsere” so that it becomes ‘our love, our love’. Purely ingenius!

The same goes for the next line: the first climax is on “Liebe”, the second one on “ewig”.

Make a break (and take a deep breath) before “ewig bestehen”, brazing yourself for singing out the girl’s ultimate truth. (By the way: I heard something very interesting lately about the difference between “infinite” and “eternal”. “Infinite” describes a place within a (limitless) space-time-structure, eternity is beyond a structure and thus without space and time. Be careful, then, when you want to swear “eternal love”, it could really last forever ?).

Conclusion

This song’s challenge lies in the very different personalities of the three people speaking (narrator, boy and girl).

The narrator is not neutral but describes the setting very intensely and from a very personal point of view.
Yet, he is the quietest part in this piece.

The boy is all agitated and anxious: he knows that people are talking badly about him and is almost crazed with the fear of losing his beloved. He works himself into quite a state.

The girl, on the other hand, is the strong one in this song, unshakable in her love.
Her part shows the greatest emotional variety, going from calm and composed, over reassuring, to the final outburst of declaring everlasting love.

As usual, I add below two versions of this song. The first one is sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

The other is interpreted by Brigitte Fassbänder:

“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (Gustav Mahler) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (Gustav Mahler) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

Translation, pronunciation and interpretation guide on Gustav Mahler’s art song “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”

Text and translation

Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,                                          I have become lost to the world
Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben,                                      who I used to ruin so much time with,
Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen,                                   It has heard nothing from me for such a long time,
Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben!                                     It may as well think I have died!

Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen                                     I do not care at all
Ob sie mich für gestorben hält.                                              If it takes me for dead.
Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen,                                      I cannot even contradict it
Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt.                                    For I have really died to the world

Ich bin gestorben im Weltgetümmel                                            I have died in the world's turmoil
Und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet.                                             And rest in a quiet realm.
Ich leb allein in meinem Himmel,                                             I live alone in my heaven,
In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied.                                            In my love, in my song.

What a very German song! It seems to be melancholy and world-weary – but do not let yourself be deceived…

Song history

The poem was written by Friedrich Rückert and is part of the cycle “Liebesfrühling” (love spring) which he wrote for his later wife.

The text does not have a balladic plot or bold metaphors but talks about the lyrical narrator who seems to live on an island of inner peace.

Gustav Mahler set this text to music in 1901. It is not the only song based on poems by Friedrich Rückert that Mahler composed. Yet, they do not build a cycle (like for example the “Kindertotenlieder”) but were written randomly between 1899 and 1903.

It is typical for Mahler that he composed all Rückert songs with piano accompaniment at first and orchestrated them later.

My own thoughts

When I heard this song for the first time, I mistook it for being desperate and depressed. I was in my early twenties, hungry for life and could not understand that one would one day become weary of all that I thought was life.

In the course of the last twenty years, however, I have gained a more and more deep understanding of what the narrator means. 2020 has thrown us back unto ourselves with plenty of time to reflect our lives and many of us have discovered that so many distractions of the outside world are just that: distractions that bring us away from who we really are. It has revealed to some of us that we have become what society, family, tradition expected us to become (or what we thought was expected from us); shown the false idols we have run after, trying to snatch a piece of their self-awarded glamour and influence.

Before starting to write this article I was convinced that now I understood the text in every detail: the decision to consciously turning away from the outside turmoil and retreat into an inner world of peace, not as an act of protest but as a logic quiet step on the path to self-development towards our true nature seem no longer unreasonable.

However, during the process of analyzing the poem anew for this article, I found various stumbling blocks for interpretation, the use of certain words puzzling me.

Let’s break it down line by line and you will see what I mean:

“Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”

I have become lost to the world.

The most important thing with this song is to sing it legato, avoiding to interrupt the song line with consonants. Don’t worry, it’s easier than it seems… ?

The meaning of the idiom “abhanden kommen” is a lot more complex than just “to lose”. It bears one the one hand a level of neglect on the looser’s side, on the other hand there is a willingness (if not an intention) on the side of the lost object “become lost”. Applied to this poem, we may have reason to suspect that the world had neglected the narrator and he or she and willingly withdrew from it.

The stanza starts with a difficult sound for non-German singers, the “ch”. I won’t go into detail here, if you want to learn more about the different ch-sounds in German read this blog post.

In order to hold the legato line, make sure that you prolong the vowels and voiced consonants (n, w, m) and speak the plosives (b, g, k, t) at the last possible time.

Make sure that despite their length, open vowels are pronounced openly: “ich bin”, “gekommen”

“Mit der ich sonst viele Zeit verdorben”

Which I used to ruin so much time with.

