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I grew up with a love of opera, which brought me to Italian and German. As I am particularly fascinated with the Magic Flute, I am considering to take a course in German, so I can understand what is being sung. I can certainly understand translated versions of the opera, but I thought I would be a lot more “in sync” if I actually comprehended as the singers performed.

Which begs the question, how clear and comprehensible is Mozart’s German? How much good would a beginner course in German (billed as “conversational”) be with regard to Mozart’s opera?

Short excerpt from the Magic Flute:

Du wirst sie zu befreyen gehen,
Du wirst der Tochter Retter seyn.
Und werd ich dich als Sieger sehen,
So sey sie dann auf ewig dein.

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    Well... it's an opera. It could hardly be further from conversational modern german. Still, learning a new language is always a good thing. And it will surely help you to understand it better than you do now. Although you will not be able to read it fluently.
    – Burki
    Jan 5, 2016 at 9:52
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    Opera composers rarely write the texts themselves (a notable exception is Richard Wagner); there are specialized writers for this, called librettists. The libretto for The Magic Flute was written by Emanuel Schikaneder, who grew up in Bavaria.
    – chirlu
    Jan 5, 2016 at 11:04
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    One note: The version you are quoting here is uses historic orthography (e.g. every instance of "y" would be an "i" nowadays). So that might be annoying, when you have to look up words. Apart from that, I feel it might in parts be a good excercise (esp. for someone coming from english), because the word order is scrambled up (prob. to fit the music) so you have to be able to identify the parts of a sentence on your own. So in small dosages, there could be some use to that. I feel it will be super tedious to read the whole libretto
    – Bort
    Jan 5, 2016 at 11:31
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    Except for old spelling the four lines of the quote are actually quite easy to understand.
    – Carsten S
    Jan 5, 2016 at 11:36
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    @Alex: Note that by using the account with which you created this question, you can upvote and accept answers as well as comment on your own question and answers. If it helps, you can merge your accounts.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jan 5, 2016 at 18:41

5 Answers 5

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Mozart's German

Mozart himself didn't write any of the texts (libretti) of his operas. He "only" wrote the music after a given text. And more than 70% of his operas are in Italian language (one, Apollo et Hyacinthus, KV 38, is even written in Latin).

There are only four Mozart-operas with German libretti (five, if you also count the fragment Zaide, which in fact is a unfinished first version of Die Entführung aus dem Serail). Among those four German Mozart operas only two are well known:

  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail (KV 384, premiere 1782), libretto written by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie d.J.
  • Die Zauberflöte (KV 620, premiere 1791, two month before Mozart died), libretto written by Emanuel Schikaneder

The two other German Mozart operas are »Bastien und Bastienne« (1768, KV 50) and »Der Schauspieldirektor« (1786, KV 486). But both are short (less then one hour each) and not often played. And again: Mozart did not write any of the words, he only wrote the music.

So when you really asks for Mozart's German, then you will not find any trace of it in his operas. You have to read his letters. You can find a complete list of all his letters and notes here: http://dme.mozarteum.at/DME/briefe/doclist.php

The German of »Magic Flute«

Emanuel Schikaneder wrote the libretto of this opera, and you can find the complete original text here: http://www.e-german-up.net/IMG/pdf/original_libretto.pdf

The German used in this opera is not typical for Vienna of the late 18th century, nor is it typical for the German of any other place or any other time. It is an poetic and artistic language, and the libretto contains lots of hidden reference to the freemasons (Schikaneder was a freemason as well as Mozart).

This text is more than 200 years old and was written at a time where there was no standardized orthography (German orthography was first time standardized in 1876, 85 years after the Magic Flute was written).

When listening to the opera, it is even hard to understand the words of the sung parts if you are a German native speaker who knows the opera very well (like me). A German native speaker can read the libretto and will easily be able to understand the words, but It's hard to get all those freemason hints. I guess some knowledge that would be needed to understand the full meaning of this opera got lost over the centuries.

In a good English translation of the libretto you will find everything that is needed to understand the opera on the same level that is available for a German native speaker. So there is no need (except for academic research) to learn the German used in this opera.


Addendum (not part of the answer):

Although I am Austrian (born in Graz, living in Vienna), I have to correct a very common mistake. You wrote, that Mozart »was Austrian by birth«. This is wrong:

Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (who later changed his name to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) was neither German nor Austrian. He was born in the year 1756 in the city of Salzburg, which was the capital city of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, which was a sovereign nation until 1805. Salzburg did not belong to any other nation. It was a state on the same level as France, Bavaria or Austria, just smaller.

