To comment upon this song is almost unnecessary as it is perhaps the best known of all Schubert Lieder. He published it proudly (but not without trouble, and the intervention of his friends) as his Opus 1, and, almost more than any other work, it helped spread and solidify his reputation, in Vienna in his lifetime, and throughout the world after his death. At the end of his life even the wary old Goethe, who had ignored Schubert's attempts to contact him when the composer was alive, was bowled over by a performance of the song by the formidable Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. The song, as Schwarzkopf also proved, can be the domain of a female singer. In Schubert's lifetime it was one of the sure-fire successes of the composer's chosen interpreter Johann Michael Vogl, who nevertheless insisted that a few bars were inserted in one of the song's piano interludes to enable him to catch his breath; (these bars remain, probably to the gratitude of all subsequent singers—would someone had begged the composer to add a few more bars of spinning interlude before Gretchen's final 'Meine Ruh ist hin' in his Opus 2!). The musical incarnations of the poem (its title derived probably from Goethe's teacher Herder, who in turn took it from the Danish) started off in a humble and undramatic way. The character of Dortchen in Goethe's Singspiel Die Fischerin
is made to sing the piece almost automatically, a bailad to be repetitively intoned in almost any situation. Composers, including Goethe's mistress, the actress Corona Schröter, and the ever faithful Reichhardt, set it with alacrity, and one can see why. The poem is perfect for music. It tells a spell-binding and suspenseful story with the greatest economy of means. The rhythm of the poem rolls along in ite own right, and the characters spring to life with the intensity of folksong and the sophistication of great man-made art. The poem was waiting for Schubert, freshly crowned with his ballad-writing baccalaureat (syllabus: Zumsteeg, Zelter, a dash of Salieri), to take it in his youthful embrace. The time-honoured mixture of recitative and arioso in ballad composition is swept aside in favour of an almost frightening organic unity. Only at the very end does Schubert make use of recitative to the most devastating effect. There were those conservatives who felt taken for a ride and who heard an act of rape, but the young and those in tune with a new age knew that the pressing of hard, rude, muscle (whether of horseflesh or pianist's racked torso) was necessary for the words to catch fire, tinder as they had always been for such a composer's inflammable genius.
The boy's fevered terror, and the father's stoic attempts to hide his own worst fears that he will lose his son, are remarkable enough. But the depiction of sweet, reasonable and honeyed evil is something new and sinister. This is not the voice and demeanour of a conventional villain, but that of a torturer with exquisite manners, a person who does the unspeakably cruel with a smile on his lips and in his eyes the psychopathic gleam of an embellished vocal line in the major key, empty of joy and devoid of truth. This is the seductive evil of Peter Quint luring Miles to a spiritual abyss, and it is perhaps in the ability to portray the defilement of innocence that Schubert and Britten have something else in common. Erlkönig is one of those songs that defies age (the composer's, particularly) and defines an age. Like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony it appeals to the great unwashed and the squeaky-clean in equal measure, to those who see something symbolic in the poem, and to those who simply love a rattling good yarn excitingly told. It was that rare thing: a hit that absolutely deserved to be. The four versions vary in this and that detail. We love Schubert ali the more that in one of these he re-writes the fiendish piano triplets as simple quaver duplets. He found it hard for his own piano technique to keep pace with his demands as a composer. There were, however, certain compensations. The composition of this song was also certainly the moment when he knew that no virtuoso pianist whether he was called Hummel, Moscheles, or the Liszt and Horowitz of the future, could hope to match him or play a stronger musical hand.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990
Schuberts berühmter Erlkönig
stammt aus seinem annus mirabilis 1815, in dem er über 140 Lieder komponierte, manchmal sogar drei oder vier innerhalb eines Tages. Das Gedicht stammt aus einem kaum bekannten Singspiel Goethes, Die Fischerin
, das 1782 am Weimarer Hof aufgeführt wurde. Darin singt das Fischermädchen Dortchen die Ballade leise vor sich hin, als sie eines Abends ihre Netze flickt. Goethe erwartete eine schlichte, volksmusikartige Melodie, die Strophe für Strophe wiederholt würde (so geschah es in Weimar auch). Es ist also kaum überraschend, dass er mit Schuberts Vertonung zunächst nicht viel anzufangen wusste, in der das Gedicht zu einer radikalen, durchkomponierten Struktur mit fieberhaften galoppierenden Rhythmen und einer schneidenden dramatischen Kraft, die in dem Coup des benommenen Rezitativs am Schluss gipfelt, umgeformt ist. Der Erlkönig
wurde als Schuberts Opus 1 publiziert und blieb durch das gesamte 19. Jahrhundert hinweg sein beliebtestes Lied. Es entbehrt nicht einer gewissen Ironie, dass der alte Goethe 1830 nach einem Vortrag von der berühmten Primadonna Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient zwei Jahre nach Schuberts Tod einen Sinneswandel hatte und ihr erklärte: „Ich habe diese Komposition früher einmal gehört, wo sie mir gar nicht zusagen wollte, aber so vorgetragen, gestaltet sich das Ganze zu einem sichtbaren Bild.“
aus dem Begleittext von Richard Wigmore © 2011
Deutsch: Viola Scheffel