Real things in the darkness seem no realer than dreams.
— Murasaki Shikibu
Nacht und Wind
The first sound is a rhythm, a staccato burst of piano triplets beneath a brief, rising and falling melody evoking hoof-beats. A horse races through a windswept wood at night, bearing a beleaguered boy and his worried father towards safety. The tone is tense, the tempo swift, the key: E minor. The ominous intro repeats, its jackhammer speed straining the pianist’s widespread fingers. A booming voice begins to sing, in the language the devil in Thomas Mann’s musical novel Doctor Faustus calls “good old German.” It tells of a boy menaced by both nightmare and neglect – by a spectral predator only he can sense and a disbelieving father who thinks his frightened, possibly feverish, son is imagining things.
Rhythms recur, maintaining tension, but the song’s tune is through-composed. Each musical line uniquely complements a corresponding line of text. Singer and composer masterfully interweave characters – narrator, father, son, supernatural villain (and horse, on the piano) – giving each a distinct sonic personality. Urgency grows as manifestations increase; the dark figure whispers temptations only the boy can hear. His terror compounds with each paternal reassurance until, finally, a cold claw of his phantom assailant seems to grip his pounding heart. The father’s steed completes its trek; hoof-beats – and piano triplets – cease. But safety comes too late: the boy arrives dead.
It is one of the finest performances of one of the world’s great songs. Written by Schubert and most famously performed and recorded by lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore, for three and a half riveting minutes – the length of a classic 45 single – it flawlessly balances words and music, content and form. Its text source is a poem by Goethe; its musical idiom, Lied or art-song. Its title is “Der Erlkönig,” which is German for “Erl-King,” but it’s unclear what an Erl-King is supposed to be – only that it, or a fantasy of it, takes the boy’s life before the song’s final chords.
(Note: multiple English translations of “Der Erlkönig” exist; I’ll be referencing those of Edgar Alfred Bowring, 1853, and Edwin Zeydel, 1955).
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
Schubert: “Der Erlkönig,” Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau & Gerald Moore, 1959
“Der Erlkönig” is the best known Lied by the greatest composer of the form, the Austrian genius Franz Schubert (1797-1828). First published and publicly performed in 1821, the song sets to music the 1782 poem of the same name by German cultural titan Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Neither the first nor last adaptation, critical and popular consensus rate it the best.