Der Erlkönig — The Erl King, Music by Franz Schubert

Imagine that you’re surrounded by the devil, disturbed by the forces of the darkness. You seek help, and the answer that you get from your peers is that “that is just your illusion, it’s no big deal”.

Then when the darkness finally got you, before you know it, you’re already breathless.

That is the story told by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, adapted by Franz Schubert, Der Erlkönig makes one of the most eerie masterpieces in the history of classical music.

Want some dramatic music for a boring day? Here’s some for you.

creepy forest 600x368 - Der Erlkönig — The Erl King, Music by Franz Schubert

Image @Torley on Flickr. Yes, it’s THE Torley Linden from Second Life, and that’s a tree from Second Life!

The Story

Der Erlkönig speaks of a young boy riding on the father’s horseback as they rushes home to their farm. In the dark eerie night at the forest the boy sees the Erl King, the devil king as he tries to seduce the boy to join him in the darkness. The boy tells the father about what the Erl King is telling him, about the colorful flowers on shore, or the lady who will rock him to sleep, or the girls that will dance with him till the night.

The boy is scared, really scared. He knows that the Erl King is someone bad, and he tells his father about the “promises” that he is giving to him. But the father instead dismisses them as the boy’s illusions, saying that it’s just the rustling of the trees or the wisp of the fog. It’s not the devil, it’s just him, he says.

And the Erl King continues his deadly seduction. When he realizes that sweet talk can’t take the boy, he decided to use force instead. The boy cries as he shouts to his father that the Erl King had grabbed and gotten him, yet too concentrated on his journey the father ignored his pleads.

When they finally reached the farm, the father finds the boy motionless behind him, dead.

The Music

Before we get on to the music, let’s just give you a few pointers on the music. The genius of Franz Schubert had composed the music to be very graphic and lyrical, so even for the beginner classical music listener, it shouldn’t be too difficult to listen and feel. 😉

  1. The song sets in 4 point-of-views, one of the narrator that tells the story, one of the boy, one of the father, one of the Erl King, the devil himself. Listen closely as you will find the boy crying in distress as he is very scared, the father’s deep voice trying to calm down his son while he focuses on the journey, and the Erl King using his sweet voice to coo and seduce the boy.
  2. The repeating fast beats that occur throughout the song from the beginning till the end for the accompaniment is like the galloping of the horse, while the quick runs of the lower sounded instruments are like the Erl King chasing behind. Get picture?
  3. As the singer sings he/she will act according to the characters in the song. You can see, hear and feel the different personalities, even if they’re acted by the same person. Try to find the difference.
  4. Some of the videos may seem pretty old, yes, they may be in black and white, but that doesn’t mean a compromise of quality! Classical music is timeless, while the interpretation 50 years ago may be different with what they do today, it is still pretty good.
  5. If you don’t like the looks of the singers, you can follow the lyrics below, in both the original German and translated English version.

So, are you ready? Take your pick for which version of the music you want to listen by yourself, and let the music take you through to a journey of ups and downs in a few minutes.

Anne Sofie von Otter — Soprano
(Recommended for starters)

Thomas Quasthoff — Bass-Baritone
(Recommended for starters)

Francisco Araiza — Tenor

Eula Beal — Contralto

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau — Baritone

Asato Shizuki — Contralto (Japanese)

Now this one is a pretty special one, the Japanese sure can make something old seem new! Asato Shizuki uses her very own way to sing the song that is totally different from the classical method, if you’re into something new and special, or if you like the Japanese people’s way of exaggerating like what they do in Anime or Manga style, listen to this!

Evgeny Kissin — Piano (Schubert-Liszt Piano Transcription)

Yes, this is a piano version of the song, rearranged by Liszt the crazy piano virtuoso, played by a famous pianist today Evgeny Kissin. Listen to it and see if you can still feel the different personalities in the song. Only this time instead of using different voices to act, the pianist uses different type of piano techniques to differentiate the three personalities, one with a high voice, one with low voice, one with a very sweet tone.

Hilary Hahn — Violin (Schubert-Ernst Violin Transcription)

Considered as one of the most difficult pieces ever written for the violin, Der Erlkönig is squeezed to be played on a violin with all the galloping, the narrator, the boy, the father and the devil. Now that’s a lot of stuff to handle on just one violin, and it’s very, very hard! Do listen to it if you like violin music!

The Lyrics

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,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
“Father, do you not see the Erl king?
The Erl king with crown and tail?”
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”

“You lovely child, come, go with me!
Many a beautiful game I’ll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the shore,
My mother has many golden robes.”

“My father, my father, can’t you hear,
What the Erl king quietly promised me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind rustles through dry leaves.”

“Do you want to come with me, dear boy?
My daughters shall wait on you fine;
My daughters lead the nightly dances
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”

“My father, my father, can’t you see there,
The Erl king’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it well:
The old willows they shimmer so grey.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, I shall use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
The Erl king has done me harm!”

The father shudders; he rides swiftly,
He holds the moaning child in his arms.
He can hardly manage to reach his farm;
In his arms, the child was dead.

So, how was your take?

Did you sit through the music and felt the story? How does it feel? I’m really interested to know! 😀

Do you ever have a sad experience like the boy before, while the end is not may not death, but feeling of helplessness when dealing with the darkness?

And just for me to know, would you like to see more of these kind of classical music appreciation posts on in the future? Or did it bore you to death? 😉

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