One would have expected the narrator to say „Zeit verbracht“, i.e. spend time. The English word spend makes the positive aspect even more clear. Another possibility of word use might have been “Zeit vergeudet”, i.e. waste time.

Yet, here we have “verdorben” which is a far stronger expression and shows us that the narrator does not regret his decision to retreat from the world.

The T followed by a D in “mit der” can be a bit tricky at first. Make sure to pronounce both consonants as clearly as NECESSARY but do not interrupt the legato line.

If you pronounce the R in “der” and “ver(dorben) or not is up to you. If you do, make it a very tender one-flap R. (Find more on the different pronunciations of R in this blog post). The recordings I have attached below show both versions, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau pronouncing the R and Mrs. von Otter leaving it off.

The first S in “sonst” is voiced but here, following the CH in “ich” this is nearly impossible without having too large a break between the two words (Remember: we do not want to interrupt the legato). For that reason, it is ok to make the S unvoiced here.

(Feeling a bit nervous that I really wrote that, though. Some diction coaches might skin me alive for that statement…

Make sure to hold your support throughout the whole (descending) phrase; the “verdorben” tends to become flat otherwise.

“Sie hat so lange nichts von mir vernommen”

It has heard nothing from me for such a long time.

This sounds a bit wistful, as if the narrator had a guilty conscience for “going underground”. Considering Mahler’s musical setting and the dwelling on “lange”, it seems as if they realized for the first time how long the time that the world hasn’t heard from them really was.

The S in “sie and “so” are both voiced and here they must be pronounced that way!

A short note on the NG in “lange”: G is not pronounced. Make it sound like NG in “longing”.

Resist the temptation to make a break after “lange”, the focus of this sentence lies on “vernommen”. Sing the whole phrase on one breath.

“Sie mag wohl glauben, ich sei gestorben”

It may well believe that I have died.

Mahler’s melody gives us the impression that the narrator speaks out the thought of “gestorben” unconsciously at first, startles a bit (dwelling on the O), becomes sad (descending line) and then realizes that their social death it is of no consequence for neither them nor the world.
A whole world lies in this (open) O! Savour it without haste.

Again, the S in “sie” and “sei” are voiced.

The sound you should pay attention to in this phrase is the T in “gestorben”. Make it a clear T, not like the D in “verdorben”.
It’s also easier to manage the leap to “-orben” when you use the T as a kind of springboard and speak it slightly before the piano G sharp.

“Es ist mir auch gar nichts daran gelegen”

I do not care at all

Now, the narrator seeks to clarify that it is of no concern to them what the world thinks. We are zooming in from the world’s view to the narrator’s view.

Mahler’s instruction (“A bit more fluid but without haste”) underlines the narrator’s urgency to proof that the world’s interpretation of their absence is of no importance.

The consonant cluster in “nichts daran” may be a challenge and unfortunately I cannot give you a shortcut here: every sound must be clearly audible even if your tongue has to dance a tarantella ?

Although this phrase’s stress lies in parts on the word “nichts”, do not dwell on it for too long but sing on to “gelegen”.

“Ob sie mich für gestorben hält”

If it takes me for dead

A quick reminder – in case you have not guessed it already – that the S in “sie” is voiced.

Although the O in “gestorben” is the longest note in this phrase, I would recommend not to overdo it. This is not a passionate Puccini aria but an introverted (love) song.

Pronounce the T in “gestorben” as articulate as in the phrase above.

“Ich kann auch gar nichts sagen dagegen”

I can hardly contradict it

While reflecting, the narrator realizies (and admits) that they did withdraw from the world on purpose. We are witnessing the development of some inner awareness.

In this phrase we have three CHs (“ich”, “auch”, “nichts”) with two different sounds which could be a bit challenging. If you want to learn more on “ich and ach” click here.

Make the S of “sagen” voiced; you will have to make a little stop after “nichts” in order to set the voiced S. Do not be tempted to connect the words to “nichtsagen”: it would sound as “nicht sagen” which has a slightly different meaning.

At the same time, “sagen” should not be overstressed as the focus of this phrase lies on “dagegen”.

“Denn wirklich bin ich gestorben der Welt”

For I have really died to the world.

I think “wirklich” might be a challenge to pronounce: first, both I are open and second, every consonant must be clearly audible although the tongue is darting forward and backword from R to K, from L to CH and forward again to B (“bin”).

As above, the T of “gestorben” must be clearly articulated.

