The following article is about Franz Schubert’s song “Der Tod und das Mädchen”. It provides you with a translation, a pronunciation guide and an analysis of the text.
Text and translation
Vorüber, ach vorüber
geh, wilder Knochenmann!
Ich bin noch jung. Geh, Lieber,
und rühre mich nicht an!
Gib deine Hand, du schön und zart Gebild
bin Freund und komme nicht zu strafen.
Sei gutes Muts! Ich bin nicht wild.
Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen.
Go past, oh go past,
go wild bone man!
I am still jung. Go, dear,
and do not touch me!
Give your hand, you beautifuly and tender creature
I am friend and do not come to punish.
Be of good courage! I am not wild.
You shall sleep softly in my arms.
Hans Baldung Grien: Der Tod und das Mädchen, 1517
The poem on which Franz Schubert’s wonderful song is based, originates from 1775 and was written by German poet Matthias Claudius. Claudius uses the picture of an encounter between death and a maiden that death has come to take with him. This has been a well-known theme since the 15th century.
The poem consists of two stanzas with four lines each. In the first stanza the maiden is speaking and in her short exclamations we can sense her panic and fear of death. In the second stanza, death soothes her by telling her that he’s not a wild creature but comes as a friend.
Franz Schubert set this poem to music in 1817. It is written in d minor and consists of four parts: the piano prelude, the maiden’s part, death’s part and an postlude. The tempo is marked as “mäßig” which can be anything from andante to moderato.
The piano starts with a slow rhythm of one long and two short notes which is known as Pavane rhythm. This rhythm was often used for funeral marches and Schubert made use of it to paint the picture of death relentlessly entering the maiden’s room.
When the maiden sees death, she gets into a panic which is symbolized by the agitated accompaniment in the piano, the edgy rising and falling of the melody and the fact that the maiden’s part consists of an unlucky thirteen bars.
In part three, the rhythm of the beginning takes over again, and death speaks to the maiden. He introduces himself as friend, tells her to not be afraid of him and reassures her that she will sleep softly in his arms.
The song ends similar to it s beginning with the Pavane rhythm but this time in d major (key has changed in part three).
Pronunciation and interpretation
“Vorüber, ach vorüber”
In this case, V is pronounced as F.
The first R in “vorüber” is rolled, the second as part of the end syllable “-er” is pronounced as [ə].
Make sure to pronounce the Ü properly; in case you’re not sure about its correct sound, read this article.
The maiden lies in her bed, ill and fatigued, when death enters her room. Seeing him she instantly realizes that he’s about to take her with him and she cries out in panic. Her agitation becomes clear not only in the piano accompaniment but also in the breathless pause after the first “vorüber” and the rising of the melody. It gives the impression of the maiden summoning all the power she has left in her body to hold death at bay.
“Geh wilder Knochenmann”
The only closed vowel in this line is the E in “geh”, all the others are open.
Contrary to the line before, this here must be be sung in legato. Fortunately, there are no tricky consonants or clusters that would make a legato difficult. Just go with the flow and remember that the “-er” in “wilder” is pronounced [ə].
In this line, the girl shows a first peak of her fear, shouting at him that he’s a “wild bone-man”. We could almost imagine that she grabs a pillow and throws it – together with her words – at death.
“Ich bin noch jung”
It may be challenging to let the I of “bin” stay open during the long note but nevertheless make sure to keep it that way.
Here the girl changes her strategy and tries to reason with death by saying that she’s still young, implying that he should get old people first. Maybe it’s also and attempt to wake pity in death: being young she hasn’t had much of her life.
Again, the girl changes her strategy and addresses death as lover. The use of the word “Lieber” here is interesting: had it been written in lowercase letters, it would have meant “rather” (as in “go rather”) whereas here, written with a capital L, it means “Dear”. There is some discussion going on about this spelling and some say that it’s an error of copying and it was meant as “rather”.
