Thursday 2 February 2012


One of the numbers our choir is preparing for the summer show is the Pilgrims’ Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. We are singing it in German.

Dismayed by the attempt at German pronunciation on our practice tracks, I have prepared some phonetic notes (now revised in the light of comments) to help people with pronouncing the German text. They include not only general advice but also an IPA transcription of the lyrics we have to sing.

Der Gnade Heil ist dem Büßer beschieden,
er geht einst ein in der Seligen Frieden;
vor Höll’ und Tod ist ihm nicht bang’,
drum preis’ ich Gott mein Leben lang!

deːr ɡnaːdə haɪl ɪst deːm byːsɐ bəʃiːdən
eːr ɡeːt aɪnst aɪn ɪn deːr zeːlɪɡən friːdən
fɔr foːr hœl ʊnt toːt ɪst iːm nɪçt baŋ
drʊm praɪs ɪç ɡɔt maɪn leːbən laŋ

One thing I am not certain about is the possible differences between everyday pronunciation and what is appropriate in classical singing.

According to what I have read, in singing it is sort of customary to pronounce a tongue-tip r rather than a uvular ʁ, and to use ər rather than the ɐ of ordinary speech. Here’s the rather confused message offered on the subject by the Deutsches Aussprachewörterbuch (p. 118).

r-Laute: meist Bildung von Zungenspitzen-R ([r]), oft auch in Positionen, in denen beim Sprechen vokalisierte Formen oder reduziertes Reibe-R ([ʶ]) gebildet werden; daneben aber besteht die Tendenz zu Vokalisierung wie beim Sprechen; Reibe-R ([ʁ]) und Zäpfchen-R ([ʀ]) sind selten. r sounds: more often than not the use of tongue-tip R ([r]), including in positions in which vocalized forms or reduced fricative r ([ʶ]) are used in speech; but alongside this there exists, as in speaking, the tendency to vocalization; fricative r ([ʁ]) and uvular r ([ʀ]) are rare.

So ought I to prescribe deːr for der, or deːɐ̯? (Either would be better than dɜː.) Should Büßer be ˈbyːsər or ˈbyːsɐ?

Fortunately we have a native speaker of German in the choir, who has recorded the words for us. He pronounces them as in everyday speech.

Any comments from those who know more about German phonetics than I do will be very welcome.


  1. German schwa is generally sung as ɛ for clarity, and you can't go wrong with keeping your r's unvocalised (plus I think it sounds nicer). I recommend deːr and ˈbyːsɛr.

  2. I think the decision between (formal) Standard German and Bühnendeutsch is really yours. I'm not sure how far your definition of "everyday speech" goes, hence the "formal". To give an example, even the 60-year old boss of one of those traditional medium-sized businesses (which still reek of the 1950s) commanding his secretary wouldn't pronounce the schwa in Können (Sie kurz in mein Büro kommen?), but dropping it in a Wagner chorus would be marked (probably to complement the singers' guerilla uniforms or lack of clothes).

    Minor things:

    Outside of Westphalia, the vowel in deːr as well as in deːɐ̯ is short and open.

    Depending on the musical context, ˈbyːsɐ might be too colloquial for formal singing; unless you're opting for Siebs' tongue-tip r, I'd think ˈbyːsəɐ̯ might be reasonable.

  3. Yes, probably even ˈbyːˌsɛɐ̯, as Lukas indicated. This is in case the second syllable has some weight in the musical context, otherwise I'd go for ˈbyːsɐ, provided the singers can pull the ɐ off, as an a would sound too colloquial, naive or like a Berlin accent, and ɑ(ː) too English.

  4. "Vor" has a long vowel in my speech and, as far as I know, in the standard.

  5. Well, I don't know whether I know more of German phonetics than you but it seems to me that in the stanza you quoted the issue is perfectly immaterial.

    The Zungenspitzen-r is perfectly OK for those who use it anyway in normal speech, otherwise it's a bit 'genteel' or old-fashioned or quaint. Also, the vocalisation of -er to a schwa-like vowel only lower, is not a universal German phenomenon, for instance in Wuerttemberg they stil say -er.

    I am not sure if the 'e' in 'der' be short, methinks it is not, even outside of Westfalia.

    1. Wojciech: the 'e' in 'der' is short for this native speaker (who grew up in and around Hamburg).

      Similarly to the 'e' in 'er' and 'Erde' where, I believe, it is also normatively long.

    2. you make perhaps a distiction between 'der' as 'the' (short 'e') and 'der' as 'this' (masculine, long 'e')?

      so you say 'därr'? 'däa', like? If not, what quality (closed, open) is your 'e' in 'der' (the)?

    3. No, not a phonemic distinction - I would tend to stress "der" meaning "this", while "der" meaning "the" tends to be a proclitic, not receiving word stress of its own. And the stress lengthens the vowel slightly, but not quite to a long "ä".

      So yes, I say essentially "däa" (with a short "ä"), with the short, open sound of "e" in "wenn".

