Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

Lied: Erlking  (Erlkönig) – (1815-1821)

Here’s the full piece:


(English Translation of the Poem by Goethe)


stanza 1:
Who’s riding so late through night, so wild?
It is the father who’s holding his child;
He’s tucked the boy secure in his arm,
He holds him tight and keeps him warm.


stanza 2:
“My son, why hide you your face in fear?”
“See you not, father, the Erl King near?
The Erl King in his crown and train?”
“My son, ’tis but a foggy strain.”


stanza 3:
Sweet lovely child, come, go with me!
What wonderful games I’ll play with thee;
Flowers, most colorful, yours to behold.
My mother for you has garments of gold.”


stanza 4:
My father, my father, and can you not hear
What Erl King is promising into my ear?”
Be calm, stay calm, o child of mine;
The wind through dried leaves is rustling so fine.”


stanza 5:
Wouldst thou, fine lad, go forth with me?
My daughters should royally wait upon thee;
My daughters conduct each night their song fest
To swing and to dance and to sing thee to rest.”


stanza 6:
My Father, my father, and can you not see
Erl King’s daughters, there by the tree?”
My son, my son, I see it clear;
The ancient willows so grey do appear.”


stanza 7:
I love thee, I’m aroused  by thy beautiful form;
And be thou not willing, I’ll take thee by storm.”
My father, my father, he’s clutching my arm!
Erl King has done me a painful harm!”


stanza 8:
The father shudders and onward presses;
The gasping child in his arms he caresses;
He reaches the courtyard, and barely inside,
He holds in his arms the child who has died.


Ideas for thought:


This piece is a Lied.

Q1.1 What is the overall form of the piece? (Hint:Through-composed vs. strophic.)

There is a motif that is presented in the introduction which establishes the tonic (so keep it as a reference for what the tonic is):


The tonic is confirmed by the very last cadence of the piece:


Q1.2 How is the first phrase: Who’s riding so late through night, so wild? prepared in the introduction? (hint: what is the setting of the poem and what two elements constitute the introduction, check also Q4.1)


There are Four characters in the Poem. The narrator, the father, the son and the erlking.

Q2.1 How do these different characters differ? (hint: register, mode (major/minor), interpretation, etc.) (hint 2: What do these characters have invested in the situation? how are they acting? what is their role?)

Watch the following video with these aspects in mind, and see how the singer embodies these characters:


This piece features several modulations.

As we have seen, the piece establishes the tonic in the introduction. The tonic is G Minor:


An example is found in the second stanza. The stanza features a modulation from the tonic G Minor to its relative major mode Bb Major. Listen for the way this process happens and how it is confirmed with a cadence on Bb Major:


From this point on, the piece modulates through the following keys: Bb, b, C, c#, d, Eb. (lower case is used for minor and upper case for major). In other words, the piece is modulating along the chromatic scale, that is, one half-step each time. You can also listen to the labeled file in courseworks.

Here are some cadences arriving at and/or confirming a new tonality:

Bb (in stanza 3):


b (in stanza 4):


C (in stanza 5):


c# (in stanza 6):


d (in stanza 6):


Eb (in stanza 7):

[audio:] Note that this last modulation does not feature a cadence. It literally just jumps a half-step.

Gradual processes of modulation and the use of cadences make the process of modulating elegant but also somewhat disguised and therefore hard to listen sometimes. Here is, with some help from technology, how the succession of chords would sound without the smoothing process of modulation:


and now each chord only once:


Can you hear the modulation? Can you distinguish how cadences fall on particular characters? how the musical qualities change?

We can hear another effect of this modulation by listening to the motif where the son calls his father as it appears in stanzas 4, 6 and 7:


Is it clearer now?

Q3.1 What is the role of modulating chromatically throughout the piece?

Q3.2 If one is not aware of the modulation is one still affected by it? how?


Finally, Listen to the last stanza again:

stanza 8:[audio:]
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.
The father shudders and onward presses;
The gasping child in his arms he caresses;
He reaches the courtyard, and barely inside,
He holds in his arms the child who has died.

Q4.1 Why, how and when does this incessant rhythmic ostinato stop?

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