However, I like the idea of the girl trying to flatter death and thus changing his mind. Maybe it’s the way she has learnt to go when wanting something from others. The maiden tries to smooth-talk death into leaving her alone, i.e. letting her live.
But already at “rühre mich nicht an” the accompaniment changes from the agitated rhythm into the long-short-short beat of the beginning.
By the second “rühre mich nicht an”, the maiden has realized that there’s no escape and she starts surrendering to her fate.
“Gib Deine Hand, Du schön und zart Gebild‘“
The I in “gib” and the A-sound in “Deine” are closed, as are the U in “du”, the Ö in “schön” and the A in “zart”.
Although “gib”, “Hand” and “Gebild’” end with a soft plosive, you must pronounce them hard, that means as P and T. Make sure to pronounce every consonant of the cluster at “und zart” [unt tsart], especially the two separate Ts.
While in the former line the maiden panic-strickenly implores death not to touch her, here, death reverses roles and asks the maiden to touch him, or rather give him her hand. Apart from the physical touch, this choice of words can also be interpreted as giving him her hand in a kind of marriage. You remember that the girl addresses death as “Lieber” (“Dear”); death repeats as a lover, here.
A further proof for this theory is death’s description of the girl as “schön und zart Gebild’” (beautiful and tender creature).
While in the preceding stanza, death was purely described from the girl’s point of view as terrifying bone-man and her enemy, here death gives us a very different impression of his character. He does not attack but, on the contrary, asks her to give him her hand voluntarily. The accompaniment has slowed down again, making his advances very soft, even tender. All this, added to his admiring words for her beauty, give the impression of a lover seducing.
„Bin Freund und komme nicht zu strafen“
Here, again, the D at the end of “Freund” must be pronounced as T.
Pronounce the diphthong EU in “Freund” as a succession of [ɔ] and [ø], holding the [ɔ] for approximately three quarters of the note and finishing off with the [ø]. For further information on how to pronounce German diphthongs, head over to this article.
Here, death changes his „appearance“ from lover to friend, thus changing the common conviction that death is the punishment for severe wrong-doing. He makes it very clear that he does not come to punish anybody. The soothing effect is intensified by the melody being on almost one note only, calming the girl with its monotony.
The most genial twist in this line, however, is that Schubert changes the whole musical setting from minor to major during the word “strafen”. We can almost see how the girl’s view changes at this point from seeing death as a brutal enemy, to a lover to a friend (a father figure even) that can be trusted.
“Sei gutes Muts, ich bin nicht wild“
The S of „sei“ is voiced, the ending S of “gutes Muts” are both unvoiced. You may prolong the N between “bin nicht”, combining the two words to one and thus holding the legato line. Make sure to pronounce the T at the end of “nicht” and “wild” audibly but without overdoing it.
Death tells the maiden to have courage (instead of fear), promising that he is soft (not wild as she thought at first). Again, the melody dwells on one note only, increasing the girl’s trust into death and also lulling her into sleep.
“Sollst sanft in meinen Armen schlafen“
The beginning S of „sollst” and “sanft” are both voiced and the combination of these two words may be a bit challenging due to the many voiced and unvoiced consonants in perceivably rapid succession. Make sure to pronounce every single sound distinctly and make a short pause between the two words so that you can start the voiced S of “sanft” anew.
We have reached the final state where the girl has surrendered to death completely. He promises her that he will hold her in his arms where she shall sleep softly. The poet picks up the idea of death resembling deep sleep. It is a very peaceful and soft picture conjured up in our minds that we hold during the postlude.
Egon Schiele, “Tod und Mädchen”, 1915
Schubert has mastered to set to music a picture of a whole world into a two-and-a-half-minute song. In it we not only witness a change of perception in the girl from regarding death as brutal, sentencing enemy to a loving and tender friend, we experience it ourselves by the genial musical setting (remember the rhythm and the clever change from minor to major).
