Tablet - Portrait

Tablet - Landscape


Franz Schubert

Page after page has been written about Franz Schubert's Erlkönig -- it is easily the most familiar single piece from the German song repertory; yet each hearing of the work seems somehow to conjure up the same spark of desperate passion in the listener that it must have conjured from those Viennese music-lovers who first encountered the song when it was published in 1821--six years after being composed--as Schubert's Opus 1.

Erlkönig the poem is a dramatic ballad, part of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's 1782 singspiel Der Fischerin. It tells, in strict meter and regular four-line stanzas, the tale of a father riding through the woods late at night with his son. The evil Erl-king (the origin of the words "Erlkönig" and "Erlenkönig," both of which forms appear in Goethe's ballad, is complicated and even confused; some say they are a translation, or mistranslation, into German of the Danish word for "Elf King"), visible to the young boy, but not to his father, calls out to the lad, tempting him with thoughts of games and dances. Many times the boy cries out to his father to help him, but the father cannot see the Erl-king or his minions and writes his son's horror off as one natural phenomenon or another. Only when the boy is physically wounded does the father recognize that desperate measures are called for; though he rides with all his strength and skill, however, his boy expires before he reaches safety.

Schubert's setting of Goethe's ballad dates from sometime during Fall of 1815 -- a fabulously productive year during which he penned nearly 145 lieder, and countless instrumental works, while still working as a schoolteacher. The song's immense fame during the nineteenth century gave rise to many fanciful stories of its composition; some have claimed that it was composed in just a few minutes, in one fell swoop of passion, while a friend looked on, but such a genesis seems unlikely. Schubert revised his setting three times, mostly tinkering with the piano accompaniment but also altering dynamics in striking ways and inserting/deleting measures to slightly better the pacing.

And it is pacing, or motion, in a truly physical sense, that fuels both Goethe's frantic poem and Schubert's lied. There is a continuous background of repeated, triplet octaves in the piano part (very difficult and physically tiring -- in one of the revisions Schubert simplified the figuration, asking for duplets instead of triplets), against which the three characters of the ballad sing their simple lines. Each persona is given his own unique tone: the child frantic and impassioned, the father noble and self-assured, Erlkönig himself relaxed and attractive as he seeks to trick the child. The result is an almost demonic fury, and as the drama unfolds and the child becomes more and more terrified and sings in a higher and higher register, the harsh dissonances of his cries, "Mein Vater, mein Vater!" become ever more bone-chilling. The racing triplets cease only at the very end of the song, as the narrator proclaims in a bit of taut recitative that "the child was dead in his [the father's] arms."

-- Blair Johnston