Erlkönig: Goethe, Schubert, and Resurrecting the Son
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.
A survey of the scholarship devoted to the musical settings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem Erlkönig reveals a variety of interpretations, most frequently focusing on the Erlking persona as depicted in Franz Schubert’s setting of 1815 (Op. 1, D. 328). I would like to cite just a few examples: (1) Edward Cone (1974, 7–8) suggests that, “the Erlking belongs to another world—perhaps of the son’s feverish imagination”; (2) Lawrence Kramer (1984, 148, 160) offers a psychological interpretation, characterizing the Erlking as “a threatening false father” and “the daemon lover”; (3) Deborah Stein (1989, 145–58, especially 147) posits that the Erlking “involves a representation of Death, including the power of Death”; and, (4) for Christopher Gibbs (1995, 133) “the Erlking uncannily embodies . . . both [the] human and supernatural, sweetly alluring and threatening, intimate and profoundly alien.”1In particular, see Gibbs (1992).
In this article, I reconsider such arguably conventional understandings of this text and song. After addressing Goethe’s semantic and structural choices in Erlkönig, I argue 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. In all, these associations suggest signposts along a life’s journey that anticipate early nineteenth-century conceptions of Bildung. I conclude this article with a consideration of the extent to which Schubert’s setting suggests that the composer was working from a similar poetic interpretation.
The Nature of the Erlking
In his Gedichte von Goethe in Compositionen seiner Zeitgenossen in Schriften der Goethe-Gesellschaft, vol. 11 (1896; quoted in Gibbs 1995, 116), late nineteenth-century Schubert scholar Max Friedländer recounted a meeting in the 1820s between Carl Eckert (a precocious seven-year-old boy who had already composed a setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig) and the poet himself. Eckert had stated that he did not like the musical settings of Johann Friedrich Reichardt and Bernhard Klein, because “they made the Erlking sing so cruelly . . . [;] if the Erlking growled as deeply as that, the child would be terrified; the Erlking has to try to seduce the child with his song” (Friedländer 1896; quoted in Gibbs 1995, 116). To that, Goethe replied:
We really must concede that the lad is right. . . . After all, you must know best how a little boy, riding on horseback at night in his father’s arms, feels when the Erlking tries to seduce him. However, we must also admit that the Erlking, as a king of the Spirits, can adopt any voice he wants, and can, according to his whim, sing tenderly and ingratiatingly at first and then in turn become threatening and angry. (Friedländer 1896; quoted in Gibbs 1995, 116)
Whether or not this often-cited story has any validity, with regard to the Erlking’s metamorphic qualities—that is, his ability to “adopt any voice he wants . . . according to his whim,” we can trace them back to medieval mythology. In his introduction to A Book of Danish Ballads, Axel Olrik (1939) writes that in medieval mythology, beings such as the Erlking “were conceived of as living powers, which operated the workings of Nature, and their characters [were] shaped in accordance with the impression made by Nature on man” (emphasis mine).2Olrik’s 1939 collection includes the ballad “The Elvin Shaft,” the source of Herder’s “Erlkönigs Töchter,” which was Goethe’s primary source for his ballad that he wrote in 1781 and published in 1782 (initially as the opening song performed by Corona Schröter in his Singspiel Die Fischerin).
Sharon Larisch (1984) also documented the malleable and ever-changing nature of the Erlking. Larisch (1984, 131) cites Mikhail Bakhtin (1984, 391), who identifies the eleventh-century Norman historian Orderic Vital as writing about one of the oldest descriptions of carnival and describing the Erlking as “a giant, armed with a huge mace (recalling Heracles).” According to Larisch, Bakhtin’s source was Otto Driesen (1904), and, using Driesen’s sources, she extends the associations [of the Erlking] to Woden or the Scandinavian Odin, and to the Antichrist, various storm gods, and the wind and forest elves. Larisch then states: “The Erlkönig figure is not, then, defined [by] Sir Walter Scott’s ‘definition’ that precedes his translation of [the] ‘Erlkönig’ ( . . . “a goblin that haunts the Black Forest, in Thuringia”)[;] . . . [rather], it is likely that Goethe, given his association with Herder, was aware of the full range of [the] Erlkönig’s associations. At any rate, . . . [such] transformations and transfigurations of the Erlkönig attest to his plastic and protean nature” (Larisch 1984, 132; emphasis mine).3See Walter Scott (1799).
