MUS352 Paper A1 Paper

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Vivien(Zhuowen) Liang
MUS352 Paper Assignment 1
Professor Smith
Schubert’s Erlk?nig, a Reflection of Politics and a Majestic Feat of Music
Erlk?nig by Franz Schubert is one of the most evocative and dramatic compositions of the 19th century. The piece was an adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem, which was also called Erlk?nig. Goethe wrote the poem back in 1782, and it got recognition after numerous musical adaptations, most notably by Schubert, in the early 1800s. Interestingly, the poem was written more than a decade before Schubert was born. As people known, Schubert presented his music of this ballad in 1815, so the question that has been wrestling the minds of historians and literary scholars alike is: why did Schubert chose to compose Erlk?nig more than three decades after it was written? Suffice it to say that no artistic piece is created in a vacuum, and thus the political climate in the era might have prompted the composer to create this piece at that particular time. The 19th century falls in the romantic era of art history and that is why Schubert’s adaptation of Erlk?nig concurs with romantic musical sounds. But more than just being “romantic”, it has an allegorical meaning that reflects the political environment at the time.
The beauty of Goethe’s poem is that it can be translated directly and interpreted without respect to the time it was created. The political climates of the time in which the poem was written and the time when Schubert formulated its musical adaptation are different. Therefore, it would be accurate to state that Goethe was not aware that his poem had a more profound meaning than he intended. As a matter of fact, historians argue that he just translated a Danish ballad called “Erlkonig,” which told a story of a father rushing his ailing child through a forest by riding a horse to get medical treatment. But this ballad seemed to mean more than a folklore after Schubert set the music for it. In Schubert’s adaptation, not only the “natural imagery of a stormy night in the forest” is created, but also “the psychological drama inherent in the father’s denial of his child’s imminent death” is emphasized. From a romantic point of view, the poem itself implies that the society is a culprit of the destruction of innocence. But as the romantic and literal interpretations of the poem do not imply the political climate in 1815, Schubert must have had a different understanding of the poem as depicted in his musical adaptation.
Considering the political environment in which Schubert’s rendition of Erlk?nig was composed, it is apparent that the piece has an allegorical meaning. As I mentioned above, Schubert created the piece in 1815, the most peaceful year after a decade of Napoleonic Wars. Interestingly, after Napoleon was exiled, European powers converged at Vienna (Schubert’s birthplace), to resolve territorial issues. Therefore, it is not a mere coincidence that Schubert decided to capture the political environment in the era using his musical rendition. In the song, there are four main characters: the father, the child, the superficial Erl-king, and the narrator. In the political allegoric interpretation of Schubert’s piece, the father represents the European powers, which did little to save Vienna, and Vienna is represented by the child. During the war, the European countries turned a blind eye on Vienna, forcing the region to heed to the call of war, which is represented by the Erl-king. However, when the father finally decides to listen to the child, it is already too late. Similarly, the war had consumed thousands of lives before the convergence at Vienna. Therefore, Schubert’s Erlk?nig is an exemplification of the political atmosphere at the time it was composed.
Schubert’s Erlk?nig is an embodiment of distinctive features that are contemporarily unique. Although the piece was developed in the Romantic era, Schubert’s approach is similar to the modern style of composition. Strophic forms characterized the romantic style of music. However, Schubert created different types of music in each verse of the ballad. Subsequently, the piece can be viewed as “polymetered” considering both vocals and piano sounds. For this reason, Erlk?nig is very complex which is certainly not designed for an amateur musician. Another aspect of contemporary music that Schubert incorporated in his song was editing. It is apparent that he edited the song due to the “addition and subtraction of several piano measures.” Although there were no electronics in the romantic era to create a polyrhythmic tune, he managed to compose a tune that is close to contemporary music in terms of rhythmic complexity.