I never get tired of listening to this masterpiece of poetry and music. There are many wonderful interpretations out there and as usual I have chosen two of my favourite ones below.
The first is sung by the wonderful Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:
When we learn to speak in a new language, we not only struggle with vocab and grammar but also with pronunciation. It’s not only about WHAT sounds we should make but HOW to produce them.
The more different the new language is from your mother tongue, the more probable it is that we have to use different facial muscles to pronounce the words correctly.
Our tongue, lips and jaw physically shape our pronunciation. To speak a new language, you physically need to train your muscles. Like with a new sport or an instrument, you will apply muscles that you’ve you have to train the muscles involved first.
Not practising to speak the language before diving into singing your first song or aria would be like picking up a musical instrument you’ve never played before and trying to perform in front of an expert player.
Ignoring the strain on your facial muscles and starting to sing in a new language too early may lead to tensed muscles, jaw tightness and eventually to throat tension – and we all know that this is lethal for a singer!
What’s more, we have already developed unconscious speech habits when we learned our mother language. These speech habits make pronunciation in a new language so difficult.
That said, the answer to this post’s titel is: Yeah. Singing in German – or any language you are not familiar with – may indeed have a negative effect on your voice.
The good news is that there’s a cure.
By observing a few simple steps, we can avoid any negative impact a new language may have on your voice:
What can you do?
Every athlete has to warm up and it’s no difference to us singers.
Since pronunciation is part of speaking (or singing for that matter), it’s also physical. To pronounce a new language, we need to (re-)train the muscles we use to speak. As a singer you are already familiar with vocal warm-ups. To speak a foreign language, you must also warm up your facial muscles. Here you’ll find some exercises.
Listen to recordings
Listen to good (!) recordings of the spoken (!) text. At best, you have two versions at hand: one with the text spoken very slow so that you can get a good idea on correct pronunciation. The second version should give you the text in a natural speech rhythm.
This is such an important part, and yet many singers want to skip it and start to sing immediately in a new language. To achieve flawless and perfect diction in singing, however, you must make yourself familiar not only with the technicalities of producing the right sounds but also with the speech pattern of your new language. Knowing about rhythm, syllable stress and intonation in spoken language will help you tremendously in singing.
Also, pay close attention if you feel any tension in your face or throat while speaking. If so, speak slower, pronouncing every syllable clearly. Make sure the start and end of each word are crisp. Repeat phrases until your muscles loosen, speed up the speaking tempo and slow down again when you feel tension.
Record yourself speaking
If you are lucky enough to have a professional recording of your texts, you can compare that with your recording. That’s definitely a good start and the more familiar you become with the language the faster you develop “an ear” for its sound. Alas, the most serious pronunciation issues are the ones we are not aware of.
For example, people who speak Spanish already make sounds that resemble the German [b] and [v]. In Spanish, however, those sounds are allophones, that is variants of the same sound. Spanish hearers may not notice the difference, because hearing a language – like speaking it – is a habit we form early on. If a difference is not significant in our mother tongue, we may not notice it in the new language.
Watch yourself speaking
Practice speaking and singing in the new language in front of a mirror or even record yourself on video. That way you can see very quickly if you tend to tighten any muscles in your face or throat or make any involuntary movements with your head that may lead to tension.
Work with a coach
Although this may not be the cheapest method, it’s the safest (and fastest) way to achieve correct and eventually flawless diction. In a 1:1 tuition you get immediate feedback on your pronunciation, thus erasing mistakes before they can manifest in your muscle memory. Further, you can watch how a native speaker produces certain sounds which, by the way, is how we learn our mother tongue: not by imitating the sounds but the facial movements of the people surrounding us.
You see: there’s no reason to fear that singing in a foreign language may have a negative effect on your singing. Do your warm-ups, listen attentively to good spoken (!) recordings and practice speaking (thus strengthening your face muscles). Hire a good coach; that way making sure that your pronunciation is correct from the start.
