Schubert: Der Erlkönig

"Erlkönig" illustration, Moritz von Schwind
 The Erlking by Albert Sterner, ca. 1910


"Erlkönig" (also called "Der Erlkönig") is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It depicts the death of a child assailed by a supernatural being, the Erlking or "Erlkönig" (suggesting the literal translation "alder king"). It was originally composed by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel entitled Die Fischerin.

The poem has been used as the text for Lieder (art songs for voice and piano) by many classical composers.


An anxious young boy is being carried home at night by his father on horseback. To what sort of home is not spelled out; German Hof  has a rather broad meaning of "yard," "courtyard," "farm," or (royal) "court." The lack of specificity of the father's social position allows the reader to imagine the details.

As the poem unfolds, the son seems to see and hear beings his father does not; the father asserts reassuringly naturalistic explanations for what the child sees – a wisp of fog, rustling leaves, shimmering willows. Finally the child shrieks that he has been attacked. The father makes faster for the Hof. There he recognizes that the boy is dead.


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The Legend

The story of the Erlkönig derives from the traditional Danish ballad Elveskud: Goethe's poem was inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder's translation of a variant of the ballad (Danmarks gamle Folkeviser 47B, from Peter Syv's 1695 edition) into German as "Erlkönigs Tochter" ("The Erl-king's Daughter") in his collection of folk songs, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (published 1778). Goethe's poem then took on a life of its own, inspiring the Romantic concept of the Erlking. Niels Gade's cantata Elverskud opus 30 (1854, text by Chr. K. F. Molbech) was published in translation as Erlkönigs Tochter.

The Erlkönig's nature has been the subject of some debate. The name translates literally from the German as "Alder King" rather than its common English translation, "Elf King" (which would be rendered as Elfenkönig in German). It has often been suggested that Erlkönig is a mistranslation from the original Danish elverkonge, which does mean "king of the elves."

In the original Scandinavian version of the tale, the antagonist was the Erlkönig's daughter rather than the Erlkönig himself; the female elves or elvermøer sought to ensnare human beings to satisfy their desire, jealousy and lust for revenge.

Settings to music

The poem has often been set to music with Franz Schubert's rendition, his Opus 1 (D. 328), being the best known.  Other notable settings are by members of Goethe's circle, including the actress Corona Schröter (1782), Andreas Romberg (1793), Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1794) and Carl Friedrich Zelter (1797). Beethoven attempted to set it to music but abandoned the effort; his sketch however was complete enough to be published in a completion by Reinhold Becker (1897). A few other nineteenth-century versions are those by Václav Tomášek (1815), Carl Loewe (1818) and Ludwig Spohr (1856, with obbligato violin) and Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (Polyphonic Studies for Solo Violin). A 21st century example is pianist Marc-André Hamelin's "Etude No. 8 (after Goethe)" for solo piano, based on "Erlkönig".

The Franz Schubert Composition

Hear the Music

Ernestine Schumann-Heink

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Schubert's autograph of a simplified accompaniment to his "Erlkönig", one of several revisions
Franz Schubert composed his Lied, "Erlkönig", for solo voice and piano in 1815, setting text from the Goethe poem. Schubert revised the song three times before publishing his fourth version in 1821 as his Opus 1; it was cataloged by Otto Erich Deutsch as D. 328 in his 1951 catalog of Schubert's works. The song was first performed in concert on December 1, 1820, at a private gathering in Vienna, and received its public premiere on March 7, 1821, at Vienna's Theater am Kärntnertor.

The four characters in the song – narrator, father, son, and the Erlking – are usually all sung by a single vocalist; occasionally, however, the work is performed by four individual vocalists (or three, with one taking the parts of both the narrator and the Erlking).[citation needed] Schubert placed each character largely in a different vocal range, and each has his own rhythmic nuances; in addition, most singers endeavor to use a different vocal coloration for each part.

  1. The Narrator lies in the middle range and is in minor.
  2. The Father lies in the low range and sings both in minor mode and major.
  3. The Son lies in a high range, also in minor.
  4. The Erlking's vocal line, in major, undulates up and down to arpeggiated accompaniment: providing the only break from the ostinato bass triplets in the accompaniment until the boy's death. The Erlking lines are typically sung in a softer dynamic.[citation needed]

A fifth character, the horse, is implied in rapid triplet figures played by the pianist throughout the work, mimicking hoof beats.

"Erlkönig" starts with the piano rapidly playing triplets to create a sense of urgency and simulate the horse's galloping. Meanwhile the bass adds a horror theme to the piece. These motifs continue throughout. Each of the son's pleas become louder and higher-pitched than the previous ones. Near the very end of the piece the music quickens, as the father desperately tries to spur his horse to go faster, and then slows down, as he arrives. The piano stops before the final line, "In seinen Armen das Kind war tot" before ending with a perfect authentic cadence.

