Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Franz Schubert, a German Romantic Composer, was born in Vienna, Austria in 1797 (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 608). He became involved with music at a young age and learned to perform on many instruments including piano, violin, organ, and voice. When he became old enough for a career he followed in his father’s footsteps as a teacher, but Schubert’s heart was always in the composing of music. By 1821, he was able to work completely as a freelance composer and continued to support himself by publications of his works until his early death in 1828 (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 608). He was only thirty-one. Over his short life, Schubert composed an astonishing amount of music. In 1815 alone, the year he composed “Der Erlkönig”, he produced more than one hundred and forty songs (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 608). Schubert loved to write German Lieder, and he “had a gift for creating beautiful melodies that perfectly capture a poem’s character, mood, and situation” (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 609). Most would agree that this is the case with his composition of “Der Erlkönig”.
Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig”
In 1815, Schubert first composed his Lied, “Der Erlkönig”. His original composition is organized for solo voice and piano, although there are many recordings that can be found with a larger group of instruments and vocalists. In his original lied, the vocalist performs the lines of all four characters: the narrator, the father, the son, and the Elf King. The piano, along with supporting the singer, also has its own character to play: the galloping horse implied in rapid triplets throughout the piece.
Each character has its own tone and range, which makes this song difficult to perform by one vocalist. The narrator’s voice stays in a neutral range and sings the first and final stanzas. The next character, the father, is in a lower range mimicking an adult male voice. The son has a higher range, which gradually increases as he becomes more afraid. The Elf-King’s character is performed pianissimo, singing in a very soft, soothing, and eerie tone. Once he realizes he cannot persuade the boy to come with him, the voice changes and harshly gnashes out his last line. After this horrifying crescendo, the rhythm speeds up, imitating the father’s desperation to reach home. Shockingly, as the narrator sings the last stanza and the music slows down, the father reaches his home only to find that, in his arms, his son has died. The last two chords sound with brutal finality.