Der Erlkönig by Franz Schubert

Der Erlkönig (The Elf King) is now the second piece I have discussed by composer Franz Schubert. It’s, therefore, a little odd that, for most of my formal education, I was not a fan of his work. It wasn’t that I disliked Schubert’s music. In fact, I found some of it to be quite beautiful- too beautiful. I just could not see how his pretty ditties for piano and voice could ever compare the the grandeur of Mozart’s operas, the drama of Beethoven’s symphonies, the technical achievement of Bach’s fugues.

To put it frankly, I was wrong. Very wrong. In fact, those of you who do not like Schubert, unless he, with malice of forethought, murdered your dog, are also wrong.

Sir Wrong Wrongley of the Wrongorford Wrongleys

Schubert was an early Romantic composer of art songs. Beethoven, as we know from previous entries, was in very large part responsible for the shift from the Classical to the Romantic period. However, though Beethoven may have fathered German Romantic composition, it was Schubert who perfected it. The Sturm und Drang (storm and drive, aka emotional tides and upheaval) of Beethoven’s symphonies were limited by adherence to compositional forms. Such is not the case for Schubert, partially due to his choice to explore a “lower” form of music, the art song, and partially because he believed the emotion of the piece should dictate its form, not vice-verse.

While Gratchen am Spinnrade is a favorite of mine, it is not Schubert’s crowning achievement. He is forever held in high regard in the annals of music history for two compositions: the sprawling, morose, hour-long Winterreise and the quick snack of adrenaline that is Der Erlkönig. Today we discuss the latter.

Before we watch the video, let’s look at the lyrics. Since this song is all plot, we need to understand what is going on.

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”

“You dear child, come, go with me!
Beautiful games I play with you;
many a colourful flower is on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.”

“My father, my father, and heareth you not,
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through scrawny leaves the wind is sighing.”

“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.

What on Earth is that about?! There’s a kid and his dad and an elf king, and then there was touching… possibly BAD touching… And then the kid DIES?! That’s some heavy stuff! Like Gretchen am Spinnrade, this piece is also an adaptation of the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His poetry was very popular among composers during the Romantic period. It had MEAT in it- love, death, drama, despair, anger. How can we possibly shove all of this plot and emotion into a four minute song?

The piece starts with the piano, frantically pounding out triplets, mimicking the sound of a horse’s hoof beats. This motif will continue throughout the whole piece, adding tension and coloring the scene. But while the piano is quite impressive in this piece, it is the vocalist that takes center stage.

This rendition is performed by the incomparable Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The composition is quite a tall order, requiring the vocalist to perform as narrator, child, father, and elf king, all very different in tone and character.

Dieskau begins the piece as narrator, setting the scene. As narrator, he has the opportunity to discuss the action in the third person, as an impartial observer. We see him sing with gravity and purpose but very little emotional investment. He is just the narrator, telling us of the action.

Then, at 0:55, his demeanor changes. The change is slight, and you might not catch it at first. His voice lowers, his eyebrows lower. He is the father now, singing to his scared child. At 1:05, the child answers, his eyes unfocused, his voice and brow high, innocent, confused, curious, and afraid. “Father, do you not see the Elf King?” The father comforts the child at 1:20. “My son, it is a streak of fog.”

At 1:28, a sweet melody lilts into the mix. This is our Elf King. He is charming and saccharine, beckoning to the boy. His is a siren song, a happy and soft ditty in stark contrast to the fear and tension of the scene. The effect is eerie, especially with Dieskau’s unblinking smile.

So the story continues, vaulting us from character to character. Look back at the lyrics and try to pick out each individual part. The Elf King is characterized by a fey tone, sung in a high, enticing register, his face merry and disconcerting. The father is characterized by his low, soothing voice and brow furrowed with concern. The child launches further and further into confusion and fear, eyes wild, practically shrieking by the end. Listen for those changes. Look for those changes.