  6. I asked a member of a local semi-professional choir (they sing classical pieces, e.g. Bach cantatas, Beethoven's 'Freude'), and she said that they use a trilled or tapped /r/ in e.g. 'darf', 'grüßen', 'froh', 'Herze', 'Herren'. However, in 'der', 'Büßer' and other words containing a word-final postvocalic singleton letter r they replace it by [ɐ].

  7. @Lipman, Wojciech, Newton: vowel length in der is notoriously variable across German dialects and regional accents, but the standard has , and it is the only form I've ever encountered in classical singing.

    As my own variety (I'm from Hamburg and an experienced singer) has short e, I remember practising deːr for quite a while before I finally got in right.

    Westphalians of course have , but that is unsurprising, as the contrast between long and short close and mid vowels is generally lost before r.

  8. Singing* is different, granted. And I perceive Erde with either a long or a short vowel as neutral Standard German. But I shouldn't recommend der with a long vowel to a student if I taught German.

    *I didn't expect anything else from Peter Schreier (who has deːəɾ). Other professional singers on YouTube have a pronounced tapped or trilled tongue-tip r and the vowel as long as the music demands, but a clear ɛ.

  9. It's general in classical singing to use trilled or tapped /r/s in both French and German. In French the rule is similar to Spanish: initial and doubled orthographic Rs are trilled, the remainder tapped.

    On the subject of German singing, here is a journal article reproduced on a website (unfortunately omitting the illustrations): it claims that use of non-apical /r/ is significantly more common in Lieder than in opera/oratorio (when there is an orchestra to contend with).

    Here is a book excerpt on the subject of French singing.

    I believe similar conventions exist, or used to exist, in formal and theatrical diction (not unlike the use of trilled /r/s by old-fashioned English orators in the days before electronic amplification).

  10. To my knowledge, it has always been customary to pronounce /r/ as a tap, even when final, when singing classical music in German. I'd say this holds true for choral and operatic singing, although I've heard more and more r-dropping in more intimate and conversational singing such as in German lieder. /r/ may also be trilled for emphasis or when doubled according to John Moriarty's book on singing diction, which was the standard text when I was studying classical voice at university.
    --Jeremy Sortore

  11. I could swear I recently saw something about vowel length being essentially neutralized in German singing. I guess I was wrong.

  12. Length is obviously determined by the musical side, including the interpretation, to a degree, but the phonetic quality between the "long" and the "short" vowels isn't.

  13. I generally agree with Kraut and Jeremy here. I don't think uvular r is really appropriate outside of pop songs. I have been taught to use apical, alveolar r (tapped or trilled), except maybe after long vowels or for , when one could use ɐ.

    I can't check this right now, but I think this fits with what David Adams says in A Handbook of Diction for Singers (Oxford, 2008).

  14. John,
    (in the pdf you link to) [quote] Those who are familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) — perhaps through training in linguistics, TEFL, or speech and drama — may find this IPA transcription of the whole German text useful.[/quote]

    It seems everyone else has eschewed nitpicking, but readers of the IPA transcription may find it disconcerting rather than useful that you don't practise what you preach in your earlier statement ibid. 'The last part of Wanderstab is "shtahp"'. You have vandɐstaːp in the transcription!

    I guess that your ʃaʊn vs aʊən for "schau’n" vs "Auen" is for musical reasons, right?

    I seem to remember there has been some discussion on here comparatively recently about ɔɪ vs ɔʏ, but you do use ʏ elsewhere, and the IPA-literate _could_ have handled it.

    I thought at first fröhnt might be an old spelling for frönt, but far from it, apparently. The spelling with h features among "Beliebte Fehler" on some site I found. Of course I don't suppose you can go to the lengths of editing the version your choir has got.

    FWIW I thought you got most of the rest discussed on here, apart from fɔr just about right, though I cannot disagree with what Lukas says you can't go wrong with, however irritating I find ɛ for clarity. And I'm dead impressed that a hamburgerer practised deːr for quite a while until he got it right!

    1. -sta:p is an error. Thanks: should be ˈvandɐʃtaːp.

    2. Just seen your reply. I now see all the other comments are in some different time zone from your presumably GMT-timed post as well. Wonderful, isn't it?

  15. The revamp of blogspot has been no more of a shambles than one might have expected. As not infrequently, there is internal evidence that it's not me screwing up: I have just posted the above on IE, the latest (pre-10) version of Firefox not yielding to any amount of ingenuity to give me the option, as it does now (sporadically), of Adding comment, as opposed to Replying to one, and the time now is 22:39, 20120202, whereas at the moment this site is claiming I posted at 02:27 this afternoon.

    What's so wonderful about replies and comments not being jumbled up in sequence anyway? If it weren't for the comments feed I wouldn't be able to find my way around now.

  16. Should 'dem', 'den', and 'der' (qua gen. sg. fem.) not, too, have a procliticised pronunciation here, with a short and open vowel, for instance in "dem mein Herze frönt"? It maybe depends on the notes to sing it to, as Lipman somewhere suggested.

