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6.3: Music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

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    Franz Schubert lived a short but prolific musical life. Like Joseph Haydn, he performed as a choirboy until his voice broke. He also received music lessons in violin, piano, organ, voice and musical harmony: many of his teachers remarked on the young boy’s genius. Schubert followed in his father’s footsteps for several years, teaching school through his late teens, until he shifted his attention to music composition fulltime in 1818. By that time he had already composed masterpieces for which he is still known, including the German Lied, Der Erlkönig (in English, The Erlking), which we will discuss.Schubert spent his entire life in Vienna in the shadow of the two most famous composers of his day: Ludwig van Beethoven, whose music we have already discussed, and Gioachino Rossini, whose Italian operas were particularly popular in Vienna in the first decade.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 12.53.28 AM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Franz Schubert by Wilhelm August Rieder by Wikimedia.

    Inspired by the music of Beethoven, Schubert wrote powerful symphonies and chamber music, which are still played today; his “Great” Symphony in C major is thought by many to be Schubert’s finest contribution to the genre. He wrote the symphony in 1825 and 1826, but it remained unpublished and indeed perhaps unperformed until Robert Schumann discovered it in 1838. Schumann famously remarked on the “heavenly length” of this composition that can take almost an hour to per- form. One reason for its length is its melodic lyricism, although the symphony also reflects the motivic developmental innovations of Beethoven.

    Schubert also wrote operas and church music. His greatest legacy, however, lies in his more than 600
    Lieder, or art songs. His songs are notable for their beautiful melodies and clever use of piano accompaniment and bring together poetry and music in an exemplary fashion. Most are short, stand alone pieces of one and a half to five minutes in length, but he also wrote a couple of song cycles. These songs were published and performed in many private homes and, along with all of his compositions, provided so much entertainment in the private musical gatherings in Vienna that these events were renamed as Schubertiades (see the famous depiction of one Schubertiade by the composer’s close friend Moritz Schwind (painted years after the fact from memory in 1868). Many of Schubert’s songs are about romantic love, a perennial song top- ic. Others, such as The Erlking, put to music romantic responses to nature and to the supernatural. The Erlking is strikingly dramatic, a particular reminder that music and drama interacted in several nineteenth-century genres, even if their connections can be most fully developed in a lengthy composition, such as an opera.

    Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 11.05.37 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Schubertiade 1868 by Moritz von Schwind. Source: Wikimedia

    Focus Composition:

    Schubert, The Erlking (1815)

    Schubert set the words of several poets of his day, and The Erlking (1815) is drawn from the poetry of the most famous: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The Erlking tells the story of a father who is rushing on horseback with his ailing son to the doctor. Delirious from fever, the son hears the voice of the Erlking, a grim reap- er sort of king of the fairies, who appears to young children when they are about to die, luring them into the world beyond. The father tries to reassure his son that his fear is imagined, but when the father and son reach the courtyard of the doctor’s house, the child is found to be dead.

    As you listen to the song, follow along with its words. You may have to listen several times in order to hear the multiple connections between the music and the text. Are the ways in which you hear the music and text interacting beyond those pointed out in the listening guide?

    Listening Guide

    For audio, go to:

    Performed by baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore.

    Composer: Franz Schubert
    Composition: The Erlkönig (in English, The Erlking)
    Date: 1815
    Genre: art song
    Form: through-composed

    Nature of Text:

    Original Text

    Wer reitet so spät dur ch 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 geh’n?
    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 düsteren Ort?
    Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh’es genau:
    Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.

    Ich lieb 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 den Armen das ächzende Kind, Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not,

    In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.


    Who rides there so late through the night and

    The father it is, with his infant so dear;
    He holds the boy tightly clasped in his arm, He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

    “My son, why do you anxiously hide your face?” “Look, father, is it not the Erlking!
    The Erlking with crown and with train?”
    “My son, it is the mist over the clouds.”

    “Oh, come, dear child! oh, come with me!
    So many games I will play there with thee;
    On my shoreline, lovely flowers their blossoms

    My mother has many a gold garment.”

