Erlkonig: Music & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Who is the Elf King?
  • 0:59 How is the Story…
  • 2:03 The Story in Song
  • 3:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

One of Franz Schubert's most celebrated songs is 'Erlkonig.' Step into the world of the supernatural and explore the haunting story he dramatized musically in 1815.

Who is the Elf King?

If you like strange and spooky accounts, you've come to the right place. The story on which the song Erlkonig is based could easily be an episode on The Twilight Zone, or one of those scary tales told around the campfire late at night to frighten little children.

Composer Franz Schubert was 18 years old when he came across a poem by Goethe that tells a bizarre story based on an old legend. The story claimed that whoever touched the king of the elves, also called Erlkonig, would die. In the poem, a father is riding on horseback through a storm at night with a sick child in his arms. The boy imagines seeing the Elf King, who wants to take him away. The boy cries out each time the Elf King attempts to entice him away. The story ends sadly as the father and son arrive at their destination and the father realizes his little boy has died. Inspired by the legend and Goethe's ballad, Schubert decided to dramatize the story musically.

How is the Story Arranged Musically?

Schubert wanted to capture the mystery and excitement found in the poem, so he tells it in story form, allowing the events to unfold in real time for the listener. The song is a solo for baritone, and the singer must portray four characters: a narrator, the father, the boy, and the Elf King. Schubert attempts to accomplish this by writing in a medium voice range to represent the narrator, a low voice range to portray the father, and a very high range as the boy cries aloud. The voice of the Elf King is always soothing and seductive.

There are no main melodies in the song, however, Schubert does use several short musical ideas or motives to help unify the various portions of the song. For the introduction and throughout the piece, the piano accompaniment depicts the galloping of the horse. This music is in a minor key and uses a repeated triplet figure to help convey tension. Each time the Elf King sings, it is in a major key as he beckons and tries to lure the child away. Three times the boy cries out 'My father, my father' on high notes harmonized with dissonance.

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