Monday, October 31, 2011

Der Erlkönig: A Halloween Poem

My recitation of Goethe's poem, Der Erlkönig:

Here is the original text: link
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.

~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


  1. Franz Schubert made a famous setting of the Goethe poem. Goethe was not amused, but eventually relented. He didn't have much choice in those days of nonexistent-to-flakey copyright.

    I'm linking two versions: The first, by Byrn Terfel, is the most dramatic, his beautiful German diction nicely marking the three voices, the father, the son, and the Erlkönig. Unfortunately, Terfel is a little hard to look at. But being Halloween and all, he might reasonably serve as a Troll, if not the Erlkönig himself.

    The second is the classic Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau version. He looks a little weird and porky in this old black-and-white video, but the interpretation is absolutely classic.

    I turned pages for Gerald Moore (Dieskau's accompanist) and Dieskau in college in 1968 when they did this song, among others, in a concert at UC. Fischer-Dieskau had lost a lot of weight by then, but wore pancake makeup and less hair pomade.

    It was a pretty inspiring experience. The three things I remember: How pleasant and professional Gerald Moore was. How Fischer-Dieskau was so completely self-contained but not obnoxious, like, say, Isaac Stern, for whom I also turned pages that year. And how absolutely perfect and utterly clean their interpretations were. Not cold and stiff clean, but appropriate and sensitive clean. Amazing to be that close in person.

    Anyway, that left me with a love for Der Erlkönig as one of my favorite Schubert songs. Many years later, I read it and played it for the boys when they were little. It made a big impression on my oldest. I remember him curled up next to me as we read the text in both German and English (he later turned out to be terrible at languages) and listened to the song. I remember him looking up at me with his big, blue eyes, saying, "But the father was trying to take care of the boy, right?" I said, "Yes. But there are some things even the strongest, most loving father can't help." That, I think, was the beginning of the end of his faith in all-powerful parents. And Der Erlkönig was not a bad place to start that lesson.

  2. Glad to bring back fond memories for you, Tim. A Germanistik grad student at UW Madison (my TA) showed me this poem over 30 years ago. I think he was making a study of it and the theory that it was all a Fieberfantasie on the part of the child.

    Thanks for the cool links. I may buy one off iTunes.