A Dark Fairy Tale to Help Put You to Sleep
When I was a wee-little-kitling, aka, a high-schooler, I took a ton of music and music theory classes. I loved my teacher. She was amazing! But that's besides the point.
Music, as with writing, helps to express the emotions of the world. One song, played on the radio, has the advantage of reaching millions of people at one time, where as an author works at an individual level book by book (except for War of the Worlds, which kinda proves my point about mass audiences...).
If we look at movies as well, film and television, a piece that has a killer soundtrack often helps to influence the impact of the show.
Take, for instance, Game of Thrones, and yes, okay, fine, another one with a mass audience through a visual media stream, I GET IT! lol. Anyways, the moment you hear the first two notes of the opening credits, it sets the entire theme of the movie. Pirates of the Caribbean. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Anything by John Williams. The films are made by the music that imbues them with character, above and beyond what the actors are doing onstage.
But the point is, composers, arrangers, are taking some story and setting it to music, amplifying the emotions present within the written word to affect a wider audience in a different medium.
So what does my high school music class have to do with anything?
Glad you asked, Cotton,
Erlkönig is a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I'm including a translation of it from its original German at the bottom of this post, but if you speak/read German, I highly recommend looking at the original transcript.
The general idea of the poem is that a father and son are on a journey and the son is being stalked by the Erlkönig, the Elf King, who wants to take him away. It's a terrifying concept. The father doesn't believe the son, the Erlkönig keeps trying to steal the boy's soul, and all this is taking place on horseback in the middle of the woods in some backwater German forest probably full of witches living in candy houses and cannibal bridegrooms luring hapless maids to their edible demises! But that's another story...I digress.
Schubert, I don't know the history, so, what I believe happened, was he heard this poem, and thought: Opera. Opera done on a solo piano with one singer performing the roles of the father, the son, and the Erlkönig. One voice, three roles. It's an amazing piece of music. (But it's in German. So, you kinda need the backstory, ish, if you don't speak the language...kinda regretting taking French in high school right now...).
The first time I heard Schubert's rendition of this poem was in high school. Now, we were focusing on the music of it (so I probably did know Schubert's history at one point and have subsequently forgotten it. My bad.), and my teacher explained the concept, and then we listened to the piece. Swore it was three singers, the performer was that awesome.
But this was, not the first example of a story performed in a different medium, but one of the first examples that has stuck with me all these years. The way that people interpret stories, interpret music, use it to build suspense or emotion, that is the beauty of art in all different forms, visual, audible, whatever. The more people we can reach with our art, the more emotion we can share in the world.
So, in honor of music and fairy tales, here is Schubert's take on Erlkönig. This rendition was performed by tenor Daniel Norman, pianist Sholto Kynoch, and directed and designed by Jeremy Bidgood.
I hope you enjoy.
(The Translation of the piece is taken from the YouTube posting from the below link.)
The Elfking Who rides so late through the windy night? It is the father and his child. He holds the boy, Warm and safe. Son, why do you hide your face in fear? Father, do you not see the Elfking? With his crown and train? Son, it's just the mist. Come with me, lovely child We'll play games There are flowers on the beach and My mother has golden clothes Father, can't you hear What the Elfking is promising me? Be calm, my boy -- It's only the wind in the leaves. Lovely boy, will you come with me? My daughters will wait on you My daughters will sing and dance for you and rock you to sleep. Father, do you not see The Elfking's daughters there? Son, it's the old willows shining In the moonlight. I love you -- I'm aroused by your beautiful form And if you won't come, I will take you by force Father, father, he has grabbed me. The Elfking has hurt me. The father shudders. He rides fast, the groaning boy in his arms, Anxious, he reaches the farm. In his arms, the boy is dead. (Translation by Daniel Norman)