The drama of Goethe’s Erlkönig involves the characters of the Father, Son, and Erlking, each evoking highly charged symbolic associations, all framed by the text of a Narrator that both opens and closes the eight-stanza poem. The authoritative Father represents reason and rationality and as such responds to the Son’s fears and growing anxiety with rational reassurances. The emotional, questioning Son reacts in kind to the evolving enticements of the Erlking, a transformative and destabilizing figure, appearing in the various guises of a son, a father, and a lover, reflecting, I argue, the process of the child maturing to an adult.
What follows is a brief stanza-by-stanza, line-by-line analysis of Goethe’s poem, with particular attention given to the poet’s semantic and structural choices that I suggest reinforce my interpretation.
Stanza 14The text and translation of Erlkönig are taken from Miller (1973, 60–63).
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
(Who rides so late through the night and the wind? / It is the father with his child; /
he folds the boy close in his arms, / he clasps him securely, he holds him warmly.)
The Narrator poses a question in line 1 that informs us of the setting: it is windy and late at night. The wind represents change, life force, vigor, energy, and movement. Forceful winds could represent turmoil, but Goethe does not qualify “Wind” in this line. Two personas are introduced in line 2: a Father and his child. In line 3, we learn that the child is a boy, and that he is in his Father’s arms. In the last line of the first stanza, the Father safely holds the boy, keeping him warm, thus the Father assumes the role of a protector. Hence, warmth comes from the Father, not from the elements or outside. In his essay “Stages of Life,” Carl Jung (1976, 7–8) might describe this as the “monarchic or monistic state . . . a childish stage of consciousness [where] there are as yet no problems; nothing depends upon the subject, for the child itself is still wholly dependent on its parents. It is as though it were not yet completely born, but were still enclosed in the psychic atmosphere of its parents.” Goethe’s boy held safely and warmly in the arms of his father could be described as a child “still enclosed in the psychic atmosphere of its parents.”
Note that in stanza 1 there are no references to a storm, a wild ride, or a sick or feverish child, all of which, according to Gibbs (1995, 122, n32), emerged in the 1820s by critics of Schubert’s setting. The first indication of a problem occurs, however, in stanza 2.
Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?
Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron’ und Schweif?
Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.
(My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously? / Father, don’t you see the Erlking? /
The Erlking with his crown and his train? / My son, it is a streak of mist.)
In the second stanza, the two lines of the Father embrace the two lines of the boy. Just as we learned in the first stanza that the Father embraces the boy in his arms, stanza two presents a poetic, structural reflection of the physical contact between the boy and his father described by the narrator.
The Father acknowledges that his son is anxiously hiding his face and asks the boy why, a question suggesting that the Father is unaware of anything out of the ordinary, dangerous, or threatening. The Son responds with his own question: “Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?” [Father, don’t you see the Erlking?]. Then, in the Son’s second line, he describes the Erlking as having a crown and train. The Father corrects the Son by stating that what the boy sees is a streak of mist, which constitutes the first of the father’s three explanations for the child’s experience of the Erlking (more on this below).
Does the Father see the Erlking, or, as many have questioned, is the Erlking the boy’s feverish hallucination? Recall that at this point and, indeed, as will be discerned below, at no point in the poem does Goethe indicate that the boy is ill. Ignace Feuerlicht (1959, 69) posits that, “it is true that the father contradicts the anguished child. However, it is not certain that he does not see the erlking [sic]. At any rate, his words try only to explain away his son’s fears. They do not express and do not even intimate a disbelief in the very existence of the erlking [sic].”
Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.
(Dear child, come, go with me! / I’ll play the prettiest games with you. /
Many colored flowers grow along the shore; / my mother has many golden garments.)
Stanza 3 presents the Erlking’s first statement, and in line 1 he addresses the boy affectionately (“Du liebes Kind”) as another “child” and invites him to go with him in order to play lovely games.5The Erlking addresses the Father’s son in stanzas 3, 5, and 7. In line 3, the Erlking suggests a location along a shore where there are many colored flowers—an Eden-like setting with spring flowers in bloom, and a shore—all more natural rather than cultural. The transition from nature to culture is arguably aligned with the maturing youth. We are born in innocence with innate expressions and interpretations, and we become acculturated within our families and greater society, continually moving from a natural world to one more cultural, from nature to nurture.
