Erlkönig and the Subjective

The knotty relationship between text and music has beguiled musicians for centuries, nay millennia. Augustine articulated this conflict early on when he expressed concern that the sumptuousness of music would distract listeners from the meaning of the sacred texts. Qualms like this raise an important question, one that has been vociferously debated over the years and (delightfully) never settled: how should music behave vis-a-vis text? (Or in the language of the Monteverdi/Artusi kerfuffle, just who is the handmaiden and who is the master?)

The nineteenth century brought new perspectives into this ever-changing debate. Consonant with the Romantic concept of Innigkeit (musical inwardness), composers began to highlight the textual difference between “objective” reality and lived, “subjective” experience. Music, rather than just representing a text, could be used as a medium of literary analysis. To this cohort, music was not the handmaiden to the text, but rather its equal (or superior), capable of contradicting the words, ironically commenting upon them, and reinterpreting them entirely. The best of the lieder composers excelled at this sort of creative play, eschewing the “objective” reality of a text-space to explore its subjective resonance.

To illustrate this, let’s return to our composer du jour, Schubert, in his setting of Erlkönig (“The Elf King”). Goethe’s mysterious, macabre little poem touches upon many a Romantic preoccupation, from nature to the supernatural to death. It opens onto a father riding through the night with his sick child. The boy keeps seeing things in the dark mist of the forest, or so his father thinks. In reality (the boy’s consciousness), the Elf King waits in the woods, luring him with promises of games, bright flowers, and daughters with whom to dance. The Elf King’s seductions become increasingly strident; the boy’s fear grows, although the father still thinks he’s imagining things. Finally, when they arrive at their destination, the father finds that the child is dead.

The urgency of the situation is communicated with a quickly pulsating, relentless rhythm in the right hand, presumably representing the galloping horse. There is a sense of great fear as the narrator sets the scene, an effect of musical horror that is carried over when father speaks to his stricken child, and the boy speaks of the supernatural forces haunting him. But when the Elf King himself enters the texture to deliver his sweet, fatal siren’s song (first at 1:32), the tone modulates entirely into an innocent major key. He seems to beckon, entreat. This is not a terrifying monster, but a friendly, avuncular spirit, albeit a creepy one. Although the boy protests, he is simultaneously allured. When the Elf King enters, the furious gallop fades into the background, as if “objective” reality dissolves for a moment. The effect is electrifying: Schubert plays at the ambiguous interstices of dream and reality.

RT writes (in relation to Gretchen am Spinnrade as well):

In both cases, consciousness of the “objective” surroundings (spinning wheel, hoofbeats) recedes as the “subjective” vision grows more vivid. The representation of “inwardness” as it interacts and triumphs over the perception of external reality is the true romantic dimension here, the source of the music’s uncanny power. “Objective” representation, whether of spinning wheels or horses’ hooves, was old hat, esthetically uninteresting in itself; its “subjective” manipulation is the startling new effect, prompted in Schubert’s imagination by those “inward” aspects of the poem to which he was uniquely attentive.  (III, 152)


  1. It seems to me the objective/subjective dichotomy is already there in Goethe’s poem. It’s never been clear to me that the Elf King is any more real than the boy’s father thinks he is. This is one thing that makes the poem so creepy (is the boy just scared to death?), and Schubert’s setting exploits that ambiguity but doesn’t, IMO, create it.

  2. I would like to suggest that Goethe’s poem also communicates the older poet’s ambivalence vis-à-vis the new Romantic focus on Kant’s neumenal, unattainable universe of subjective meaning. The Erlkönig’s triumph over “reality” suggests that perhaps the Romantics are in danger of succumbing to their intense inwardness and the madness inherent therein, should they, like the boy, become entranced by the promise of accessing the neumenal world. Schubert’s setting, to me, brilliantly heightens and intensifies the emotions already present in the poem without choosing only one possible interpretation (he respects the Uncertainty and Complimentarity principles and allows the multiple realities suggested in the poem to coexist). Whereas a later Romantic composer like Schumann would fuse text and music in such a way that poems like “Die alten, bösen Lieder” could be thoroughly transformed and reinterpreted in their musical manifestations, Schubert seems to favor a more representative (rather than interpretive or transformative) text-music relationship.

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