I learned this song when I was in a German class. The teacher used this song to teach grammar and make exercise. Given the poem piece by piece, we were asked to reassemble the whole poem, based on grammar logic and flow of a story line (you can create your own, as long as it makes sense.)

Goethe makes this poem so interesting because of its ambiguity and open for interpretation. Goethe's poem begins with a young boy being brought home by his father. You don’t know what happen to the boy and the father. But it seems that the boy is in pain and illness and sees death in his imagination. At the end, the child is dead. The words are so vivid that you can visualize the tension and despair.

I remember that my final piece was different from Goethe's version, but it seemed to say the same sorrowful story, regarding the desire and despair. But my interpretation is quite a relatively dark one. (Something like the father keeps disregarding the son’s plea, therefore, the son decides to go for total destruction…)

The poem has been used as the text for lieder (art songs for voice and piano) by many classical composers. The best version is definitely Schubert's composition.
The song has an abundant storyline, which challenges the singer to perform different roles in quite a speedy way. The singer will play the role of the narrator, the Father, the Son and the Erlkönig with different vocal ranges, rhythmic nuances and vocal colors.

What is as challenging as vocal is the piano accompanist. There are very rapid triplet figures throughout the work to mimic the fast riding horse in the dark night to pass a dark forest. Strong piano notes bring the passing of time and space in the journey of Father & Son where they encountered Erlkönig. Variation in tempo and intensity of chords creates the horror, tension and urgency.

No doubt, Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with piano is my best choice. He remains as a pure expression of lieder while still interprets the dramatic and controversy nature of the poem. (The pianist in this version is also incredible.)

However, female vocal with orchestra provides different scenario and imagination of the song. Here is Anne Sofie von Otter’s performance with Orchestra. She is such a dramatist, especially at the ending; orchestra forwards the music like a swirl!

What I really like about this song is not only the beauty and deep meaning of the lyrics, the tension of lyricism and drama composed by the melody but also the incredible composition of accompany piano. I have seen the score sheet and it is a killer piece. Liszt, as one might know, transcribed this song into a solo piano, which is not less impressive than the vocal version.

Now listen to Richter play: absolutely phenomenal, crazy power to describe the contrast and chaos embedded in the poem. He is more consistent in tempo as the vocal version.

Another piano piece to show is Kissin’s version. Seeing his hands and body, you can say, playing piano is a sports, definitely needs to practice muscle and use weight to create power. Kissin is with more control in clarity while still demonstrates power. He handles the tempo with larger variation. I like his control to contrast the sweetness of Erlkönig's temptation verse and the angst and tension among the Father and the Son.

Poem by Goethe (in German)

Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

"Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?" —
"Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?" —
"Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif."

"Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel' ich mit dir;
Manch' bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand." —

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?" —
"Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind." —

"Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein." —

"Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?" —
"Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. —"

"Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt." —
"Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!" —

Dem Vater grauset's, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh' und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

English translation

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.

"My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?"
"Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?"
"My son, it's a wisp of fog."

"You lovely child, come, go with me!
Many a beautiful game I'll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the shore,
My mother has many golden robes."

"My father, my father, can't you hear,
What the Elfking quietly promised me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind rustles through dry leaves."

"Do you want to come with me, dear boy?
My daughters shall wait on you fine;
My daughters lead the nightly dances
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep."

"My father, my father, can't you see there,
The Elfking's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it well:
The old willows they shimmer so grey."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, I shall use force."
"My father, my father, he's grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!"

The father shudders; he rides swiftly,
He holds the moaning child in his arms.
He can hardly manage to reach his farm;
In his arms, the child was dead.
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  • Leona
  • Oh I have Kissin's piano version of this piano piece, he made such an interesting contrast between the two voices. You could picture the soaring wind, the innocent boy and the comforting father who couldn't sense the danger.

    I first heard of this piece (a tenor with piano accompaniment# a few years ago, it left me with a deep impression because of the enormous technical demand. There was indeed a very interesting story behind this piece: Unlike other composers, Schubert didn't spend days composing this piece. In fact, he just spent a few hours #or even less) sitting in a cafe, writing this piece after reading the poem you've mentioned above. This piece is the signature piece showing Schubert's musical talent and his high skill on improvisation.

    The videos you've posted above show some very interesting contrasts
  • 版主
  • Thanks Leona, long time no see!

    Thanks for your information regarding Schubert's composition of the piece. I think he is definitely a genius in transforming literature into music. For me, he is not only a composer, he can be a theatric director with strong kinesthetic talents.

    This lieder is extremely challenging because artists need to easily fulfill the enormous technical demand first then can speak about the expression and interpretation of the poem. Plus the poem itself is another master piece.