Beginning in the 18th century, well-known poets would dedicate themselves to ballads. While earlier texts often dealt with contemporary subjects and ended with a punchline, the ballads of Sturm und Drang and the Romantics – led by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – draw on supernatural elements. Nature is no longer a picturesque escape or counterpoint to reality. It is a world of threats, temptations and death where the human is fascinated by and attracted to the forces of nature and its mythical creatures. In Goethe's ballad, the Erlkönig asks the child to follow him into his world. Oblivious to the creature, the father calms the son and reassures him it's only the mist and leaves rustling in the wind. The son is petrified and when the Erlkönig tries to grab him, the horrified father realises and gallops home, but it's too late to save the child.

Goethe first published Erlkönig – it is based on the Danish ballad Ellerkonge (Elfenkönig) and was wrongly translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder – as part of his Singspiel Die Fischerin in 1782. It has inspired composers and artists alike ever since and continues to fascinate.

<i>Erlkönig</i> © Moritz von Schwind
Erlkönig
© Moritz von Schwind


1Franz Schubert (1815; rev. 1821)

Schubert admired Goethe and his Erlkönig was one of sixteen settings his friend Josef von Spaun sent to the German poet in 1816. Goethe never replied. It might be that he didn’t approve of Schubert’s vivid setting or that he was simply too busy at the time. However, in 1830, two years after Schubert’s death, Goethe heard Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient give a performance of Erlkönig. At the end, he kissed her and said: “I heard the piece once before and it did not appeal at all, but sung like that, the whole work becomes a visible picture.” Alas, it was too late for Schubert to know.


2Carl Loewe (1817-18)

While Schubert immediately sets an atmosphere of panic, Loewe’s setting is more restrained. He depicts the “dürren Blättern” (dry leaves) rustling in the wind. The Erlkönig does not sing melodies, he has no substance and only exists in the feverish imagination of the child. It is an eerie hypnotic nursery tune, rising arpeggios outline a single major chord that is only broken up in the Erlkönig’s last word, “Gewalt” (force). The anxiety intensifies and Loewe’s ending is, conversely, more melodramatic, with a forbidding silence and horror chord on “tot”. Like Wagner, I actually prefer Loewe’s setting.


3Marc-André Hamelin (2007): Étude no. 8 in B flat minor, "Erlkönig, after Goethe"

For his Étude, Hamelin was inspired by the different vocal setting to Goethe’s ballade by Friedrich Reichardt and wanted to achieve something similar for the piano, completely independent of Schubert’s setting. He’s painting the picture in sound; for example, to reflect the child’s second Erlkönig hallucination, Hamelin gives different dynamics to each hand, before the son wakes up and actually says “Mein Vater, mein Vater!”.


4Hans Werner Henze (1997): Fantasia for orchestra on the poem by Goethe and Schubert’s Op.1

Henze’s take on Erlkönig was first performed on Schubert’s birthday, 31st January 1997, and derived from his ballet Le Fils de l’air. Although you can hear specific episodes of the ballad and references to Schubert’s setting, for example the child’s cry “Mein Vater, mein Vater!”, it is the exuberant and terrifying energy, the driving and relentless music used by Henze that paint Goethe’s imaginative world.


5Café del Mundo (2018; arrangement for two flamenco guitars, flamenco singer and baritone)

In their arrangement of Schubert’s setting, Café del Mundo gives the plot a modern twist. The father is driving along a country road with his son. What looks like a peaceful trip at first, soon turns dark when we see the Erlkönig – here, a paedophile – following them in a second car… Two flamenco guitars might sound unusual at first, but Henryk Böhm’s gripping bass-baritone and the flamenco singer Rosario la Tremendita, illustrating the Erlkönig, make this the most sinister version in my list.


6Franz Liszt (1838, rev. 1876; transcription for solo piano)

Schubert’s Erlkönig is considered one of the most difficult songs for the pianist. It is so demanding that some accompanists would create cheats to simplify it – Gerald Moore suggested to divide the octave triplets and play them with both hands – and not even Schubert himself was capable of playing the repeated galloping triplets, “You see, I don’t need to. It is enough that I composed the song with triplets. Let the others play them.” Now imagine a transcription for solo piano by the piano virtuoso himself, Franz Liszt. Here, Evgeny Kissin captures the relentlessness of the pursuit.


7Hector Berlioz (1860; orchestration)

Berlioz immediately agreed when his friend, the tenor Gustave-Hippolyte Roger, asked him to orchestrate Schubert’s setting for an upcoming concert in Baden-Baden in 1860. Although most singers choose Goethe’s original text today, the premiere saw a free French translation by Edouard Bouscatel. And it wouldn’t be Berlioz if he didn’t add something new to the music. Listen carefully to the Erlkönig’s “Du liebes Kind, komm geh mit mir!” and “Ich liebe dich”.


8Carl Friedrich von Zelter (1797-1808)

During his time in Weimar, Goethe had a close relationship with Zelter who not only kept him informed about the musical world in Berlin and beyond, but also shared the poet’s conservative views. In a letter to Zelter, he exclaimed that the accompaniment should not seek to illustrate the imagery of a poem, “To depict sounds by sounds: to thunder, warble, ripple and splash is abominable”. In Zelter’s setting, the voice is the lead; not unusual for his generation, a couple of decades before Schubert and Schumann took the role of the piano to new heights. 


9Ludwig van Beethoven (1795, completed by Reinhold Becker in 1897)

Although Beethoven’s sketches appear to date from before Schubert’s birth, it’s not dissimilar to the latter’s setting, especially the galloping piano. Beethoven never completed his Erlkönig, but several composers have published a completion, most notably Reinhold Becker in 1897.


10Louis Spohr (1856)

Spohr was aware that there had been many celebrated settings of Erlkönig and it was difficult to find a new approach. His setting for voice, piano and violin obbligato, published as part of his Sechs Deutsche Lieder, Op.154, certainly brings a new view to the ballade, but although the violin represents the sweet, unearthly voice of the Erlkönig, to me, it sounds more like something you would hear in an old-fashioned Wiener Kaffeehaus than a haunted wood.


Other settings and arrangements (by no means exhaustive):

Vocal: Corona Schröter (1782, very first setting!), Andreas Romberg (1793),Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1794), Václav Tomášek (1815), Bernhard Klein (1815-16)

Arrangements of Schubert's setting: Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1854; solo violin), Max Reger (1914; orchestration), Franz Liszt (1860; orchestration), Mark Williams (1995; a cappella)

Others: Rammstein (2004; Dalai Lama), Hugues Dufourt (2006; solo piano), Josh Ritter (2007 at Verbier Festival), Maybebop (2013, a capella), Roger Mas (2015, Catalan: El rei dels verns)