Happy (?) Fathers Day!

June 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

Though it’s not really his fault, the dad in this song isn’t exactly the model of good fatherhood: A boy and his father ride through the woods. The boy says that the “Erl-king” (evil-elf-king) is beckoning to him. The father tells his son that it’s just the wind, the mist, the trees. When the two reach home, the father looks down and finds that his son is dead.

While this is not a story of a particularly good father, I do think it’s a good “dad story” – the kind of story that a father tells his kids, giving them a chill, maybe a little scare, and ending with hugs and giggles. And Franz Schubert does a marvelous job at storytelling, dad-style. The piano’s driving octaves sets the scene of a horse racing through the woods. The music is written for only one singer, who has to portray three different characters: the father sings in a reassuring lower range; the son in an intense middle range; the Erl-king in a pianissimo, almost-falsetto high range (which makes him really creepy – a rational, twisted baddie, not just a wild monster).

Though Schubert did not have any children of his own, I’d like to imagine him at a friend’s house, scaring the living daylights out of the kids with music like this. Hmmm … I know what I’ll be doing for my children this Father’s Day!

Translation from The Poems of Goethe, tr. Edgar Alfred Bowring; Wildside Press: ISBN 9781434462480.
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
 The father it is, with his infant so dear;
 He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
 He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
 “My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
 “Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
 Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
 “My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”
 “Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
 For many a game I will play there with thee;
 On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
 My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
 “My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
 The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
 “Be calm, dearest child, ’tis thy fancy deceives;
 ‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”
 “Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
 My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
 My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
 They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
 “My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
 How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
 “My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
 ‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”
 “I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
 And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
 “My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
 For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”
 The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
 He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
 He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, –
 The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.