It is up to you if you pronounce the R of “der”; I think it is easier to do so with a one-flap R but choose the version that’s more convenient for you.

“Ich bin gestorben im Weltgetümmel”

I have died in the world’s turmoil.

Throughout the poem, Rückert uses the word “world” instead of “earth”, thus making a contrast between people and everything man-made on one side and nature on the other side. Imagine being in a large crowd of people, seeing them hustling and bustling, feeling their emotions that flood you like waves. Realizing their expectations how you should be in order to fit into their idea of normality. You would slowly drown in this sea of distraction, expectation and overwhelm which is what happened to the narrator.

But why does the poet say “died in turmoil” instead of something like “I am dead to turmoil”? Did he want to stress both aspects, the narrator’s overwhelm as well as their decision to withdraw from society?

I don’t know.

You are invited to form your own opinion…

Again “gestorben”, nothing new to say here (just in case you forgot: pronounce the T clearly).

The Ü in “Weltgetümmel” is open and needs attention because of the note’s length.

In this phrase you can literally bath in the voiced consonants N, W and M. Use them to your advantage.

“Und ruh in einem stillen Gebiet”

And I rest in a quiet realm.

This is the climax of the poem (the last two lines are a conclusion) and yet it is the quietest part of it which makes it more of a reverse climax.

The whole poem retreats step by step from the outside to the inside world. Now we get to know where the narrator not only resides but rests: in a quiet realm deep down inside themselves.

In the U (“ruh”) we can feel the quietness and peacefulness of this place as a great contrast to the “Weltgetümmel” before. Take the rolled (but not overdone) R as a springboard to the B flat of “Ruh”.

Make advantageous use of the N and M in “in einem” and ensure that the T of “stillen” is clearly audible (you may use this as a springboard for the octave leap as well) but without destroying the dream-like meldoy.

Hold your intonation during the descending line of this phrase by keeping up the support.

“Ich leb allein in meinem Himmel”

I live alone in my heaven.

The narrator has created his own paradise (heaven) he has chosen to live in. This retreat is neither motivated by anger, nor fear or resignation. Nor is it a flight into an illusional world. The narrator is neither a victim nor does he bear a grudge against the world or is disappointed. They simply made the decision to turn away from what they have recognized as being not right for them (the outside world) and to choose a lifestyle that lets them lead their life just as they please, not trying to fulfil anyone’s expectations.

To me, this is the essence of freedom and peace.

Mahler’s instructions describe this passage as “intimate” and “without intensification”, placing the focus on complete introspection.

“Allein” in German has two meanings: “alone” and “solely”. It is not clear in this context which version Rückert means; in my opinion it is very likely that both are valid.

Here again we have many voiced consonants (L, N, M). Savour them, especially as there is no need to change your jaw position in building them (except for the B).

“In meinem Lieben, in meinem Lied”

In my love, in my song

“Lieben” in German is first and foremost a verb not a noun (which would be “Liebe”), thus, “das Lieben” describes love as an action. At first sight, it does not seem to be of importance but on second thought it must bear some significance. Otherwise Rückert could have easily said “in meiner Liebe”.

To me, “in meiner Liebe” sounds more passive than “in meinem Lieben” but this is only my opinion and you should feel and interpret for yourself. After all, this is what makes art songs interesting.

The melody of the first “in meinem Lieben” repeats (in modulation) the one of “in meinem Himmel”. When it is sung again in a descending line, starting pianissimo, it is a continuation of the piano’s or orchestra’s melody.

Pay attention to the glottal onset of “in”, especially when the G sharp is challenging for you. Support well and start the “in” very tenderly and pianissimo, almost sighing it.

The sequence of descriptions for this place (Himmel – Lieben – Lied) shows again the zooming in from the outside world to the inner core. Here is the place where the narrator can “sing his own song” meaning live his individuality without being forced to fulfil society’s expectations.

During the postlude you have the opportunity to contemplate the newly-found world you talked about and hold your tension until way after the final fermata. If there is a song you must not hurry through, it is this one. It teaches us as singers to stay with utmost concentration in the present moment which is only possible when we have taken care of the best possible preparation.

Recordings

I have added two of my favourite recordings of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”.

One is with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

The other is with Christa Ludwig:

“Erlkönig” (Franz Schubert) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

“Erlkönig” (Franz Schubert) – A Guide to Pronunciation and Interpretation

Translation, pronunciation guide and interpretation tips on “Erlkönig” by Franz Schubert

Historical background

„Der Erlkönig” is a famous ballad by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in 1778 as part of a singspiel. It tells the story of a father riding home with his ill son by night through the woods. The son has increasingly severe hallucinations of a creature he calls the alder king who he imagins speaks to him and attempts to pull him into his kingdom. The father tries to calm the child and hurries to get back home with him. When he enters his court, the boy has died in his arms.

