This article is about the poem by Goethe. For the German legend this poem is based on, see Erlking. For the novel by Michel Tournier, see The Erl-King (novel).
"Erlkönig" is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It depicts the death of a child assailed by a supernatural being, the Erlking or "Erlkönig". It was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel entitled Die Fischerin.
"Erlkönig" has been called Goethe's "most famous ballad". The poem has been set to music by several composers, most notably by Franz Schubert.
An anxious young boy is being carried at night by his father on horseback. To where is not spelled out; German Hof has a rather broad meaning of "yard", "courtyard", "farm", or (royal) "court". The lack of specificity of the father's social position, beyond owning a horse, allows the reader to imagine the details. The opening line tells that the time is unusually late and the weather unusually inclement for travel. As it becomes apparent that the boy is delirious, a possibility is that the father is rushing him to medical aid.
As the poem unfolds, the son seems to see and hear beings his father does not; the reader cannot know if the father is indeed aware of their presence, but he chooses to comfort his son, asserting reassuringly naturalistic explanations for what the child sees – a wisp of fog, rustling leaves, shimmering willows. Finally, the child shrieks that he has been attacked. The father rides faster to the Hof. There, he recognizes that the boy is dead.
|Literal translation||Edgar Alfred Bowring|
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The story of the Erlkönig derives from the traditional Danish ballad Elveskud: Goethe's poem was inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder's translation of a variant of the ballad (Danmarks gamle Folkeviser 47B, from Peter Syv's 1695 edition) into German as Erlkönigs Tochter ("The Erl-king's Daughter") in his collection of folk songs, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (published 1778). Goethe's poem then took on a life of its own, inspiring the Romantic concept of the Erlking. Niels Gade's cantata Elverskud op. 30 (1854, text by Chr. K. F. Molbech) was published in translation as Erlkönigs Tochter.
The Erlkönig's nature has been the subject of some debate. The name translates literally from the German as "Alder King" rather than its common English translation, "Elf King" (which would be rendered as Elfenkönig in German). It has often been suggested that Erlkönig is a mistranslation from the original Danishelverkonge, which does mean "king of the elves."
In the original Scandinavian version of the tale, the antagonist was the Erlkönig's daughter rather than the Erlkönig himself; the female elves or Danish elvermøer sought to ensnare human beings to satisfy their desire, jealousy and lust for revenge.
Settings to music
The poem has often been set to music with Franz Schubert's rendition, his Opus 1 (D. 328), being the best known. Other notable settings are by members of Goethe's circle, including the actress Corona Schröter (1782), Andreas Romberg (1793), Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1794) and Carl Friedrich Zelter (1797). Ludwig van Beethoven attempted to set it to music but abandoned the effort; his sketch however was complete enough to be published in a completion by Reinhold Becker (1897). A few other nineteenth-century versions are those by Václav Tomášek (1815), Carl Loewe (1818) and Louis Spohr (1856, with obbligato violin) and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (Polyphonic Studies for Solo Violin). 21st century examples are pianist Marc-André Hamelin's "Etude No. 8 (after Goethe)" for solo piano, based on "Erlkönig".
The Franz Schubert composition
Franz Schubert composed his Lied "Erlkönig" for solo voice and piano in 1815, setting text from Goethe's poem. Schubert revised the song three times before publishing his fourth version in 1821 as his Opus 1; it was catalogued by Otto Erich Deutsch as D. 328 in his 1951 catalog of Schubert's works. The song was first performed in concert on 1 December 1820 at a private gathering in Vienna and received its public premiere on 7 March 1821 at Vienna's Theater am Kärntnertor.
The four characters in the song – narrator, father, son, and the Erlking – are all sung by a single vocalist. 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 begins in the minor mode.
- The Father lies in the lower range and sings in both minor and major mode.
- The Son lies in a higher range, also in the minor mode.
- The Erlking's vocal line, in the major mode, provides the only break from the ostinato bass triplets in the accompaniment until the boy's death.
A fifth character, the horse, is implied in rapid triplet figures played by the pianist throughout the work, mimicking hoof beats.
"Erlkönig" starts with the piano playing rapid triplets to create a sense of urgency and simulate the horse's galloping. The left hand of the piano part introduces a low-register leitmotif composed of successive triplets. The right hand plays triplets throughout the piece until the last three bars. The constant triplets drive the frequent modulations of the piece as it switches between the characters.
Each of the Son's pleas becomes higher in pitch than the last. Near the end of the piece, the music quickens and then slows as the Father spurs his horse to go faster and then arrives at his destination. The absence of the piano creates multiple effects on the text and music. The silence draws attention to the dramatic text and amplifies the immense loss and sorrow caused by the Son's death.
The piece is regarded as extremely challenging to perform due to the multiple characters the vocalist is required to portray, as well as its difficult accompaniment, involving rapidly repeated chords and octaves which contribute to the drama and urgency of the piece.
"Erlkönig" is through-composed; although the melodic motives recur, the harmonic structure is constantly changing and the piece modulates within characters. The rhythm of the piano accompaniment also changes within the characters. The first time the Erlking sings in measure 57, the galloping motive disappears. However, when the Erlking sings again in measure 87, the piano accompaniment plays arpeggios rather than chords.
"Erlkönig" has been transcribed for various settings: for solo piano by Franz Liszt; for solo voice and orchestra by Hector Berlioz; for solo violin by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst.
