The Supernatural in Music
VIII. The Voice of Fear: Touched by the King of the Elves

Max von Schwind: Der Erlkönig

Max von Schwind: Der Erlkönig

In the Romantic era, as we’ve seen with in earlier articles (VI. Possessed by the Demon & VII. The Wolf’s Glen), there was a fascination with other worldly things – demons and sprites, ghosts and devils. Since this was part of the poetry as well, we also find these being set as songs.

The poet Wolfgang Goethe wrote a ballad about a child who is stolen away by a supernatural being, while his father is helpless to aid him.

‘Erlkönig,’ D. 328 (Text: 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]4 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 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’s riding so late through night, so wild?
It is the father who’s holding his child;
He’s tucked the boy secure in his arm,
He holds him tight and keeps him warm.

“My son, why hide you your face in fear?”

“See you not, father, the Erl King near?
The Erl King in his crown and train?”
“My son, ‘tis but a foggy strain.”

“Sweet lovely child, come, go with me!
What wonderful games I’ll play with thee;
Flowers, most colorful, yours to behold.
My mother for you has garments of gold.”

“My father, my father, and can you not hear
What Erl King is promising into my ear?”
“Be calm, stay calm, o child of mine;
The wind through dried leaves is rustling so fine.”

“Wouldst thou, fine lad, go forth with me?
My daughters should royally wait upon thee;
My daughters conduct each night their song fest
To swing and to dance and to sing thee to rest.”

“My Father, my father, and can you not see
Erl King’s daughters, there by the tree?”
“My son, my son, I see it clear;
The ancient willows so grey do appear.”

“I love thee, I’m aroused by thy beautiful form;
And be thou not willing, I’ll take thee by storm.”
“My father, my father, he’s clutching my arm!
Erl King has done me a painful harm!”

The father shudders and onward presses;
The gasping child in his arms he caresses;
He reaches the courtyard, and barely inside,
He holds in his arms the child who has died.

Translated Walter Meyer



The poem begins with a commentary by an unnamed narrator that sets the scene. The internal stanzas are split between the father and son, while the ethereal ‘Erl King’ has his own stanzas where he entices the child with offers of games, flower, fine clothes. After each offer, the child appeals to his father and his father attempts to comfort the increasingly hysterical child by telling him that all he’s seeing are natural things: fog, leaves rustling, or grey willow trees. We know the child is lost when the Erl King’s normal 4 lines are shortened and, in that same stanza, the child makes one last appeal and his father does not respond. The narrator returns and tells us of the father’s horrific discovery of the dead child in his arms just as he arrives in a place of safety.

To us, today, the most evocative setting of this poem was Franz Schubert’s 1815 version – we are swept up immediately by the urgency of the piano, playing the part of the horse carrying the father and child. Schubert is also careful to set the various voices of the characters: the secure father, the high voice of the child, and the enticing voice of the Erl King. Listen for the last line as the horse slows, stops, and the narrator gives us the final verdict: ‘tot’ (dead), followed by a final cadence in the piano.

Schubert: ‘Erlkönig’ (Fischer-Dieskau)

Schubert: ‘Erlkönig’ (Matthias Goerne)

To us, the drama inherent in the setting is a perfect realization of Goethe’s miniature horror story. For Goethe, however, this setting was too noisy – for him, the pounding piano detracted from the poetic finery. Goethe is supposed to have preferred a more ordinary setting such as that by Carl Zelter or Carl Loewe, which to our ears, after the excitement of Schubert’s setting, sound quite banal. In Zelter’s setting the piano no longer is an active participant but merely accompaniment. Rather than anticipating what will happen in the story, it placidly follows the lead of the voice.

Carl Zelter: ‘Erlkönig’ (Hans Jörg Mammel)

In Carl Loewe’s more emotional setting, we have some of the elements that we like in Schubert’s setting: the various voices that the singer assumes to portray the different characters, but again, the piano is more accompaniment than active participant. The shudder on the final word, ‘tot’ (dead), however, is really intended to make the audience shudder as well.

Carl Loewe: ‘Erlkönig (Hermann Prey)

All of these settings played on the darkest fears of any parent: the loss of child by supernatural means that they are powerless to prevent. All of this was much in keeping with the overly heightened feelings of the Romantic era.

More Anecdotes

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