The story goes back to the traditional Danish ballad “Elverskud” where the elf-king’s daughters try to lure humans to satisfy their desires. The Danish “elverkonge” originally means “king of the elves” and has nothing to to with alders (the German “Erlkönig” translates literally as “Alder King”). It has often been suggested that “Erlkönig” is a mistranslation.

Erlkönig

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
er fasst ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

„Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?“
„Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig Mit Kron und Schweif?“
„Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.“

„Du liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit dir;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.“

„Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?“
„Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.“

„Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.

„Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?“
„Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau,
es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.“

„Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt,
und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.“
„Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!“

Dem Vater grausets, er reitet geschwind,
er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
erreicht den Hof mit Müh und Not;
in seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Approaches of Interpretation

The story has been interpreted in several ways:

1. The first is more or less similar to the actual text: the boy is ill and hallucinates because of his high fever of which he dies in the end.

2. The boy is a victim of sexual abuse through the father who is shown with two faces: the abusive father (the Erlkönig) and the good, protective father who tries to blandish his deeds by calming the child and telling him that he imagines things.

 3. A third variant is that the Erlkönig is a symbol for the boy’s awakening lust of puberty and that he attempts to pull the boy into his kingdom with erotic fantasies. The boy loses his innocence and his childhood. His death stands for the entering of the adult world, sexuality and his breaking away of his family. The father tries to prevent that by bringing him back home in time, but the arising male urges cannot be stopped.

Linguistic and Formal Analysis

The poem consists of eight stanzas with four verses in the pattern AABB. This accentuates the dialogue-like character of the ballad, e.g. in the dialogues between father and son. The son opens each stanza with the question if the father didn’t hear or see the Erlkönig (V13/14, V21/22). The father answers always rationally, explaining the images as being natural phenomena (fog, dried leaves, old willow trees). Goethe was one of the first writers of nature-magical ballads that showed the conflict between popular beliefs (son) and the ratio of the enlightened man (father).

The ballad has been set to music by several composers. This article treats the version of Franz Schubert who composed this art song in 1815. He revised the song three times before publishing it in 1821. Schubert’s “Erlkönig” is through-composed with a constantly changing harmonic structure as the piece modulates within characters.

In the ballad, four people are represented by a single singer: a narrator, the father, the son and the alder king. Each person has its own range of voice and many singers give each part a different colour of voice.

The narrator sings in middle range, starting in minor key.

The father sings in deep range, singing in minor and major mode.

The son sings in the highest range, mostly in minor mode.

The Erlkönig sings in mid range and in major mode

The Music of Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig”

Stanza One

The song starts with a piano foreplay; the music is agitated, imitating the rhythm of horse hooves with rapid triplets and introducing a leitmotif in the left hand. A narrator sings the first words of the melody, starting in G minor: “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.” [Who rides that late through night and wind? It is the father with his child.] Both, the words and the music create a spooky and sinister atmosphere. All vocals (except the “I” in “Wind” and “Kind”) are dark sounds, adding to the gloomness. Although “spät” is held for three quarters (and you of course may breathe after it), the phrase should not be interrupted. Make sure to hold the tension until “Wind”.

The next words show a contrast and describe how the father protectively holds the child in his arms: “Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm, er fasst ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.” [He has the child well in his arm, he holds him safely, he holds him warm.].

Stanza Two

We are zooming in on the rider and ending in a close-up of father and son until we can hear them speak to each other: “Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?” [My son, why are you looking so fearful?]. The father’s part starts a fifth deeper than the narrator’s, beginning with a low D and moves within small intervals (a third being the largest). The rising, temporarily even chromatic melody line shows that the father, despite his calm words, is worried. And he has every reason to be: the son tells him in a fearful whisper (pp) about a creature, the Erlkönig, he imagines seeing: “Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht? Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?” [Father, don’t you see the alder king? The alder king with crown and cape?]. By the way: the German word “Schweif” not only means ‘cape’ or ‘train’ but also ‘tail’ which may be a sexual allusion.
The father, tries to calm his son by telling him that he has mistoken the fog for a person. “Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif” [My son, it is a streak of fog.].

