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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's »Erlkönig« from 1782 is one of the most famous German ballads. In contrast to many other works by Sturm und Drang, »Erlkönig« is not about love; Goethe is addressing this for the first time the magical power of nature. The action takes place on a dark, troubled night. The protagonists, father and son, react differently to the forces of nature that surround them: the adult meets the threat with reason, while the child loses himself in an irrational fantasy world.
Introduction (verses 1 - 2)
A narrator introduces the situation: A father rides through the stormy night with his son in his arms. The boy thinks he sees the mythical figure of the Erlkönig and is scared. The father wants to calm him down; he considers the phenomenon to be wisps of mist.
Main part (verses 3 - 7)
The voice of the Erlkönig woos the child and tries to seduce him to follow him into a land of longing. (3) The Erlkönig first lures the boy with his fairy daughters. (5) Finally, he threatens the desperate child with violence if it does not follow him. (7)
The child turns to his father for help. He tries to calm it down. He explains the voice the child hears with the rustling of the wind. (4) The father recognizes dark, gray willows where the child identifies the Erlkönig's daughters. (6)
Conclusion (verse 8)
With the horrific suspicion of having lost his son to the forces of nature, the father reaches the saving court. His son is dead.
The subject of the "Erlkönig" comes from Danish songs and was translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803). Goethe took up the theme and initially designed the ballad as the opening for his Singspiel "Die Fischerin". While the operetta, which premiered in Tiefurth near Weimar in 1782, was forgotten, the "Erlkönig" has found its place in the canon of German poetry.
Franz Schubert (1797–1828) set Goethe's poem »Erlkönig« to music for piano and voice in 1815. The art song was premiered in Vienna in 1821. An earlier setting by Johann Friedrich Reichardt took place in 1794, another in 1797 Friedrich Zelter. The composition of Carl Loewe from 1818. The recording is from more recent times Achim Reichel on his pop CD "Wilder Wassermann" (2002). Choir settings are available from Tapani Länsiö (2002) or Huub de Lange (2004).
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