Beethoven’s “Der Erlkönig”
Notes by Margaret Scialdone
Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” tells the story of a boy riding home on horseback in his father’s arms. He is frightened when he hears the seductive voice of the Erl King, a powerful and creepy supernatural being. The Erl King attempts to lure the child into joining him, promising amusement, rich clothes and the attentions of his daughters. He tells his father, who assures the child that it’s just his imagination. Suddenly the boy shrieks that the Erl king has done him harm! The father breaks into a gallop, and reaches home only to find that the boy is dead.
Der Erlkonig was set to music by several composers, Schubert’s version being the best known. Beethoven’s setting heard here, is WoO 131. Can you hear the four distinct voices?
Who rides so late through the night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy in his arms;
he holds him safely, he keeps him warm.
‘My son, why do you hide your face in fear?’
‘Father, can you not see the Erlking?
The Erlking with his crown and tail?’
‘My son, it is a streak of mist.’
‘Sweet child, come with me.
I’ll play wonderful games with you.
Many a pretty flower grows on the shore;
my mother has many a golden robe.’
‘Father, father, do you not hear
what the Erlking softly promises me?’
‘Calm, be calm, my child:
the wind is rustling in the withered leaves.’
‘Won’t you come with me, my fine lad?
My daughters shall wait upon you;
my daughters lead the nightly dance,
and will rock you, and dance, and sing you to sleep.’
‘Father, father, can you not see
Erlking’s daughters there in the darkness?’
‘My son, my son, I can see clearly:
it is the old grey willows gleaming.’
‘I love you, your fair form allures me,
and if you don’t come willingly, I’ll use force.’
‘Father, father, now he’s seizing me!
The Erlking has hurt me!’
The father shudders, he rides swiftly,
he holds the moaning child in his arms;
with one last effort he reaches home;
the child lay dead in his arms.
(Translation by Richard Wigmore)