A little something has nagged at me for days after seeing Arabella at the Canadian Opera Company on the weekend, a moment stuck in my head like an ear-worm.

It’s not a musical ear-worm, it’s a linguistic one.

I have this funny feeling about this opera, a piece of music theatre that is full of subtleties.  Sometimes they require closer study, as when there’s a reference to another piece of music, as I mentioned already a couple of times:

  • A tiny bit of Wagner’s music
  • A few bits of Strauss’s own music

But Arabella is a subtle story that likely is understood differently depending on your background.  When the opera appeared in the 1930s, I can’t help wondering what audience Strauss & Hofmannsthal imagined. Whom were they addressing, whom did they picture in the audience?  I ask this as a Hungarian, perpetually fascinated by the relationship between Austria & Hungary, indeed between any cultures coming into contact with one another. Arabella is many things, and one of them is a study in an inter-cultural encounter.

That question comes up for me as I keep mulling over one little word that was repeated more than any other, a word that actually doesn’t exist. I kept musing on this word, wondering just what I had heard.

Finally today I went to the libretto.

Mandryka is from abroad, and while it’s not precisely spelled out during the opera, I understand he’s from Croatia (when I looked it up online), a place where he has lots of land & money.  Mandryka has just met Arabella’s father, Count Waldner, who is totally broke: but of course hasn’t admitted it to his prospective son-in-law.

The generous young man offers the older one a few huge notes, lots of money that he hands over in a very nonchalant fashion.

When he does this, he says the following:

Teschek, bedien dich!

Waldner is so thrilled by this, he staggers around as if in a dream, repeating the phrase at least six times (or is it more?).  Zdenka thinks her papa is cracking up, perhaps due to the strain of their financial difficulties, and so has no idea what he’s talking about.

And what IS he saying, Zdenka and the rest of the audience might ask?

Google is quite clear in telling me that “bedien dich” means “help yourself” or words to that effect.

And Teschek?  I tried google out on that one, using German and Croatian.  Maybe google was stumped, but all that came back for “teschek” was the same word OR “Teschek” with a capital T.

And then it dawned on me that maybe Hofmannsthal had something else in mind. This was an opera set in Vienna after all.  A visitor to Vienna might use a different language, namely my own.

The headline I put on this, of “Tessék” with a question mark is, as usual, both an indication of what I’m writing about and a bit of an extra joke.  Tessék interrogative is another way of saying “I beg your pardon”?  Please note, that the word “tessék” in Magyar phonetics is pronounced virtually the same as a German would pronounce “Teschek”.  The ss is said like an sch gets pronounced by a German- or Austrian-speaker or an sh in English.

The key meaning though for Tessék is the one likely intended by Hofmannsthal. Tessék as a declaration simply means “here you go”, which is perfect in this context, meaning almost exactly the same thing as “bedien dich”. Surely that’s what the phrase means.

In fact in a society where Hungarian words may have been inserted, references to dobos torta and Tokay (or perhaps Tokajer if you’re speaking German?) tossed around politely.  I think it’s possible Hofmannsthal meant to signal a mis-pronunciation, rather than a correct one. A provincial visitor such as Mandryka might affect Hungarian but get it wrong, saying Teschek rather than “Tessék” (where that accent signifies a similar e vowel to what you get for instance in French with your accent aigu).

It’s also possible that Hofmannsthal expected the correct pronunciation to be known, although I am guessing that if that were so, there’d be some indication in the score. The repetition over and over suggests that the librettist & composer were very deliberate, and were not making a mistake.

I wonder, did they mean for Waldner and Mandryka to make the mistake?

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