At 3:00, the Elf King takes on a more sinister mien. His song isn’t as pretty as it was before, and there is sense that this creature is a predator ready to pounce. And pounce he does, touching the boy, hurting him.

The boy cries at 3:09, “My father, my father! He’s touching me now! The Elf King has hurt me!”

The piano and the narrator take on a fever pitch, rushing home as quickly as possible. But with a swift climb up the piano keys, the boy and his father arrive home, the horses slowing to a stop, just in time for the narrator to tell us what we already know to be true: “In his arms, the child was dead.”


Dogs, Nuns, Muppets, and the Hearing Impaired

When I was little, I was a big fan of Beethoven. Most kids are, I think, even if they don’t know it.

What’s not to love about a drooling St. Bernard with a penchant for disaster?

No, no, no. Not THAT Beethoven. I’m talking about the real thing. Ludwig van Beethoven, father of the Romantic era of classical music. Today we are going to talk about one of the most significant pieces in the history of music. Are you excited? Well, you’d better get excited because this is music you will almost certainly recognize. If you were proud that you knew about Figaro from Barber of Seville, you will be ecstatic to learn that you can hum the entire melody to this piece. That’s right- you are a classical music genius, and you didn’t even know it.

I certainly didn’t know it when I was six years old and plunking out this little ditty on my aunt and uncle’s incredibly out of tune piano.

Fun fact: This is a perfect depiction of my piano skill at age 6. It is also a perfect depiction of my piano skill at age 24.

Did you recognize that tune? It’s pretty likely that you’ve heard it at some point in your life, even if you’ve never tuned in to the classical station. This piece has been covered over and over again by performers ranging from Pink all the way to the Muppets.

With each cover, the piece has evolved significantly and occasionally has almost nothing in common with the original source material. (Whether or not I think this is a good thing is up for discussion.) Alas, unfortunately, we are not here to talk about Pink and the Muppets. This is a classical music blog, and we are going to figure out where this all started. We are going back to the year 1824 to find the source of this musical phenomenon.

It all started with a man furiously scribbling away at his piano. This man, aside from his wild hair, looked like most other people at the time, but he was extraordinary. Ludwig van Beethoven was arguably one of the greatest (and some musical historians say THE greatest) composers of all time, but you wouldn’t know it if you saw him working. He would rest his head against his piano, bang on some keys, and angrily scratch out and rewrite music. While Mozart’s scores were famously clean and beautiful, Beethoven’s were symptomatic of his inner turmoil, heavily laden with frustrated ink. He was on the verge of something great: simple, beautiful, revolutionary. He was composing his ninth, and last, symphony.

This task was made all the more difficult by the fact that, at this point in his life, Ludwig van Beethoven was legally deaf. This is why he rested his head on the piano as he composed. Beethoven could not hear the notes, instead feeling for pleasing vibrations from the instrument. In this scene from Immortal Beloved, we can see Beethoven (played wonderfully by Gary Oldman) playing another of his masterpieces, Moonlight Sonata.

By the time Beethoven completed his ninth symphony, he was widely regarded as a has-been. It was common knowledge by then that he was deaf, and a deaf composer was practically worthless. Late in life, Beethoven was known for his bitter disposition and abusive attitude. In fact, his ward and nephew, Karl, attempted suicide under his care. This made it all the more surprising when Beethoven debuted the Ninth Symphony on May 7th, 1824 in Vienna with a tour de force finale featuring an excerpt from the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich Schiller.

Finally we arrive at the music itself, and we will touch on the first two movements and end with a deeper discussion of the fourth choral movement.

