“Erlkönig” (Franz Schubert) – Interpretation Guide
18. April 2020
„Der Erlkönig” is a famous ballad by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written in 1778 as part of a singspiel. It tells the story of a father riding home with his ill son by night through the woods. The son has increasingly severe hallucinations of a creature he calls the alder king who he imagins speaks to him and attempts to pull him into his kingdom. The father tries to calm the child and hurries to get back home with him. When he enters his court, the boy has died in his arms.
This article provides a linguistic and musical analyis of Franz Schubert’s composition of “Erlkönig” to give singers a guide for interpretation.
Der Erlkönig (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
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 gehn?
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 grausets, er reitet geschwind,
er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
erreicht den Hof mit Müh und Not;
in seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
The story goes back to the traditional Danish ballad “Elverskud” where the elf-king’s daughters try to lure humans to satisfy their desires. The Danish “elverkonge” originally means “king of the elves” and has nothing to to with alders (the German “Erlkönig” translates literally as “Alder King”). It has often been suggested that “Erlkönig” is a mistranslation.
Approaches of Interpretation
The story has been interpreted in several ways:
1. The first is more or less similar to the actual text: the boy is ill and hallucinates because of his high fever of which he dies in the end.
2. The boy is a victim of sexual abuse through the father who is shown with two faces: the abusive father (the Erlkönig) and the good, protective father who tries to blandish his deeds by calming the child and telling him that he imagines things.
3. A third variant is that the Erlkönig is a symbol for the boy’s awakening lust of puberty and that he attempts to pull the boy into his kingdom with erotic fantasies. The boy loses his innocence and his childhood. His death stands for the entering of the adult world, sexuality and his breaking away of his family. The father tries to prevent that by bringing him back home in time, but the arising male urges cannot be stopped.
Linguistic and Formal Analysis
The poem consists of eight stanzas with four verses in the pattern AABB. This accentuates the dialogue-like character of the ballad, e.g. in the dialogues between father and son. The son opens each stanza with the question if the father didn’t hear or see the Erlkönig (V13/14, V21/22). The father answers always rationally, explaining the images as being natural phenomena (fog, dried leaves, old willow trees). Goethe was one of the first writers of nature-magical ballads that showed the conflict between popular beliefs (son) and the ratio of the enlightened man (father).
The ballad has been set to music by several composers. This article treats the version of Franz Schubert who composed this art song in 1815. He revised the song three times before publishing it in 1821. Schubert’s “Erlkönig” is through-composed with a constantly changing harmonic structure as the piece modulates within characters.
In the ballad, four people are represented by a single singer: a narrator, the father, the son and the alder king. Each person has its own range of voice and many singers give each part a different colour of voice.
The narrator sings in middle range, starting in minor key.
The father sings in deep range, singing in minor and major mode.
The son sings in the highest range, mostly in minor mode.
The Erlkönig sings in mid range and in major mode
The Music of Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig”
The song starts with a piano foreplay; the music is agitated, imitating the rhythm of horse hooves with rapid triplets and introducing a leitmotif in the left hand. The first words are sung by the narrator, the melody starts in g minor: “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind? Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.” [Who rides that late through night and wind? It is the father with his child.] Both, the words and the music create a spooky and sinister atmosphere. All vocals (except the “I” in “Wind” and “Kind”) are dark sounds, adding to the gloomness. Although “spät” is held for three quarters (and you of course may breathe after it), the phrase should not be interrupted. Make sure to hold the tension until “Wind”.
The next words show a contrast and describe how the father protectively holds the child in his arms: “Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm, er fasst ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.” [He has the child well in his arm, he holds him safely, he holds him warm.].
We are zooming in on the rider and ending in a close-up of father and son until we can hear them speak to each other: “Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?” [My son, why are you looking so fearful?]. The father’s part starts a fifth deeper than the narrator’s, beginning with a low D and moves within small intervals (a third being the largest). The rising, temporarily even chromatic melody line shows that the father, despite his calm words, is worried. And he has every reason to be: the son tells him in a fearful whisper (pp) about a creature, the Erlkönig, he imagines seeing: “Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht? Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?” [Father, don’t you see the alder king? The alder king with crown and cape?]. By the way: the German word “Schweif” not only means ‘cape’ or ‘train’ but also ‘tail’ which may be a sexual allusion.
The father, tries to calm his son by telling him that he has mistoken the fog for a person. “Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif” [My son, it is a streak of fog.].