And don’t forget to have fun! That and the joy in learning something new are priceless for achieving your desired results.
The challenge with affricates is that the shift from one sound to the next must be carried out so smoothly that the listener perceives one single sound.
In this article, you will learn about the [pf]-sound which you know very well already: think of a tire letting of air.
Even though [pf] is represented by the combination of two letters, it should sound as a single combined sound. So, whenever you see a PF in a German word you can be almost sure that you must pronounce a combination consonant. Form the [pf] by pronouncing P and unvoiced F in seamless succession, thus making it one combined sound.
I have made you a list with spellings in German that indicate the affricate [pf]:
How to pronounce the German affricate PF
in all spellings of the letter combination pf in one element: Pforte (door), Pflanze (plant), tropfen (drop), Kopf (head)
There is a small difference in pronounciation, depending on the position of the PF:
Pronounce it short and sharp when PF ends a syllable: Kopf (head), Sumpf (moor), Topf (pot)
Pronounce it a bit softer when a long, closed vowel follows: Pferd (horse), Pfeil (arrow), Pflege (care)
Attention: When the prefix “ab-“([ap]) is followed by an F, both letters are pronounced individually: Ab/fahrt (departure), ab/federn (to cushion)
Pay attention that the affricate [pf] is not interrupted by an aspirated P! In fact, make sure that the position of the lips when pronouncing the P is similar to the position for the F and support the latter by using the diaphragm.
This may require a bit of practice, for example by imitating the sound of a flattening tire: pffff, pffff, pffff…
German is famous, or rather infamous for its consonant clusters which would be enough of a nuisance if you were to learn German as a new language. When it comes to singing, however, German consonant clusters have the potential to break your neck!
Just kidding. They’ll only get you boo-ed off the stage.
Waaaait! Stay with me and we’ll sort out how to sing German consonant clusters step-by-step.
In German, we have the phenomenon of two or more consonants forming ONE sound, for example CK [k] and SCH [ʃ].
On the other side, we also have single consonants that represent TWO sounds, for example X [ks] and Z [ts]. (You might want to read this article on the German Z).
And then, there are the blends, that is groups of consonants in numerous varieties:
bl, br, chs, gn, nk, pf, ps, spr… to name only some.
They all have in common that they are usually spoken rather rapidly and that every sound must be articulated audibly. Do not give in to the temptation to omit any sound. Neither insert a shadow vowel between consonants or after a final consonant. Your audience will notice it.
How to sing German consonant clusters: step-by-step
When it comes to singing German consonant clusters, first have a very sharp look at all the letters. Which of the consonants in your text are single consonants which are combined consonants or blends?
The next step is to break the cluster down into sounds:
Zä r tl I ch en
Sch i m pf st
Clusters are mainly a visual problem, so I recommend taking this step literally and marking the sounds in your text with a (colored) pen.
Make sure you know how every consonant or consonant combination is pronounced correctly.
For example, is there a Z in it, indicating two sounds [ts]?
Do you have a SCH [ʃ] in the word?
ST and SP are sometimes pronounced [ʃt] and [ʃp] or that IG is sometimes pronounced [iç].
There’s quite a number of cases where pronunciation differs from spelling.
You can either look it up in a good (pronunciation) dictionary and/or ask someone to slowly and articulately pronounce every sound for you.
Lastly, there is always the possibility of having the text recorded (both slowly and in singing rhythm) by a professional speaker.
Practice the cluster words by speaking them very slowly and articulately. Then go on and speak the whole phrase, again very slowly.
The next step is to speak the text in the tempo and rhythm of the music. Again, start slow and accelerate the tempo until you have reached the right one. Practice that until you can do it in your sleep.
Only when you have mastered speaking the words, start practicing them in singing, again slowly at first and then speeding up to the final tempo.
Listening to recordings is only partly recommendable: it is possible that you might either not hear every sound well (especially when it’s a fast piece) or – even worse – you end up listening to a not-so-well-instructed singer with wrong pronunciation.
