The poem of 'Erlkönig'—adapted from a Danish folk ballad—comes from a little-known Goethe play with music, Die Fischerin
, performed at the Weimar court in 1782. The fisher-girl of the title, Dortchen, sings it softly to herself one evening as she mends her nets. What Goethe expected (and, in Weimar, got) was a simple quasi-folk tune repeated for each verse. Schubert in 1815 recreated the poem in music of searing dramatic power. Loewe’s song, composed two years later, is less violently ‘interventionist’ than Schubert’s, more faithful to the externals of the narrative—doubtless part of its appeal to Goethe—but hardly less powerful. Wagner, for one, far preferred the Loewe setting. Where Schubert immediately establishes an atmosphere of panic with the feverishly pounding hooves, Loewe initially depicts the eerily rustling leaves, with the galloping motion merely implied. Only after the father’s first, comforting words to the sick boy does the galloping rhythm become explicit. The hypnotically repeated nursery tune for the Erlking’s words acquires a seductive-sinister twist from the flicking grace notes; and while Loewe’s song is generally more restrained than Schubert’s, his ending, conversely, is more melodramatic, with pregnant silences and a ‘shock’ diminished seventh chord on ‘tot’.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2011