Erlkönig: Goethe, Schubert, and Resurrecting the Son

May 1, 2021


The poetic interpretation of Goethe’s Erlking (persona) varies among music scholars, yet most agree that whatever he is or represents, the Erlking personifies the dark side of human nature and is responsible, directly or at least indirectly, for the child’s death. Citing just a few examples, Edward T. Cone (1974, 7–8) suggests that, “the Erlking belongs to another world—perhaps of the son’s feverish imagination”; Lawrence Kramer (1984, 148, 160) offers a psychological interpretation, characterizing the Erlking as “a threatening false father” and “the daemon lover”; for Deborah Stein (1989, 145–58, especially 147), the Erlking “involves a representation of Death, including the power of Death”; and Christopher Gibbs (1995, 133) argues that “the Erlking uncannily embodies . . . both [the] human and supernatural, sweetly alluring and threatening, intimate and profoundly alien.”

This article reconsiders such conventional understandings of this text and song. After considering Goethe’s semantic and structural choices in his Erlkönig, the article maintains that the poem reflects the eternal dynamic of the human maturation process from childhood to adulthood, reflected by an Erlking whose full range of associations includes appearances as a son, a father, and a lover, and whose exploits ultimately involve the symbolic death of the child. All in all, these associations suggest signposts along a life’s journey that anticipate early nineteenth-century conceptions of Bildung. Finally, I will explore the extent to which Schubert’s setting suggests that the composer was working from a similar poetic interpretation.

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