In particular, during Mozart's complete lifetime (1756-1791) Salzburg was not part of the Austrian Empire, nor was it part of any other nation. In 1805 Salzburg was annexed to the Austrian Empire, and since then it was part of Austria (and still is). Although Mozart lived in Vienna for the last 10 years of his short life (he died at the age of 35), he never became an Austrian citizen. From his birth to his death he always was a Salzburgish citizen.

But since Salzburg belongs to Austria nowadays, Mozart often is called an Austrian composer, and Austria (especially Austrian tourist branch) is very proud of that. But to say, that he »was Austrian by birth« is wrong.

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  • History after 1805 seems somewhat simplified: German Wikipedia states: 1805 kam es mit Berchtesgaden auch formal an das Kaisertum Österreich, 1809/1810 an das Königreich Bayern. Im Ergebnis des Wiener Kongresses kehrte der Großteil Salzburgs 1816 zu Österreich zurück.
    – guidot
    Jan 5, 2016 at 21:09
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    Minor historical nitpickery: the Fürsterzbistum Salzburg was on a level with Bavaria... as part of the Holy Roman Empire. As were the territories of the Habsburg dynasty, which also only became the Kaisertum Österreich after the Empire was dissolved. France was a nation in its own right. There were certainly differences in sovereignty, de jure if not de facto between Salzburg and Bavaria on the one hand and France on the other hand. Jan 5, 2016 at 21:47
  • Almost on @StephanKolassa’s level but willing to nitpick even further: The Holy Roman Empire is also known as das Heilige Römische Reich deutscher Nation. So the Holy Roman emperor could be considered at a level with France and thus Mozart a German composer.
    – Jan
    Jan 5, 2016 at 23:47
  • @guidot: Yes, it is simplified on purpose. The question was not about historic details of the development of european countries in the 18th and 19th century. Before 1805, namely in 1803, Salzburg turned from an Erzbistum to a Fürstentum. There happened lots of changes in the fist two decades of 19th century. But non of them did influence the language in Mozarts Magic Flute. Jan 6, 2016 at 10:26
  • @Jan: You are right, but this leads to the very old question, if »german« means »belonging to Germany« or »speaking German«. In 18th and 19th century, as well as in 20th century, before WW2, the primary understanding was »speaking German«. So the Heilige Römische Reich deutscher Nation was more like an european union of german speaking kingdoms, principalities and nations of other kinds of governments. So before WW2 also most Austrians said that they was German, because they was speaking German. When they said they was German, they didn't mean, that they was citicens of the German Reich. Jan 6, 2016 at 10:35
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There is nothing wrong with Hubert Schölnast's answer, but here is my take, which is a bit shorter.

Salzburg is on the border between Germany (Bavaria) and Austria today. In Mozart's time it was a member of the Holy Roman Empire in much the same way as Bavaria and Austria; it only became Austrian more than a decade after his death. Vienna, where most of Mozart's later works originated, has of course always been Austrian and is far from the German border. But all of this doesn't matter because the three major national variants of standard German (German/Austrian/Swiss standard German) are much more similar to each other than colloquial German is to literary German, or today's German is to 18th century German, or normal German prose is to German poetry.

German spelling only became standardised in the late 19th century, and your quotation is in some old spelling that you are not going to find in dictionaries. Since it is standard practice to silently modernise orthography, you should have no trouble finding an edition without this problem. Then the only problem that remains is that this is a stage work, not prose, and that it is more than 200 years old. E.g. compare the roughly contemporary work of Thomas Boyce that is linked from the Wikipedia article. I believe literary German (like literary French) has been considerably more stable than English in recent centuries. I think a better comparison is therefore a 100-year-old English play such as The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan.

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The usual sheet music is written with the modern spelling, e.g. with any y of replaced by i in the quote of the first aria of the Könnigin der Nacht. I dare saying, that it's even harder to find the old text.

My first contact with German was precisely opera, and I wouldn't have learned the language without that motivation (not meaning that it's not worth, just I would have picked another language first). If you want to understand the librettos, it will take a while (even if you are full time on it). Hence, in principle, it's irrelevant if a course billed as conversational helps, because one single course is just not enough. Anyway, I have had so far about six teachers of German, none of which has ever shown an interest for opera beyond general culture. So, to understand Mozart's librettos you have to work by yourself (or take a very specialized course at University), and any German course is a good beginning.

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I don't think that such a course would help you to understand and keep up with the German spoken (or rather sung) in the opera.

I am native Austrian and I don't even understand everything when they are singing.

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A simple analogy would be for a modern English learner to read Shakespeare. His language would possibly not be easily comprehensible in any way.

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