Stanza Three

Enter the Erlkönig! It is almost as if he were sitting right next to the boy, whispering into his ear: “Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir! Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit Dir;” [You lovely child, come, go with me! I will play wonderful games with you.]. The accompaniment changes for the first time, letting the hooves no longer sound agitated in a gloomy atmosphere but almost creating the impression of a joyful, carefree carriage ride in the sun. It is also notable, that the part begins and ends in a major key. The Erlkönig uses his power of seduction, beckoning the child to come with him, promising him “wonderful games” (again maybe a sexual allusion) and trying to lure the boy with [colourful flowers] (“bunte Blumen”) and [golden robes] (“gülden Gewand”).

Stanza Four

The boy is scared and wants to have the father’s confirmation of what he had just heard: ”Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht, was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?” [My father, my father and do you not hear what alder king is promising me?]. The melody is dominated by chromatics, increasing the expression of the boy’s fear and despair. Note, that the first part of the sentence (until “hörest du nicht”) is sung forte, while the second part is in piano, almost as if the boy was afraid of saying aloud what he experienced. Also, the plea is higher in pitch than the first one.

The father, however, does not give an answer to the boy’s question but commands him to be quiet: “Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind; in dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.” [Be calm, stay calm, my child; the wind is rustling through dried leaves.]. As before, we can hear the worry underneath the calming words.

Stanza Five

Once again, the accompaniment changes, becoming almost dance-like, when the Erlkönig appears a second time:”Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn? Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön; meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein“ [Precious boy, do you not want to go with me? My daughters will wait on you, my daughters lead the nightly dance and rock and dance and sing you to sleep.]. The last part (“und singen und tanzen…”) is repeated, emphasizing the feeling of a dance or even a lullaby.

Stanza Six

The boy is even more agitated now and shouts out to his father that he sees Erlkönig’s daughters: “Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?” [My father, my father, and do you not see Erlkönig’s daughters in the gloomy place?]. A last time, the father tries to soothe the boy: “Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau, es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau“ [My son, my son, I see it clearly, there shimmer the old willows so grey.] Schubert gives this answer an even more agitated touch by inserting two fifth steps (“mein Sohn”, “genau”) and expanding the range to an octave. This and the fact that the father’s part for the first time end in a minor key show that he is very alarmed.

Stanza Seven

When the Erlkönig now appears for the last time, he does not bother to sugarcoat his intentions any longer; his words are explicit: “Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt, und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt!“ [I love you, I am excited by your beautiful body and if you are not willing, then I will use force!]
The piano accompaniment has not changed this time, which adds to the expressed threat. Also, the harmonies are characterized by dissonances and an increase in volume, and the loudest part of the song (fff) is the Erlkönig’s last words “so brauch ich Gewalt!”

The boy’s reaction comes almost instantly, and he cries out in horror and dispair: “Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an! Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!” [My father, my father, he is touching me now! Erlkönig has hurt me!]. It is a statement now, no longer a question, that the boy, crazed with fear and having lost all control, cries out at the top of his voice. Note that the father does not reply to him now. He himself is overwhelmed with horror (or guilt). Words are no longer of use; he is forced to act.

Stanza Eight

The Lied enters its final part where the narrator describes the father’s feelings and reaction: “Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind, er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind“ [the father is terrified, he is riding swiftly on, he holds the groaning child in his arms]. The narrator as well is agitated which shows in the ascending notes, culminating in the word “ächzende” and the accelerando that drives the song to its end. After this agitated ride, symbolized by the piano with volume, increasing tempo and dynamics, the father finally reaches his farm or courtyard. “Erreicht den Hof mit Müh und Not;“  [he reaches the courtyard with great difficulties ]. The tempo slows down and the accompaniment stops completely after “Müh und Not”, adding an even more dramatic effect to the last words: “In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.” [In his arms the child was dead]. As the piano has ceased to play, rhythm and tempo vanish into the background and the last words “war tot” have an almost recitative-like Quality.

It is notable that the last verb is in the past tense (“war tot” [was dead]) while the whole ballad is written in the present tense. As mentioned before, this could indicate that the boy’s innocence died due to a sexual abuse or that he crossed the threshold from boy to man.

Conclusion

Schubert’s “Erlkönig” is a masterpiece of the Romantic Age and the genre of through-composed art songs that started for a reason with Franz Schubert.

At his time, Schubert’s setting to music of the “Erlkönig” with all its complicated harmonies and dissonances was something totally new to the audience. Nevertheless (or because of that) it was celebrated as a masterpiece. The composition is daring, virtuous, hard to sing and to accompany. But even more so, it is close to the text, incredibly expressive and emotional.

There are those rare occasions where famous texts find a suitable artistic representation that become inextricably linked with the original. Schubert’s music of Goethe’s ballad “Der Erlkönig” is an example for that.