That said, if you want to become confident with your pronunciation skills and save time in preparation, hire a good pronunciation coach. You already know where to find one :-).
❗ Please note that there is a difference between an English and a German second or vanish vowel:
The English word “mine” for example is pronounced [main], whereas the German equivalent “mein” is pronounced [maen].
❗ Here, as above, English and German pronunciation differ slightly: when you take the example of “house” you will notice that in English it is pronounced [haʊs], whereas the German equivalent “Haus” is pronounced [haos].
▷ in spellings of the vowel letter combination EU
Examples: scheu (shy), freuen (to be happy), deutsch (German)
❗ Exception: When E and U belong to separate elements of a word, for example a prefix and verb, they are pronounced separately. Examples: be/urteilen (judge)
❗ Again, the German vanish vowel differs from the English equivalent.
Take the examples of “boy” and “Beute” (loot): while the former is pronounced [bɔi], the latter is pronounced with [bɔøtə].
How to sing German diphthongs?
When it comes to singing German diphthongs you may apply the following rule of thumb:
When a diphthong is to be sung, the first vowel sound should last for roughly three quarters of the note. Then make a smooth transition to the second vowel and finish with the final consonant.
Do not put too much stress on the second vowel (it is called “vanish vowel” for a reason) and glide smoothly from one sound into the other with the least possible movement of the jaw.
Now that you know how to form German diphthongs correctly, I want to add a fun practice I found in Julius Hey’s book: the following text contains all German diphthongs and is quite a challenge, even for native speakers.
Have fun in practicing it!
Ein leuchtender Tau
Weilt heut auf der Au.
Der Eichbaum beut Rast,
Sein Laub beugt den Ast.
Ein säuselnder Hauch
Streift leise euch auch.
The letter Z in German is a so-called affricate or combination consonant; this term describes a sound that combines a plosive (T, P or K) with a fricative consonant (S, F or V).
The challenge with affricates is that the shift from one sound to the next has to be carried out so smoothly that the listener perceives one single sound.
In German there are six combination consonants:
[ps] (as in Psalm), [pf] (as in pflücken”), [ts] ( as in “Zeit”), [tʃ] (as in “deutsch”), [ks] (as in “Hexe”) and [kv] (as in “Qual”).
In this article, you will learn about the [ts]-sound, mostly represented by the letter Z.
So, whenever you see a Z in a German word you can be sure (and this is a rule without exception) that you must pronounce a combination consonant.
Form the [ts] by pronouncing T and unvoiced S in seamless succession, thus making it one combined sound.
I have made you a list with spellings in German that indicate the affricate [ts]:
▷ in all spellings of the letter Z in any position: Zeit (sugar), tanzen (to dance), Kreuz (cross)
▷ in spellings of ZZ in words of Italian origin: Intermezzo, Pizza,
❗️ There are German words with double ZZ but they are always composite nouns and have to be pronounced with two successive [ts] sounds: Glanzzeit (heyday), Putzzeug (cleaning stuff)
▷ in spellings of DS or TS at the end of a word: abends (in the evening), nichts (nothing)
▷ in spellings of the letter combination TZ: besitzen (to possess), Katze (cat), Dutzend (dozen)
When TZ is a part of two elements (a prefix followed by a verb for example), prolong the T and extend the stop until you release on the S: Entzücken (delight), entzwei (in two pieces)
(Want to learn more about the German Ü? Click here.
▷ in words of Latin origin ending in -tion or -tient: Nation, Patient, Ration
▷ in spellings of the letter C followed by E, Ä or I, usually found in words of Greek and Latin origin: Cäcilia, Cocytus
The challenge with Z, I guess, is not to produce the correct sound. After all, it’s only a combination of two consonants that lie very convenient for the tongue.
But in remembering that a German Z is always pronounced as [ts], no matter how much you might be tempted to make it a voiced S. ?