Like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” feels more like an epic film than merely a song. Composed in 1815 when Schubert was still a teenager, it retells a Scandinavian folktale about an evil elf who … <ahem> … murders young children.
Written for voice and piano, the piece presents ghoulish challenges for both performer and listener. Like a one-man show, the singer must impersonate four separate characters while trying to differentiate each one through vocal coloring. The pianist, in turn, needs wrists of steel to pull off the brutal repeated notes in the accompaniment.
Your job, as listener, is to follow the storyline, which goes something like this: A father and son are on horseback galloping through a dark forest late at night, as we all enjoy doing from time to time. The boy is hallucinating, terrified that an Elf-king, which only he can see, is out to get him. The father reassures him, Your eyes are deceiving you, my son, tricked by the sights and sounds of the forest. Meanwhile, the Elf-king is trying to lure the boy away as a narrator explains what is happening. By the end of it, you may be surprised at how much drama has transpired in the space of four minutes.
“Erlkönig” is one of Schubert’s most influential and well-known works, set to text by the great writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Apparently, Goethe was not fond of Hollywood endings, as the final scene has the father clutching his child’s lifeless body.
Here is a recording of the piece, with animation that cleverly tracks the plotline. Below the clip is a plot guide and some links for those wanting to dig deeper into the composition.
Guide to the video clip
0:11 Piano introduction evoking a galloping horse.
0:33 Narrator says a father and child are on horseback, riding through a forest late at night. The father is holding the boy close to him. They are heading home.
1:07 Father asks son why he is hiding his face in fear.
1:15 Son replies, “Father, do you not see the Elf-king?”
1:31 Father tries to reassure son that it’s just a streak of fog.
1:41 The Elf-king makes his first appearance, trying to lure the boy away with flowers and games.
2:06 The terrified boy pleads with his father: Can’t you hear what the Elf-king is saying?
2:19 Father tells the boy to stay calm, saying it’s just the sound of leaves rustling in the wind.
2:29 Elf-king cajoles the boy, saying that his daughters will take care of him.
2:47 The boy exclaims, “My father, my father … don’t you see there the Elf-king’s daughters …”?
2:59 Father tells son that it’s nothing more than the silhouette of the old willow trees.
3:17 Elf-king tries one last time to entice the boy, this time threatening force.
3:28 Boy screams that the Elf-King is grabbing him.
3:43 The narrator reappears, saying that the father, who is starting to feel a sense of dread, is now clutching his shuddering child. When they arrive home, the father discovers that he is holding a lifeless body in his arms.
“Erlkönig” has been arranged for solo piano, solo violin, string septet, voice and orchestra, and many other instruments. Even the a cappella group Swingle Singers couldn’t resist taking a crack at it. The song is set to a poem written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, available here.