First of all… Wow! Those first chords in the opening movement are so powerful! They are indicative of Beethoven’s style, far removed from the lovely melodies of previous classical composers like Haydn and Mozart. I think one of the biggest differences between Mozart and Beethoven is their treatment of melody, or lack thereof. Mozart, like other composers at the time and most since, believed that harmony was intended to accompany the melody (usually the highest voice or instrument). Beethoven wrote harmonically, meaning that all of the notes were of equal importance, not just the high ones. This style makes for more dynamic and emotionally gripping contrasts. This style would pave the way for later composers like Brahms, Strauss, and even Berlioz. In fact, Ligety’s style would not be possible without Beethoven’s macroscopic view of music, in which the sound as a whole is far more important than any one voice or instrument.

Hopefully, you have been listening to the piece this whole time and marveled at how wonderful the whole thing sounds. Everything is just so darn meaty! I am going to draw your attention to 10:30, in which we hear marked contrast between the agitated strings and the soft, lullaby of the woodwinds. This is a style Beethoven often utilizes (most evident in his Fifth Symphony). He loved to write music that got louder and louder, more and more dramatic, and contrast suddenly with a soft folk tune played by a single voice, evidence of his classical heritage. This is a perfect example of his struggle to exist in two different worlds, the Classical and the Romantic, which he was pioneering. This results in a feeling of mixed emotions. Whether or not Beethoven himself was bipolar, his music certainly was. In music and literature, this is often referred to as Sturm und Drang, meaning Storm and Drive, implying a freedom to express inner turmoil in the form of extreme emotional contrast.

At 12:00 minutes, we return to the opening theme (this is called a recapitulation, just like in the Bach piece we talked about before), but it sounds a little bit different this time. Does it sound happier? Yes! Good catch! While the beginning of the piece was stormy and angry, this return has a lighter feeling and a more hopeful attitude. Some of this is caused by a change in instrumentation, with the woodwinds playing a bigger part, weaving in and out of the texture. More importantly, we have switched from major to minor. (In laymen’s terms, we have switched from sad to happy.) Still, we end exactly the way we began, minor and angry, leading us into the next movement.

The second movement begins at 16:05, a perfect continuation of the first movement, with the strings quickly departing to explore a jaunty dance tune. While I won’t discuss this movement in too much detail, it is interesting to note his use of timpani, the big drum. In Classical music, this instrument was used quite sparingly, often relegated to the sound of thunder during an opera. Beethoven uses its forceful timbre to punctuate the light and playful feel of the rest of the instruments, giving the movement more depth.

At 41:00, we begin the fourth and most important movement of this immense classical feat. Notice that the strings echo a bit of that stormy sound we heard in the first movement, but it is just that, an echo, not a full realization. They then echo the second and third movements before moving into a motif we know very well indeed. At 43:30, we catch a glimpse of Ode to Joy, a tantalizing taste of rapture.

The cellos and basses come in at 44:00, and for the first time, we finally hear the melody, which they softly, almost inaudibly, play, forcing us to lean in and listen. It’s like Beethoven is whispering to us, telling us some sweet something, and each time we feel the instruments are finally going to let loose and explode in joy, they pull back, maddeningly. The tension of this quiet happiness just about drives us to the brink until, at 46:00, the self conscious whisper ends, and the orchestra begins to play in earnest. We begin to think, “So this is what joy sounds like…”

At 47:20, the orchestra pulls back again, for just a moment, and shows a little of the sturm und drang we heard in the first two sections, followed by a lone male voice, a soloist, reciting the poetry by Friedrich Schiller. You can read a lovely but slightly inaccurate translation of the words here. Each soloist comes in turn, adding to a rich vocal texture and bringing more meaning to the lyrics.

The orchestra moves in to accompany them, and the tune is jaunty, happy. The male soloists sing of brotherhood and victory and racing toward their goals. At this, the orchestra picks back up and begins to sprint toward the finish. At 54:30, the race ends, and the true magic begins. The poetry changes, reveling in the idea of a loving father looking down from a canopy of stars. I will leave you here for a while and let you listen, for the ending of this work needs no explanation…

Have you finished? Good. Now you can read on. The last ten minutes of this work features dynamic textural contrasts, especially those contrasts between chorus and soloist. It also features rapid key changes, often shifting into minor, which now, instead of stormy and depressed, sounds reverent and calm, and swelling into large and joyous major sections. This piece builds and builds, and halfway through the fourth movement, we finally get our release. God takes on many forms in this last section, loving father, almighty creator, worshiped and adored alike, and we hear all of this.