Enter the Erlkönig! It is almost as if he were sitting right next to the boy, whispering into his ear: “Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir! Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit Dir;” [You lovely child, come, go with me! I will play wonderful games with you.]. The accompaniment changes for the first time, letting the hooves no longer sound agitated in a gloomy atmosphere but almost creating the impression of a joyful, carefree carriage ride in the sun. It is also notable, that the part begins and ends in a major key. The Erlkönig uses his power of seduction, beckoning the child to come with him, promising him “wonderful games” (again maybe a sexual allusion) and trying to lure the boy with [colourful flowers] (“bunte Blumen”) and [golden robes] (“gülden Gewand”).
The boy is scared and wants to have the father’s confirmation of what he had just heard: ”Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht, was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?” [My father, my father and do you not hear what alder king is promising me?]. The melody is dominated by chromatics, increasing the expression of the boy’s fear and despair. Note, that the first part of the sentence (until “hörest du nicht”) is sung forte, while the second part is in piano, almost as if the boy was afraid of saying aloud what he experienced. Also, the plea is higher in pitch than the first one.
The father, however, does not give an answer to the boy’s question but commands him to be quiet: “Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind; in dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.” [Be calm, stay calm, my child; the wind is rustling through dried leaves.]. As before, we can hear the worry underneath the calming words.
Once again, the accompaniment changes, becoming almost dance-like, when the Erlkönig appears a second time:”Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn? Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön; meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein“ [Precious boy, do you not want to go with me? My daughters will wait on you, my daughters lead the nightly dance and rock and dance and sing you to sleep.]. The last part (“und singen und tanzen…”) is repeated, emphasizing the feeling of a dance or even a lullaby.
The boy is even more agitated now and shouts out to his father that he sees Erlkönig’s daughters: “Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?” [My father, my father, and do you not see Erlkönig’s daughters in the gloomy place?]. A last time, the father tries to soothe the boy: “Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau, es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau“ [My son, my son, I see it clearly, there shimmer the old willows so grey.] Schubert gives this answer an even more agitated touch by inserting two fifth steps (“mein Sohn”, “genau”) and expanding the range to an octave. This and the fact that the father’s part for the first time end in a minor key show that he is very alarmed.
When the Erlkönig now appears for the last time, he does not bother to sugarcoat his intentions any longer; his words are explicit: “Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt, und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt!“ [I love you, I am excited by your beautiful body and if you are not willing, then I will use force!]
The piano accompaniment has not changed this time, which adds to the expressed threat. The harmonies are characterized by dissonances and an increase in volume, and the loudest part of the song (fff) is the Erlkönig’s last words “so brauch ich Gewalt!”
The boy’s reaction comes almost instantly, and he cries out in horror and dispair: “Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an! Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!” [My father, my father, he is touching me now! Erlkönig has hurt me!]. It is a statement now, no longer a question, that the boy, crazed with fear and having lost all control, cries out at the top of his voice. Note that the father does not reply to him now. He himself is overwhelmed with horror (or guilt). Words are no longer of use; he is forced to act.
The Lied enters its final part where the narrator describes the father’s feelings and reaction: “Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind, er hält in den Armen das ächzende Kind“ [the father is terrified, he is riding swiftly on, he holds the groaning child in his arms]. The narrator as well is agitated which shows in the ascending notes, culminating in the word “ächzende” and the accelerando that drives the song to its end. After this agitated ride, symbolized by the piano with volume, increasing tempo and dynamics, the father finally reaches his farm or courtyard. “Erreicht den Hof mit Müh und Not;“ [he reaches the courtyard with great difficulties ]. The tempo slows down and the accompaniment stops completely after “Müh und Not”, adding an even more dramatic effect to the last words: “In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.” [In his arms the child was dead]. As the piano has ceased to play, rhythm and tempo vanish into the background and the last words “war tot” have an almost recitative-like Quality.
It is notable that the last verb is in the past tense (“war tot” [was dead]) while the whole ballad is written in the present tense. As mentioned before, this could indicate that the boy’s innocence died due to a sexual abuse or that he crossed the threshold from boy to man.
Schubert’s “Erlkönig” is a masterpiece of the Romantic Age and the genre of through-composed art songs that started for a reason with Franz Schubert.
At his time, Schubert’s setting to music of the “Erlkönig” with all its complicated harmonies and dissonances was something totally new to the audience. Nevertheless (or because of that) it was celebrated as a masterpiece. The composition is daring, virtuous, hard to sing and to accompany. But even more so, it is close to the text, incredibly expressive and emotional.
There are those rare occasions where famous texts find a suitable artistic representation that become inextricably linked with the original. Schubert’s music of Goethe’s ballad “Der Erlkönig” is an example for that.