The piece is regarded as extremely challenging to perform due to the vocal characterization required of the vocalist as well as its difficult accompaniment, involving the playing of rapidly repeated chords and octaves to create the drama and urgency in the poetry.[citation needed]

The song was transcribed for solo piano by Franz Liszt, and the piano accompaniment was orchestrated by Hector Berlioz. Hans Werner Henze created an Orchesterfantasie über Goethes Gedicht und Schuberts Opus 1 aus dem Ballett "Le fils de l'air". There is also a transcription for solo violin by the violin virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, considered one of the most technically difficult pieces to play for the instrument.[citation needed]

The Carl Loewe composition

Carl Loewe's setting was published as Op. 1, No. 3 and composed in 1817–18, in the lifetime of the poem's author and also of Schubert, whose version Loewe did not then know. Collected with it were Op. 1, No. 1, Edward (1818; a translation of the Scottish ballad), and No. 2, Der Wirthin Töchterlein (1823; The Innkeeper's Daughter), a poem of Ludwig Uhland. Inspired by a German translation of Scottish border ballads, Loewe set several poems with an elvish theme; but although all three of Op. 1 are concerned with untimely death, in this set only the "Erlkönig" has the supernatural element.

Loewe's accompaniment is in semiquaver groups of six in nine-eight time and marked Geschwind (fast). The vocal line evokes the galloping effect by repeated figures of crotchet and quaver, or sometimes three quavers, overlying the binary tremolo of the semiquavers in the piano. In addition to an unusual sense of motion this creates a very flexible template for the stresses in the words to fall correctly within the rhythmic structure.

Loewe's version is less melodic than Schubert's, with an insistent, repetitive harmonic structure between the opening minor key, and answering phrases in the major key of the dominant, which have a stark quality owing to their unusual relationship to the home key. The narrator's phrases are echoed by the voices of father and son, the father taking up the deeper, rising phrase, and the son a lightly undulating, answering theme around the dominant fifth. These two themes also evoke the rising and moaning of the wind.[citation needed] The Elf king, who is always heard pianissimo, does not sing melodies, but instead delivers insubstantial rising arpeggios that outline a single major chord (that of the home key) which sounds simultaneously on the piano in una corda tremolo. Only with his final threatening word, "Gewalt," does he depart from this chord. Loewe’s implication is that the Erlking has no substance, but merely exists in the child’s fevered imagination. As the piece progresses, the first in the groups of three quavers are dotted to create a breathless pace, which then forms a bass figure in the piano driving through to the final crisis. The last words, war tot, leap from the lower dominant to the sharpened third of the home key, this time not to the major but to a diminished chord, which settles chromatically through the home key in the major and then to the minor.


  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2008). "The Erl-King". The Poems of Goethe. translated by Edgar Alfred Bowring. Wildside Press. p. 99. ISBN 9781434462480. 
  • Snyder, Lawrence (1995). German Poetry in Song. Berkeley: Fallen Leaf Press. ISBN 0-914913-32-8.  contains a selective list of 14 settings of the poem
  • "Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?". The Lied and Art Song Texts Page. Retrieved 8 October 2008.  lists 23 settings of the poem
  •  Hamelin's "Erlkönig" on YouTube
  • Machlis, Joseph and Forney, Kristine. "Schubert and the Lied" The Enjoyment of Music: An Introduction to Perceptive Listening. 9th Ed. W. W. Norton & Company: 2003

  • Moser, Hans Joachim (1937). Das deutsche Lied seit Mozart. Berlin & Zurich: Atlantis Verlag. 
  • Loewe, Carl. Friedlaender, Max; Moser, Hans Joachim, eds. Lieder. Leipzig: Edition Peters. 

External links

  • Translation by Matthew Lewis
  • Translation at Poems Found in Translation
  • Songwriter Josh Ritter performs his translation of the poem, titled "The Oak King" on YouTube
  • "Erlkönig" at Emily Ezust's Lied and Art Song Texts Page; translation and list of settings
  • Adaptation by Franz Schubert free recording (mp3) and free score
  • Schubert's setting of "Erlkönig": Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
  • Full score and MIDI file of Schubert's setting of "Erlkönig" from the Mutopia Project
  • Goethe and the Erlkönig Myth
  • Audio for Earlkings legacy (3:41 minutes, 1.7 MB), performed by Christian Brückner and Bad-Eggz, 2002.
  • Paul Haverstock reads Goethe's "Erlkönig" with background music. on YouTub


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