Here is a setting that should have pleased Goethe had he bothered to have it played to him. It was included in the selection of songs that Schubert sent the great poet in 1816. It seems to have been modelled on Zelter's 1812 setting in A minor, deliberately archaic with a modal touch to summon up the Gothic world of Faust
and the simplicity of Gretchen, the girl who sang it in Part One, Scene 8 of the play as she reflected on her first meeting with the eponymous hero or antihero. Schubert's setting eclipses Zelter's of course; without even trying, the nineteen-year-old Viennese can beat the earnest and elderly Berliner, but not so resoundingly that we fail to hear the homage. These strophic verses are originally more or less in death's key of D minor, but there is a harmonic ambiguity (the opening eight bar phrase, for example, starts on the subdominant and ends on the dominant without the sharpened leading note) which disguises and obscures the real tonality, an analogue perhaps for the fact that kings never can believe, and are never openly told, that they are going to die. The tune is extraordinarily simple, but mournfully and hypnotically beautiful, a timeless folksong collected fresh from the fields of Schubert's imagination. Like any work of art so simple in substance that it is an open-ended enigma, the song can be interpreted in many ways. In its original context Gretchen is artless and hums an old ballad, but who would now care to perform the ballad Erlkönig
in the phlegmatic spirit of its original context of a ditty sung while mending nets on the seashore? Der König in Thule
concentrates on a man's last and desperate link with love, an object of sentimental value which cannot be taken beyond the grave. The song is seen here as a heartrending commentary on constancy (exactly what Gretchen, were she only to know it, will fail to receive in her dealings with Faust), the bitter loneliness of bereavement, and the uselessness of wealth and power once love is no longer part of life.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991