Monday Music: Erlkönig (Schubert)

It’s a Monday morning in Autumn, and time for a bit of Sturm und Drang.

(and this is where I confess that I just had to look up ‘Drang’, which turns out to mean stress.  There you go.  We all learned something new there…)

Erlkönig is, when it comes down to it, just a fabulous piece of music.  It’s clever, clever musical writing that builds on Goethe’s spooky poem until you can just about hear what’s going on without understanding the words.  Incidentally, this is another one of those pieces of music where you slightly hate the composer for composing something so spectacular at the age of 18 – not to mention for writing something with such a wrist-destroying left right hand part (all those octave triplets are just cruel).

There’s a lot going on in this song.  The story contains three characters – the anxious father, riding as fast as he can to get home; his young son, tormented by visions of the Erl-King (which means Elf-King or Alder-King, depending on who you ask), and the Erl-King himself, unseen by the father, and possibly a figment of the son’s feverish hallucinations, but certainly terrifying and ultimately deadly.  The characters all get different melodies within the story, with the son’s high theme sounding like a cry of distress against the deeper, reassuring major keys of the father’s song, and the Erl-King’s lines all being very lyrical and sweet. In the early parts of the song, the Erl-King is quite seductive in his offers to the child, but by the end of the song, he resorts to violence, and the father reaches his home only to find his son dead in his arms.  (You can always rely on Schubert for a cheery ending.)  Apparently, the Goethe poem was inspired by the sight of a man riding through the woods one night, carrying his sick child to a doctor.  Nobody has recorded whether this child survived, but one rather suspects not.

If all the fun and games in the vocal line aren’t enough for you, there’s also a party going on in the piano part with the triplets sounding like the galloping beat of the horse’s hooves on the road, and generally stormy things going on in the bass line.

I got to sing this for my exam last year, which was brilliant fun, in fact, and it’s an interesting challenge trying to sound like four different people (there is also a narrator at start and end) while being only one.  The recording I’ve chosen above is by Jessye Norman, and it’s very dramatic, which I love (and borrowed shamelessly from); it’s actually more usual to have this piece sung by a tenor, but I think women have the advantage in making the child suitably high-pitched and frightening, and the Erl-King properly otherworldly.

Of course, I also love and adore the Ian Bostridge recording.  I mean, it’s Ian Bostridge, what’s not to like?  Also, he has a really good seductive-creepy face for the Erl-King, which is always a good thing.  And a beautiful voice, of course.  And this baritone version, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is also rather good, and the pictures are lovely, though it’s let down rather by the way Fischer-Dieskau sings “Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt” (And if you aren’t willing, I’ll have thee by force) in much the same way he might ask for another cup of tea.  I really don’t understand this, since the rest of the song is beautifully expressive and dramatic, with all the characters very well delineated.

Of course, when you have a poem with this much potential, it’s pretty much inevitable that other composers will have a play with it, too.  Here’s Carl Loewe’s version, written only two years after Schubert’s, in 1817.  To my ear, it has much less of a sense of driving forward than Schubert’s – you can hear, in Schubert’s music, the constant racing hoofbeats of the horse, which are missing here.  Having said that, this is still very lovely, and I love Ulrich Hielscher’s voice.  And the spooky, spooky, creeping up on you surprise “TOD!!!!!” at the end.

Oh lordy, and there are even more versions, which don’t entirely convince me – this one, by Johann Friedrich Reichardt sounds very much like a folk song, and this one, by Carl Friedrich Zelter sounds like that A. A. Milne song about Christopher Robin saying his prayers.  I fear there is a good reason why Schubert’s is the famous one…

Here are the lyrics, with my translation:

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.”Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”
“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?” –
“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.””Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.”

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?” –
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.” –

“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.” –

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?” –
“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. –”

“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.”

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!” –

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Er reicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Who rides so late, through the night and wind?
It is the father with his child
He has the boy safe in his arms
He clasps him closely, he keeps him warm.“My son, why do you hide your face so fearfully?”
“Father, can you not see the Erl-King?
The Erl-King, with crown and tail?” –
“My son, it is a wisp of cloud.”“Thou dear child, come, go with me!
Full lovely games I will play with thee;
Many bright flowers bloom on that shore
And my mother has golden robes.” –

“My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the Erl-King softly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
It’s the wind murmuring in the dry leaves.”

“Wilt thou go with me, lovely boy,
My daughters shall wait on thee charmingly,
My daughters shall lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing thee to sleep.”

“My father, my father, and do you not see
The Erl-King’s daughters in that gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see quite well
How dark the ancient willow trees appear.”

“I love thee, thy beautiful form entices me
And since thou art not willing, I’ll have thee by force.”
“My father, my father, now he clutches me!
The Erl-King has hurt me!”

The father shudders, he rides faster
He holds in his arms the moaning child.
He only just makes it to the farmstead –
In his arms, the child was dead.

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0 comments for “Monday Music: Erlkönig (Schubert)

  1. April 22, 2013 at 8:41 am

    Actually, it’s the right hand that’s the killer. It is possibly a good thing that I am listening to this when it’s far too late for me to go and play it, because my hands aren’t remotely up to that sort of punishment at the moment. Recently I’ve been having fun with Gretchen Am Spinnrade, which I play fast enough that my right hand is usually hurting afterwards, and then discover that I’m playing it much faster than everyone else does. Well, I like it that way.

    I’ve just listened to the first two recordings of Erlkonig that you linked to so far, and wow. Though I did giggle occasionally at some of the facial expressions.

    I’m thinking my way through Schubert lieder with that sort of repeated triplet thing going on, and I think it’s usually given to the right hand. Although is there a Winterreise one where it’s in the left hand? I should check tomorrow.

    • April 22, 2013 at 10:33 am

      Yes, of course it is – that’s my left-handedness catching up with me! It’s been a while since I attempted to play this on the piano. I don’t know the Winterreise at all, though I’ve heard bits of Bostridge singing it, so I can’t help with that…

      And yeah, those are great recordings, aren’t they?

  2. filkferengi
    April 28, 2013 at 9:22 am

    When Joe Ellis had his concert at the Ohio Valley Filk Festival in 2001, he played this as his opening number. [Music about fantasy, obvious filk, ne?]

    • April 28, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      I’m impressed – that’s not an easy song to play *or* sing…

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