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So, in Wolf’s Mignon I, there is a phrase at the end,

… und nur ein Gott vermag sie aufzuschliessen.

Because it is an extended musical phrase, a breath must be taken in the middle. I believe the breath should be taken between vermag and sie, my teacher believes that it should be between sie and aufzuschliessen, and so our disagreement is over German grammar. Which is the most grammatically correct place to breath?

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    grammatically? breath? At the comma ;)
    – Em1
    Aug 27, 2014 at 5:08
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    I wouldn't breath in this sentence at all, it's not that long, and can be perceived as a whole. One can both make a slight pause after "Gott" to emphasize it, or after "vermag" to group the main clause and infinitive clause. Both would make sense. A pause with lowered intonation between "sie" and "aufzuschliessen" would sound awkward and wrong. A pause there with held and raising intonation would emphasize "aufzuschliessen" as something surprising (which it probably isn't). And I don't think phrasing is a function of grammar. :-)
    – dirkt
    Aug 27, 2014 at 6:00
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    @dirkt I think you might want to turn that into an answer
    – Hulk
    Aug 27, 2014 at 6:07
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    @dirkt While I would agree for the spoken sentence, the question is about a piece of music. Depending on the composition it can be arbitrarily long and may require taking a breath in between. Thus having said I agree that grammar can't solve the problem. I would recommend to analyze and "feel" the music. There might be a hint in it how the composer intended it to be phrased. And the singer should think about which word he/she wants to emphasize.
    – Matthias
    Aug 27, 2014 at 6:38
  • Great, now I'm going to spend all morning with possible Wagnerian settings of that great line running through my head! (For what it's worth, they all breathe after "Gott".) Aug 27, 2014 at 7:29

1 Answer 1

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It depends on the musical realization - breathe during the longest rest.

So technically, that could be anywhere, I'll try to work out the "grammatically correct" option below.


Initial thoughts

  • If this was a poem, one wouldn't breathe during this last verse, but before.

  • Presumed stress scheme: o ó o ó oó o óoóo (Iamb with feminine ending)

  • To me, a break makes sense between the following clause parts:

    Und         | nur ein Gott | vermag      | sie aufzuschließen.
    conjunction | noun phrase  | finite verb | extended infinitive group

    I cannot formalize it, but a break after nur or sie just sounds weird.

  • The penultimate verse tells us how firmly her lips are closed. So we need our break to emphasize this difficulty best. That rules out the first option. Comparison of the remaining two follows.

Comparison with English

  1. Und nur ein Gott [hawp] vermag sie aufzuschließen.
    And only a god [hawp] is able to open them.

  2. Und nur ein Gott vermag [hawp] sie aufzuschließen.
    And only a god is able [hawp] to open them.

Although the grammar is slightly different, both in English and in German the first variant sounds more natural to me.

From a syntactical viewpoint

You may put a comma before the extended infinitive group

Und nur ein Gott vermag, sie aufzuschließen.

and make that an argument for the pause in the same place. But it really isn't necessary, because the extension consists only of one word and the group itself is not opposing the main clause. So it'd be forced in some way.

Although if the group looked something like

Und nur ein Gott vermag, diese festgeschworenen Lippen aufzuschließen.

it'd be perfectly fine to make both the comma and the pause there.

From an intonational viewpoint

The first variant splits the phrase in the following way:

A god | ability to open the lips (Who can open them?)

Second variant:

A god's ability | opening the lips (What is it, that he is able to do?)

Out of context I again think that the first variant is preferable.

Further reference

Here are some interpretations; can't tell if not taking breath or taking breath after god:
Wolf I - Wolf II - Schubert

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    In the first two interpretations, the singers definitely breathe after "Gott". As it's on a long high note, and so already emphasized, IMHO the only position where one can breathe in this particular piece, in order to match spoken phrasing with musical phrasing. Breathing after "vermag" or "sie" would make the concluding phrase really awkward.
    – dirkt
    Aug 27, 2014 at 16:16

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