    “My father, my father, and do you not hear
    The words that the Erlking softly promises me?” “Be calm, stay calm, my child,
    The wind sighs through the dry leaves.”

    “Will you come with me, my child?
    My daughters shall wait on you;
    My daughters dance each night,
    And will cradle you and dance and sing to you.”

    “My father, my father, and do you not see,
    The Erl-King’s daughters in this dreary place?” “My son, my son, I see it aright,
    The old fields appear so gray.”

    “I love you, I’m charmed by your lovely form! And if you’re unwilling, then force I’ll employ.” “My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
    Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

    The father, horrified, rides quickly,
    He holds in his arms the groaning child:
    He reaches his courtyard with toil and trouble,— In his arms, the child was dead.

    Performing Forces: solo voice and piano

    What we want you to remember about this composition:

    • It is an art song that sets a poem for solo voice and piano
    • The poem tells the story of three characters, who are depicted in the music through changes in melody, harmony, and range.
    • The piano sets general mood and supports the singer by depicting images from the text.

    Other things to listen for:

    • Piano accompaniment at the beginning that outlines a minor scale (perhaps the wind)
    • Repeated fast triplet pattern in the piano, suggesting urgency and the running horse
    • Shifts of the melody line from high to low range, depending on the character “speaking”
    • Change of key from minor to major when the Erlking sings
    • The slowing note values at the end of the song and the very dissonant chords
    Timing Performing Force, Melody and Texture Text and Form
    0:00 Piano introduction
    Opens with a fast tempo melody that begins low in the register, ascends through the minor scale, and then falls. Accompanied by repeat- ed triplet octaves. The ascending/ descending melody may represent the wind. The minor key suggests a serious tone. The repeated octaves using fast triplets may suggest the running horse and the urgency of the situation.

    Voice and piano from here to the end; Performing forces are voice and piano in homophonic texture from here to the end.

    Melody falls in the middle of the singer’s range and is accompanied by the repeated octave triplets.

    Who rides so late through night and wind?


    Melody drops lower in the singer’s range.

    My son, why are you fright- ened?

    1:03 Melody shifts to a higher range Son: Do you see the Erlking, father?
    1:19 Melody lower in range. Father:
    It is the fog.


    The key switches to major, perhaps to suggest the friendly guise assumed by the Erlking. Note also the softer dynamics and lighter arpeggios in the piano accompaniment

    The Erlking:
    Lovely child, come with me...


    Back in minor the melody hovers around one note high in the singer’s register; the minor mode reflects the son’s fear, as does the melody, which repeats the same note, almost as if the son is unable to sing another

    My father, father, do you not hear it...


    Melody lower in range

    Be calm, my child, the wind blows the dry leaves...


    Back to a major key and piano dynamics for more from the Erlking

    The Erlking:
    My darling boy, won’t you come with me...


    Back to a minor key and the higher-ranged melody that hovers around one pitch for the son’s retort.

    My father, can you not see him there?


    Melody lower in range and return of the louder repeated triplets

    My son, I see well the moon- light on the grey meadows....


    Momentarily in major and then back to minor as the Erlking threatens the boy

    The Erlking:
    I love you...if you do not freely come, I will use force...


    Back to a minor key and the higher-ranged melody that hovers around one pitch.

    My father, he has seized me...


    Back to a mid-range melody; the notes in the piano get faster and louder.

    Narrator: The father, filled with horror, rides fast


    Piano accompaniment slows down; dissonant and minor chords pervasive; song ends with a strong cadence in the minor key; Slowing down of the piano accompaniment may echo the slowing down of the horse. The truncated chords and strong final minor chords buttress the announcement that the child is dead.

    Narrator: They arrive at the courtyard. In his father’s arms, the child was dead.

    The next generation of nineteenth-century composers—born in the first two decades of the century—included a number of talented pianists: Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, Fryderyk Chopin, and Franz Liszt. They were joined by orchestra composer Hector Berlioz and a slightly younger composer who might be considered Berlioz’s alter ego, Johannes Brahms.

    This page titled 6.3: Music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.