Another characteristic that makes Schubert’s Erlk?nig similar to modern music is that the vocals span over a short vocal range: an octave and a fifth. The complexity emerges when the vocalist is expected to sing “the voices of the four different characters” distinctively. Whereas this effect can be achieved through electronic voice tuning in contemporary music, in Schubert’s time, it was the task of the vocalist to project all the voices. Alternatively, to reduce difficulty, four singers would sing the ballad. Even so, projecting the octave triplets would be outstandingly hard as they require stamina, control, and speed. As a matter of fact, in his performances, Schubert replaced the octave triplets with eighth notes. This aspect gave the music of the Romantic era an element of authenticity, which is the source of its aesthetics. Schubert’s Erlk?nig is synonymous to modern music as its complexity arises from the representation of different voices within a short vocal range.
Knowing the place where Schubert’s Erlk?nig was composed, there is a clear difference between the piece and today’s music. This piece is a German Lied, and the only instrument used is a piano, while modern music is a jungle of sounds composed using a vast array of instruments. Conversely, Schubert uses one instrument to identify and foreshadow the characters, and at the same time to exemplify their evolvement. The first character that appears is the narrator, who enters with a rather neutral register. The second one is the father, who hits a lower register while his son enters with a higher one, which sounds agitated and jumpy. Finally, the Erl-king’s sound is a clearly marked pianissimo, surprisingly in a dreamy major key. As the mood of the song settles, the son’s voice, which is in E-flat, intertwines with the piano’s recurring D. And then, in the attempt to redirect the child’s thoughts, the piano shifts from a B minor to a G major cadence. All these notes or chords changings not usually appear in today’s music, especially pop music, which is much more simple in terms of designing and structuring than a romantic Lied. Therefore, the fact that Schubert’s Erlk?nig is a Lied, a German folklore sung in a solo voice accompanied by a piano, separates it from modern music.
Nonetheless, the reinvention of Lied by Schubert redefined romantic music and made it more comparable to modern songs. Romantic tunes were long orchestras, the vocals of which spanned over a broad vocal range. Schubert’s Lied not only spanned over a narrow vocal range but also was short in length and straight to the point. Similarly, modern music is typically short and captures a certain societal subject. Nevertheless, the difference arises in the interpretation. Whereas modern music can be literally interpreted, Romantic songs have a deeper meaning as seen in Schubert’s Erlk?nig. According to McKeever, “Germany lacked large-scale unity on many levels, and due to the variety of factors, such as church politics and cultural insulation, it was relatively sheltered from Enlightenment ideas.” Likewise, many factors affecting today’s society hinder people from getting ideas that can be expressed in long orchestras. Therefore, Germany’s culture in Schubert’s time was confined to a defined set of ideas, which contributed to the formulation of short music renditions, Lieders.
In conclusion, I consider Schubert’s masterpiece Erlk?nig is, first of all, a musical expression of the political atmosphere, having an allegorical interpretation that symbolizes the political environment after the Napoleonic Wars. And this deeper meaning is exemplified by various musical techniques that did not exist in the Romantic era. Furthermore, this piece is a reinvention and an innovation. Schubert reinvented Lied, the Germany’s signature style of music which narrated folklores. This reinvention made Schubert’s version of Erlk?nig exceedingly similar to modern music, but at the same time, the fact that its rhythmic complexity is achieved manually without any electronic tuning makes it a majestic feat. All in all, Schubert’s Erlk?nig is unique not only for its multifaceted interpretations but also for its musical aesthetics.
Brown, Maurice J.E., Eric Sams, and Robert Winter. “Schubert, Franz.” Grove Music Online. Accessed February 24, 2018,
McKeever, Kartina. “The King of ‘Erlkonig’: How Schubert’s Lied Rendition Set a New
Standard for Goethe’s Poem and the Lied Genre.” Accessed February 24, 2018,
Moore, Wes C, B.M., and M.M. Goethe Settings by Johann Friedrich Reichardt and Carl
Friedrich Zelter: Text, Music and Performance Possibilities. Texas: University of North
Texas, 2012.
Moricz, Klara and David E. Schneider. Oxford Anthology of Western Music. 198 Madison
Avenue, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Office of the Historian. “Napoleonic Wars and the United States, 1803 –1815.” Accessed
February 24, 2018,

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