Saturday, August 30, 2014

Schubert - Der Erlkönig Opus 1, D.328

Franz Schubert wrote in all the musical genre of his day, but by far the form he is best known for is German Lieder. He wrote over 600 German art songs for voice and piano in his short life, some of them becoming standards of the vocal repertoire. His most famous song, Der Erlkönig,  is set to a poem of the same name by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany's most eminent poet, writer, playwright and statesman. The poem was written in 1782 as part of a German Singspiel and it was Goethe's intention for it to be sung. The poem was sung to a simple tune that was created by the actress that was to sing the poem.  Schubert wrote the first version of the song in 1815 and continued to revise it until he finalized the fourth version of it in 1820. It had a private hearing that same year and its public premiere in 1821.

Johann Goethe
The poem tells a story about a father riding a horse through the night with his sick child cradled in his arm whose life is threatened by the Erlkönig, which is a supernatural being from Danish folklore that is similar to the Grim Reaper, at least in Goethe's retelling of the folktale.  The child hears the Erlkönig's voice trying to lure him to go with him. The child tells his father who tries to reassure the son by saying it is only the rustling of the leaves in the wind. The father finally reaches his destination after a hard ride, but it was in vain for his son is dead.  

Schubert has 5 distinct representations of people or things in this mini-tone poem, 4 of which are taken up by the singer:
Narrator -Opens the song with the voice being in the middle range of the singer and in a minor key.
Father - Sings in the low register of the singer and in both major keys.
Son - Sings in the high register of the singer and in minor keys.
Erlkönig - Sings up and down the range of the singer in major keys in a lower dynamic.

The fifth representation in the song is the horse that the father is riding, and that part is taken up by the piano. It is this very representation of a horse's beating hoofs in the fathers frantic urging to get the child assistance that is heard first in driving triplets in the right hand:
 The left hand plays a simple figure in triplets going up and quarter notes going down that does nothing more astounding than to outline the chord of G minor, the key of the piece, but which sounds very ominous combined with the right hand triplets. The tempo designation given in the above example, schnell, means fast. The metronome marking (quarter note = 152 note a minute, an editor's addition) is an extremely rapid tempo, for each beat is subdivided into three beats, which means the right hand is pounding out 456 notes a minute, which is roughly 8 notes a second. The right hand keeps up the triplet figuration in octaves and chords practically throughout the entire piece with the exception of a few very brief places and the ending measures. So this piece is not only difficult for singers in that one singer has to convey 4 different entities, but the pianist has a real workout for the roughly 3 1/2 minutes of this piece.

 Below is a translation of the song into English with parts labeled for clarification;
Der Erlkönig
[Narrator]Who rides so late through the windy night?
 There is the father with his child,
he has the boy safe in his arm.
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

[Father]"My son, why do you hide your face?"
[Son]" My father, don't you see the Erlkönig
with his crown and tail?"
[Father] "My son, it is the fog"

[Erlkönig]"You dear child, come with me!
Such lovely games I'll play with you;
Many colorful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has many golden robes."

[Son]"My father, my father, can not you hear,
What the Erlkönig quietly promises me? "
[Father]"Be calm, stay calm, my child,
 in the dry leaves the wind is rustling."

[Erlkönig]"Will you, sweet boy, will you go with me?
My daughters shall wait upon you;
My daughters lead the nightly dances.
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep. "

[Son]"My father, my father, don't you see the
Erlkönig daughters in the dark?"
[Father]"My son, my son, I see it well,
it is the old gray willows."

[Erlkönig]"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
If you're not willing to go, I will force you."
[Son]"My father, my father, he seizes me!
The ErlKing is hurting me! "

[Narrator]The father shudders, he rides swiftly,
holding in his arms the moaning child.
The father reaches his courtyard with toil and hardship;
In his arms the child was dead.


Schubert's song was orchestrated by a few composers such as Berlioz and Reger. Below is a version for orchestra. I'm not sure who did the orchestration, but I think it is by Berlioz:

1 comment:

  1. This may be the most scary, perverse song ever written. Astonishing. Horrific. This king-dude wants, with his dsughters, to love a boy-child, then kills him when the boy's vapid father finally tries to protect his son. Talk about sick! But . . . it's an amazing song.

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