    "Fröhnt" looks rather like a "frönen" intermingled with "(sich das Haar) föhnen" --- the latter being an occupation a modern _Büßer_, as distinct from an ancient one, quite often indulges in.

    1. @Wojciech: Ought to be "frönt" without 'h'. There are 2 German verbs - fronen and frönen - both with umlaut in their 2nd and 3rd person singular present tense active voice form.
      fronen = to labourfor your feudal lord
      frönen = to indulge in.

    2. Ad Kraut,

      thank you but I cannot quite honestly say that I did not know that... . Anyway, my impressionistic impression was that the person spelling "fröhnen" somehow had "föhnen" (old spelling: "fönen") at the back of their head... . Presumably, to keep the repentants from appearing before the Lord with their hair dishevelled.

    3. No, the vowels of dem and den are (long and) closed. The colloquial unstressed form would have a schwa or a syllabic nasal consonant, and, depending on the context, lack the d.

  17. der Gnade Heil ist dem Büßer beschieden

    I don't know any longer the melody, but possibly, if 'dem' is sung on a crotchet or quaver, I ignore which, it should be: d-schwa-m Buesser or 'm Buesser, tho' the latter is probably bad diction in singing,---or possibly a closed but shortened 'e' in 'dem'.

    Anyway, lucky Buesser! if grace be him 'beschieden'.

    1. Clearly dem, whatever the length, unless it's a very short grace note, and in singing or in a speech, one wouldn't usé any of those colloquial forms.

    2. Na, dann deo gratias, as the 'krauts' say... . The repentant can sing on his song. 'M Buesser' would be 'der Untergang des Abendlandes', at least in singing.

  18. Dear all,

    I would have transcribed /praɪz ɪç/ instead of /praɪs ɪç/, because the verb is preisen /praɪzən/.

    Vincent, also experienced singer often fighting with the English pronunciation of French singers ;-)

  19. Ad Vincent

    'I would have transcribed /praɪz ɪç/ instead of /praɪs ɪç/, because the verb is preisen /praɪzən/.'

    yes but at least in the variant of German I am familiar with it's /praɪs 'ɪç/, with a 'Knacklaut' (glottal stop) before 'ich'.

  20. I was happy to find this post. Here, the subject is German lyric diction, with its own clearly-defined conventions that have been the norm in singing for over a century. (See my comments on the November 24 blog).

    A few ideas:

    • Any "back" r is out of the question for formal singing. Flipped [ɾ] is preferred. In "Frieden" and "preis'", a rolled [r] would be welcomed, and encouraged.

    • Vocalic r is certainly possible; however, as mentioned already, it is not used in singing to the same extent as in spoken German. It tends to be encountered increasingly the more conversational/intimate the setting is, and the more quickly the passage is notated. In the case of this Wagnerian chorus, where there is plenty of time (I believe Wagner writes "Maestoso"), I would recommend flipped r for "er" and "vor" (but [ɐ] is, of course, not wrong). In the case of "der" and "Büßer", either flipped r or vocalic r is possible. If an opera company were working on Tannhäuser, the chorus master, diction coach, and conductor would ultimately make a decision here, so that all the singers of the chorus are doing the same thing.

    • The off-glides of the three German diphthongs can be notated in different ways. Most often, classical singers are heard to sing the diphthongs as [ae], [ɔʏ], and [ao].

    • Substituting [ɛ] for schwa is a very old-fashioned practice on the stage. I would recommend schwa, as long as the English-speaking singers keep it tenser than their own schwa, and do not lip-round the vowel into a French schwa.

    • "der" is almost always closed in formal singing. Again, because it is notated in a rather measured way here, it should ideally not open to [ɛ].

    • You may consider showing glottal stops wherever appropriate. These are notoriously overlooked in German by English-speaking singers.

    • You (or someone) will have to decide what to do with the first [t] in "und Tod". In this case, either two back-to-back fully-released articulations of [t], or an unreleased [t ̚] at the end of "und" is possible. Again, a decision is needed, so that all singers do the same thing.

    • I bet you will hear plenty of [i] in "ich" and [l̴] in "Heil" from your colleagues.

    1. @nedecky :
      • You (or someone) will have to decide what to do with the first [t] in "und Tod". In this case, either two back-to-back fully-released articulations of [t], or an unreleased [t ̚] at the end of "und" is possible. Again, a decision is needed, so that all singers do the same thing.

      Decision must be made, but in accordance with stylistic 'rules'. In this piece by Wagner, and in romantic music in general, where lines are mostly legato, the first [t] in "und" is unreleased (your second option). Whereas in baroque music, the two [t]'s will be fully articulated (your first option).

  21. @Vincent Parbelle

    I agree with the choice to have an unreleased t in this case, but not solely because of the date of composition. First of all, this piece is not particularly 'legato', nor are lines mostly legato in Romantic music, as you erroneously suggest. This example is very measured and heavy — 'pesante', 'marcato' are far better descriptions. I can think of dozens of examples of Baroque music that is much more legato than this.

    Back-to-back articulated t in this music would break no 'rule' of lyric diction, just as an unreleased t in earlier music is also not wrong.

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