This piece was the first symphony ever to include chorus. That is why it is often referred to as the “Choral Symphony.” I think most of the world agrees with me when I say that it was a good move on Beethoven’s part. A piece that better depicts true and absolute joy, rapture, may not, in fact, exist. This is it. This is the “Ode to Joy.”

This piece is one of the most influential things ever composed and continues to influence every aspect of music, whether we consciously realize it or not. As the culture has evolved, so too has the music, and sometimes, it is nigh unrecognizable. Now, for a bit of fun contrast, here is what I consider to be complete opposite of Beethoven’s work. Same song, entirely different interpretation…

Does this interpretation do the piece justice? Has it lost its classical roots? Is it respectful to the source material? Would Beethoven have approved? Does it add some new flavor, which enhances the message? I guess that’s up to you.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy

So I am going to try to thwart your expectations every chance I get, starting right now. Were you expecting Beethoven or Bach? If this was a classical radio station, yeah, you could probably expect those great composers to take priority. However, Claude Debussy is the man who inspired this blog, so we shall begin with Claude Debussy. This piece is called Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. For those who might not know, a faun is a Greek mythological creature, which is half-man half-goat. They are known for being lazy, lecherous, and darn fun to have around in a party.

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written in the 1890’s. This piece is considered late Romantic by some and early Contemporary by others. What that really boils down to is that this was written during a time of transition. France is known for balking at the status quo, and Debussy was no different. The Romantic period was known for its emotional edge, but the French did not believe music needed to be so dour and serious all the time. Debussy represents a huge turning point in classical music.

So, upon listening to this piece of music, what should be listening for? First of all, do you like it? Is there something that makes it stand out? Do you think you would recognize it again if you heard it? What makes it different from everything else?

Well, for starters, the opening line- its hard to forget. That’s because the opening line is just a simple scale, but NOT the one we usually use, which is called a diatonic scale (Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do). In this piece, we do not have a diatonic scale. We have a chromatic scale. Have you ever looked at a piano and wondered why the heck there are white keys and black keys? That’s because the piano is made to play a diatonic C scale. The white keys are Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti Do. The black keys are the notes in between. A chromatic scale is when you play ALL of the white keys AND the black keys.

By writing this piece chromatically instead of diatonically, we lose our sense of Do (home base). While that can be jarring, in this instance, it serves to create an ethereal sound. It’s easy to lose yourself in music like this as the music never seems to touch solid ground. Interestingly, the notes the make up the beginning of this piece create a tritone. Tritones were known in classical music to be the devil’s chords, and they were actively unused. Debussy purposely uses these notes, however, to push us even further away from home base. By starting us with notes we never hear together in “normal” music, we find it hard to grasp what the “correct” notes ought to be.

The texture is another memorable aspect of this piece. It alternates between delicate and lush. The flute at the beginning of the piece plays alone, acting as possibly the sound of a faun waking up and taking up his panpipe. As the piece continues, more and more instruments join in, creating a beautiful cacophony. Does this represent delight? Exhilaration? Passion? Considering the character of the faun, these are probably all true at one point or another.

This piece of music is interesting in that it is a musical representation of a poem by Stephane Mallarme. You can find a translation of the text here. Do you think the music accurately portrays what the poem is trying to say? Is it more important to literally translate the poem to music or to capture the mood of the piece?

So, this was my very first blog entry. I hope someone out there enjoys it. I have no idea what tomorrow’s music will be. I will have to wait for inspiration to strike. Thanks for reading!