If you were going to sit down and just focus on any song in this countdown, make it this one. Take four and a half minutes, and treat yourself. Follow along with the lyrics below, and enjoy being thoroughly spooked by the end (in a breathtakingly artistic way, of course). When I showed this to my students last week, the song ended, and they all looked up at me wide-eyed and slightly, deliciously horrified. I had the same reaction when I was introduced to this piece as an undergrad.
Music by Franz Schubert, 1815; lyrics by Goethe
Schubert was precocious. By the time he died at the age of 31, he’d written over 600 lieder or German art songs, several chamber works, and nine symphonies. He pulled “Der Erlkönig” out of his hat when he was only 18, and it is among the best known and most celebrated songs of his 600 lieder.
“Der Erlkönig” tells the story of a father riding home late at night on his horse, holding his young son in his arms by his side. As they ride, the son cries out in fear of the Erlking (sometimes translated as the Elf King, sometimes not) who whispers in the son’s ear and wishes to steal him away.
Part of what makes “Der Erlkönig” fabulous is how the soloist and accompanist work together to paint the scene. The accompanist maintains a triplet pattern in the right hand throughout the piece that is, like the horse’s frantic galloping it represents, physically exhausting.
The soloist, meanwhile, covers four characters. In order of their appearance, they are:
- Narrator—middle register, minor mode
- Father—low register, minor mode; reassuring
- Son—high register, minor mode; frightened
- Erlking—medium range, major mode; coaxing, then insistent
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the soloist featured in this version, inflects each of these parts slightly differently, and watching him capture the characters while still not overacting is part of the genius of his performance. Notice that Schubert makes the Erlkönig frightening by putting his lines in a major mode, kind of like a scary clown. I love that this was effectively creepy back in 1815 too, 199 years ago.
So what happens in the story? Well, you have to listen and find out. Follow the text and English translation below.
NARRATOR (minor mode, middle range)
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
er fasst ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
It is a father with his child;
he has the boy close in his arm,
he holds him tight, he keeps him warm.
FATHER (low range)
SON (high range)
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron’ und Schweif?”
The Erlking with his crown and train?”
FATHER (low range)
ERLKING (major mode, melodic)
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand;
meine Mutter hat manch’ gülden Gewand.”
I’ll play very lovely games with you.
There are lots of colorful flowers by the shore;
my mother has some golden robes.”
SON (high range, frightened)
was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”
the Erlking whispering promises to me?”
FATHER (low range, calming)
in dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”
it’s the wind rustling in the dry leaves.”
ERLKING (major mode, cajoling)
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reih’n
und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”
My daughters will take care of you;
my daughters lead the nightly dance,
and they’ll rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”
SON (high range, dissonant outcry)
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”
the Erlking’s daughters over there in the shadows?”
FATHER (low range, reassuring)
es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.”
it’s the gray sheen of the old willows.”
ERLKING (loving, then insistent)
und bist du nicht willig, so brauch’ ich Gewalt.”
And if you’re not willing, then I’ll use force.”
SON (high range, terrified)
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids gethan!”
The Erlking has hurt me!”
NARRATOR (middle register, speechlike)
er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
erreicht den Hof mit Müh und Noth:
in seinen Armen das Kind war todt.
he holds the moaning child in his arms;
with effort and urgency he reaches the courtyard:
in his arms the child was dead.