Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Music in the 19th Century: Franz Schubert and "Der Erlkönig"

I've talked about how the 19th century saw many different movements in music, not just romanticism. But romanticism was most certainly an important and powerful trend. The earliest important composer in this area was Franz Schubert (1797 - 1828) who died tragically young at age thirty-one. Despite this, he wrote a huge amount of music in all the important genres. About two-thirds of his compositions were songs of which he wrote 630! This is representative of a significant shift from the big public genres to more private, domestic, music-making. During his short life, Schubert was primarily known for his music for piano, piano duet and his songs, all of which were performed in intimate salon settings. This is introspective music, exploring different kinds of consciousness than the symphony or opera. One of Schubert's most powerful songs, Der Erlkönig, was written in 1815 when he was only eighteen years old. The text is by Goethe. Here it is in a literal translation:

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

"My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?"
"Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?"
"My son, it's a wisp of fog."

"You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I'll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has some golden robes."

"My father, my father, and don't you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves."

"Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep."

"My father, my father, and don't you see there
The Elfking's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, then I will use force."
"My father, my father, he's grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me some harm!"

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.

There are four 'characters' in the poem: the narrator, the son, the father and the Elfking. Well, actually five as the horse both father and son are riding on is represented in the galloping triplets in the piano! The father and the son see different realities: the son, the Elfking and his daughters, but the father just wisps of fog. Here is an extraordinary performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, perhaps the greatest lieder (German word for 'songs' which signifies this kind of musical genre) singer of all time:

Notice how he changes vocal color and expression for each 'character'. The music changes mode from minor to major for the lines sung by the Elfking, which accords well with the singer's eerie smile during this part of the song. The tonal scheme of the song is also brilliantly fashioned, but we will get involved with Schubert's harmonic innovations in another post. For now, just enjoy the remarkably achievement of this song: the representation of subtle states of consciousness in music. For this is the very starting point of Romanticism.


RG said...

I don't "like" the story in the poem -- way too dark. (E.g. I don't like Dostoyevsky.) But I find it instructive to compare them with the Radiohead "lyrics" you posted a couple of days ago. Even though I don't like the Goethe, something, Art or whatnot, of significance is going on there that is not even hinted at in the later chants.

RG said...


Your screening system asks "Please prove you're not a robot". But its visual puzzles are so demanding that I have to try 3 or 4 times before I satisfy its snobby strictness. My repeated failures at proving myhumanity are sometimes disconcering and make me suspect that my robot parents adopted me out when I was a microchip. Could you ask your blog host to go back to the easier patterns, for mixed-race types like me?

Bryan Townsend said...

I had no idea that Blogger was putting everyone through such hurdles! As I am always signed in to Gmail on my blogging computer, I don't have to pass this test. Sorry! I'm afraid I don't have any control over the process. But perhaps you can stay signed in to the blog? Don't know, but worth trying?

Yes, the lyrics to the Radiohead songs are very odd indeed. Perhaps thin and vacuous is the word...