The Best of the 31 Days of Halloween Series: Der Erlkönig by Franz Schubert

>> Thursday, October 28, 2010

As a freshman music student I was first introduced to Franz Schubert's Lied (German for "song"), Der Erlkönig (The Elf King), in my freshman music appreciation class. It was presented to us as one of the finest examples of the German art song ever composed, and among Schubert's vast collection of Lieder, it is considered by most, his greatest.

From Wikipedia:

Franz Schubert composed his Lied, "Der Erlkönig", for solo voice and piano in 1815, setting text from the Goethe poem. Schubert revised the song three times before publishing his fourth version in 1821 as his Opus 1; it was cataloged by Otto Erich Deutsch as D. 328 in his 1951 catalog of Schubert's works. The song was first performed in concert on December 1, 1820, at a private gathering in Vienna, and received its public premiere on March 7, 1821, at Vienna's Theater am Kärntnertor.

The four characters in the song — narrator, father, son, and the Erlking — are usually all sung by a single vocalist; occasionally, however, the work is performed by four individual vocalists (or three, with one taking the parts of both the narrator and the Erlking). Schubert placed each character largely in a different vocal range, and each has his own rhythmic nuances; in addition, most singers endeavor to use a different vocal coloration for each part.

The Narrator lies in the middle range and is in minor mode.
The Father lies in the low range and sings both in minor mode and major mode.
The Son lies in a high range, also in minor mode, representing the fright of the child.
The Erlking's vocal line undulates up and down to arpeggiated accompaniment resulting in striking contrast and is in the major mode. The Erlking lines are typically sung pianissimo.
A fifth character, the horse, is implied in rapid triplet figures played by the pianist throughout the work, mimicking hoof beats.


Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

"My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?"
"Father, do you not see the Erl king?
The Erl king with crown and tail?"
"My son, it's a wisp of fog."

"You lovely child, come, go with me!
Many a beautiful game I'll play with you;
Many colourful flowers are on the shore,
My mother has many golden robes."

"My father, my father, and don't you hear
What Erl king is quietly promising me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves."

"Do you want to come with me, dear boy?
My daughters shall wait on you fine;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep."

"My father, my father, and don't you see there
Erl king's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it clearly:
The old willows they shimmer so grey."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, I shall use force."
"My father, my father, he's grabbing me now!
Erl king has done me some harm!"

The father shudders; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
is hardly able to reach his farm;
In his arms, the child was dead.

I have recently been introduced to a new baritone (actually, he's not new, only new to me), who in my humble opinion rivals the great German baritone, Fisher Dieskau. Romanian baritone, Dan Iordachescu, was in his prime at the same time as Dieskau, but because of the political situation in Romania at the time, his opportunities for world recognition were extremely limited. Through the miracle of Facebook, I have recently met one of his lovely daughters, Cristina, who is quite a singer in her own right and when she first sent me this YouTube video of her father singing Der Erlkönig, I was simply blown away.


Jasper October 29, 2010 at 1:01 PM  

Not only a timeless poem, but suited for all ages. I've always loved the Erl-King since being introduced to it in 7th Grade. Even in translation it leaves such an enduring impression.

There's a very nice page devoted to artistic renditions of it. An exact literal (non-rhyming) translation, together with the standard contemporary Walter Scott rhyming verse translation, can be found there or on Wikipedia. I prefer the Bowring translation of some half-century later. And my favorite, by fate's decree, would be the Edwin Zeydel translation by which I was introduced to it.

There's a nice bilingual collection of this & other Goethe poems online. For those of us with a fondness for German, a rather interesting fellow has graciously put together a well researched running grammatical & lexical commentary (in English), albeit at times a bit gushing. Can't really blame him for that.... :^)

Cool performance. Thanks for posting.

Jasper October 29, 2010 at 1:22 PM  

The aforementioned performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, for those who would like to compare.

Lynette, I'm appointing myself Nettl Blogger Assistant!

Lynette October 29, 2010 at 5:38 PM  

Be my guest, Jasper! Your input is always appreciated. :)


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