The Carl Loewe composition
Carl Loewe's setting was published as Op. 1, No. 3 and composed in 1817–18, in the lifetime of the poem's author and also of Schubert, whose version Loewe did not then know. Collected with it were Op. 1, No. 1, "Edward" (1818; a translation of the Scottish ballad), and No. 2, "Der Wirthin Töchterlein" (1823; "The Innkeeper's Daughter"), a poem of Ludwig Uhland. Inspired by a German translation of Scottish border ballads, Loewe set several poems with an elvish theme; but although all three of Op. 1 are concerned with untimely death, in this set only the "Erlkönig" has the supernatural element.
Loewe's accompaniment is in semiquaver groups of six in 9/8 time and marked Geschwind (fast). The vocal line evokes the galloping effect by repeated figures of crotchet and quaver, or sometimes three quavers, overlying the binary tremolo of the semiquavers in the piano. In addition to an unusual sense of motion, this creates a flexible template for the stresses in the words to fall correctly within the rhythmic structure.
Loewe's version is less melodic than Schubert's, with an insistent, repetitive harmonic structure between the opening minor key and answering phrases in the major key of the dominant, which have a stark quality owing to their unusual relationship to the home key. The narrator's phrases are echoed by the voices of father and son, the father taking up the deeper, rising phrase, and the son a lightly undulating, answering theme around the dominant fifth. These two themes also evoke the rising and moaning of the wind. The Erl-king, who is always heard pianissimo, does not sing melodies, but instead delivers insubstantial rising arpeggios that outline a single major chord (that of the home key) which sounds simultaneously on the piano in una cordatremolo. Only with his final threatening word, "Gewalt", does he depart from this chord. Loewe's implication is that the Erlking has no substance, but merely exists in the child's feverish imagination. As the piece progresses, the first in the groups of three quavers is dotted to create a breathless pace, which then forms a bass figure in the piano driving through to the final crisis. The last words, war tot, leap from the lower dominant to the sharpened third of the home key; this time not to the major but to a diminished chord, which settles chromatically through the home key in the major and then to the minor.
Songs by Franz Schubert
Erlkönig is a ballad penned by Johann von Goethe. Before attempting to understand the song, you should be familiar with the ballad. Schubert and Loewe were both composing music that would enhance the text and convey the story, although they came up with different ways to express the text musically. So the text is key. You can find the German and English side by side at this link.
Professor Carol discusses the ballad at length in Unit 11 of Discovering Music. You should get to know these two settings of Erlkönig with that discussion in mind. Recall the primary features of a ballad:
- The poem must tell a story that has action in it.
- There must be real characters, including a narrator, and the characters must speak or interact.
- The ballad begins abruptly in media res (in the middle of the action).
- It reserves moral judgment.
Schubert did much to elevate the role of the piano in Lieder. It is not simply accompaniment. It becomes an important part of conveying the text. Many times the piano will convey the shifting moods in a song, perhaps by changing tempo or rhythm, or by moving between major and minor keys. But you frequently find more specific “text painting” in the piano part, depicting things like a running brook, footsteps, a nightingale, or a howling wind.
We will look at just a few examples of character development and text painting in the settings of Erlkönig by Schubert and Loewe, but you should look for other examples as well as you get to know these works.
Loewe sets the mood at the beginning with an unsettling tremolo in the piano. The left hand comes in with a 6/8 (galloping) rhythm. The tremolo stops for only a few seconds (at 0:11-0:14) and then never stops again until the father reaches his destination at the end.
But the tremolo changes character. As soon as the narrator stops speaking (at 0:22), the tremolo becomes more insistent, alternating between two notes a half-step (minor second) apart. This more fearful tremolo will accompany the lines of the father and son throughout.
The tremolo changes again. As the key changes to major (at 0:43), the tremolo opens up to the wider interval of a third (at 0:45). It’s the Elk-King’s soothing and beckoning voice. The Elk-King sings a simple arpeggio, like a bugle call. Loewe comes back to this same technique for every line of the Elf-King . . . except one when he sings “or I’ll take you by force” in the minor key (at 2:18).
The mood changes back suddenly at 1:05 when the son speaks and his father answers. This pattern continues until the end.
If you want to follow the piano/vocal score, it can be found here.
Schubert begins not at a gallop, but in a frantic run. The piano part puts us in media res with the rapid repeated notes in groups of three (triplets). This incessant pounding conveys the running horse and also the sense of fear. Schubert uses this figure much the same way as Loewe uses the tremolo.
As the father tries to reassure his son by saying “It’s merely the mist,” the harmony shifts to the major key (at 1:21). The Elf-King enters in this major key, as with Loewe in a sing-song and beckoning voice (at 1:27). The repeated notes in the piano are replaced by a bouncing rhythm alternating left and right hand (such pretty games). The dissonance has disappeared.
The minor key and frantic repeated notes return as the son speaks (at 1:50). And the father’s answer (it’s just the blowing leaves) again leads into the major key (at 2:08). The Elf-King puts on a second soothing guise at 2:13. The piano is playing not the bouncing rhythm of the Elf-King’s first statement, but a light arpeggiated figure as he describes how his daughters will rock and sing the boy to sleep.
The Elf-King’s third statement retains the repeated notes (at 3:01), somewhat soothing at first in a major key, but then (at 3:06) melding into the fearful mood of the son as the Elf-King threatens to take him by force.
If you want to follow the piano/vocal score, it can be found here.
Dersnah-Fee, Experiencing Lieder
Jardon, Erlkönig: The Beginning of Schubert’s Fast and Furious Career