In the last line of the stanza, the Erlking refers to his mother and her golden robes. This stanza is the Erlking’s first attempt to entice the child, here in the guise of another child (specifically another son, in other words, the Erlking as son) suggested by the offer to play games as well as offering the material things that his mother owns. The childlike tone of the Erlking in this stanza is confirmed by his contrasting second address to the boy in stanza 5, when he offers his daughters and their nocturnal delights.
Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?
Sie ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuseit der Wind.
(My father, my father, and don’t you hear / the Erlking whispering promises to me? /
Be quiet, stay quiet, my child; / the wind is rustling in the dead leaves.)
First, note the structural change in stanza 4. In stanza 2, the two lines of the Father enclosed the two lines of the Son, whereas in stanza 4, separation from the parent has begun. The Son has the first two lines, and the Father has lines 3 and 4, a poetic structural reflection of the growing separation between the Father and Son.6Most scholars have noted the ultimate separation between the Father and Son; the interpretation of this event is central to my argument, namely, that the Erlking’s transformations represent symbolic representations of the boy’s maturity. In stanza 2, the Son asks the Father if he sees the Erlking; in this stanza, the Son is asking the Father if he hears what the Erlking has said to him. The Father implores his child to be calm, explaining that what the boy hears is the wind rustling in the dry leaves, which symbolize age, death, and fall. The dry leaves present contrasts with the many flowers promised by the Erlking in stanza 3, suggesting here in stanza 4 advancement, youth past. Line 4 of stanza 4 is the second occurrence of the wind. As in line 1 of the poem, the wind represents change, life force, vigor, energy, and movement. Repeated here, Goethe is suggesting continued change and movement.7For Deborah Stein (1989, 147), “Goethe’s use of recurring rhymes reinforces the poem’s large-scale dramatic structure. The end of the poem’s first half is shaped by the occurrence of the first of two such recurrences. In stanza 4, the rhyme in the father’s final couplet, ‘Kind/Wind,’ recalls the narrator’s opening ‘Wind/Kind’ in a textual reversal that is understood retrospectively as a foreboding of the child’s fate; when the rhyme scheme recurs once again in the narrator’s final stanza (‘geschwind/Kind’), the child is already dead.”
“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”
(“My handsome boy, will you come with me? / My daughters shall wait upon you; /
my daughters lead off in the dance every night, / and cradle and dance and sing you to sleep.”)
In the Erlking’s first stanza (stanza 3), he refers to the boy as “Du liebes Kind” (dear child); here in stanza 5, line 1, he does not use “Kind” to refer to the Son; instead, he uses “Knabe” (“feiner Knabe”; beautiful boy). In lines 2 and 3, the Erlking promises the boy his daughters who will wait upon him, lead the nightly round, rock him, dance with him, and sing him to sleep. In essence, the Erlking is offering his daughters to the boy (no longer the child of previous stanzas) as a reflection of his sexual awakening (that is, puberty). This represents the stage where the child is moving into the adult world. Note that in this stanza, the Erlking has daughters; in other words, he is a father. The Erlking’s advancement in maturity from a son in stanza 3 to a father in stanza 5 is symbolic of the boy’s maturity.
Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am duster Ort?
Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh’ es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.
(My father, my father, and don’t you see there / the Erlking’s daughters in the shadows? /
My son, my son, I see it clearly; / the old willows look so gray.)
In the first two lines of stanza 6, the boy calls out to his father again, this time upon seeing the Erlking’s daughters. The Father responds in the last two lines, explaining that what the boy is seeing is nothing more than the old, grey willows, perhaps suggesting here an aging tree of life. Hence, by stanza 6, the Father has denied the Son three times. Instead of experiencing the Erlking as the Son does, the Father offers three natural explanations: (1) a streak of mist (stanza 2), (2) the wind rustling in the dead leaves (stanza 4), and (3) in stanza 6, the old willows looking gray, all attempting to turn mystery into rational knowledge.8See Calhoon (1992, 19) for a discussion of Erlkönig as demonstrating “the peril that arises” when an authority figure attempts “to turn mystery into rational knowledge.” The dead leaves and old willows looking gray also foreshadow the death of the child later in the poem.
Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch’ ich Gewalt.
Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!
(I love you, your beautiful figure delights me! / And if you are not willing, then I shall use force!” /
My father, my father, now he is taking hold of me! / The Erlking has hurt me!)
The Erlking’s forceful, physical encounter with the Son has troubled many interpreters, resulting in such explanations that have at most pederastic and at the least homosexual overtones. I would argue that such interpretations are a misreading of the symbols. My interpretation proposes a way of understanding this aspect of the poem that has vexed many in the past. First, consider Goethe’s structural change in this stanza. For the first time in the poem, the Son and the Erlking share the same stanza; in essence, the worlds of the Son and the Erlking have merged. In fact, the Father’s voice does not return, reflecting ultimate separation between parent and child.9For Goethe, separation and parting were likened to death. Accordingly, a primary theme in Erlkönig is the separation of the boy from his father, which is represented both narratively and structurally (as I have argued), evinced in Goethe’s early poems and later, in his retrospective poem to Werther. In the third of the “Three Odes to my Friend,” we read, “Tod ist Trennung” (Separation is death), and in his retrospective ode to Werther, “Scheiden ist der Tod! (Parting is death!).” See Williams (1998, 56–57).
What are we to make of the Erlking’s use of force?: “If you do not come willingly, then I will take you by force.” No more promise of anything; rather, the Erlking threatens to take choice or freedom away from the child, who ultimately has no choice. Part of maturity is becoming aware of, and ultimately accepting, the dark side of life. The child knows no fear; essentially, he is innocent. As the child grows and matures, he becomes aware of danger, loss, sadness, fear, limitation, and unanswered questions. Perhaps Goethe is suggesting here that we must willingly accept the responsibilities that come with maturity. Biologically, we mature to adulthood, but there is a force of nature that brings us there whether or not we are psychologically ready to accept such maturity. The love expressed by the Erlking for the boy reflects the “demon Amor,” the pain associated with love. Where the promised daughters in stanza 5 represented sex and physical enticements evoking a sexual awakening and carnal passions, in stanza 7 the Erlking represents cupid’s arrow, and as we learn in the last stanza, the death of the child.
In the Erlking’s first stanza, we learned that he is his mother’s son, and in his second stanza, we learn that he is father to his daughters. The Erlking has developed, grown, and advanced from son to father, from child to adult. One recalls Wordsworth’s famous line: “The child is father of the man” (Calhoon 1992, 19, fn38).10“The child is father of the man” is a line from Wordsworth’s poem entitled, “My Heart Leaps Up,” also known as “The Rainbow.” The poem can be found in Sunil Kumar Sarker’s William Wordsworth: A Companion (2003, 424). In the Erlking’s last lines, he is neither son nor father; rather, he represents not only desire and love but also the strength (force) and pain (“father, the Erlking has hurt me”) associated with desire and love (hence, the eternal dynamic of the child dying to adulthood). In short, innocence plus pain begets experience.
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
(The father shudders, he rides swiftly on; / he holds in his arms the groaning child, /
he reaches the courtyard weary and anxious: / in his arms the child was dead.)
The Narrator reappears in the final stanza of Goethe’s poem. For the first time, fear grips the Father (“Dem Vater grauset’s”). The moaning child is still in his arms, but when he reaches the house, we learn that the child is dead. I argue that Goethe did not “kill” the “Knabe” (the boy) or “Sohn” (the son) but “das Kind” (the child). Thus, the Erlking (persona) metaphorically represents the eternal dynamic of human development, from the innocence of childhood, through adolescence and the first stirrings of sexual interest in the other, to the adult pain associated with love. The Erlking represents life’s journey from the “psychic embrace of the parents” to self-individuation. To what extent might the poem’s cultural or contextual situation support such a reading? More specifically, to what extent might it be appropriate to say that Goethe’s Erlkönig anticipates the concept of Bildung as understood by the early Romantics?
The Romantic Concept of Bildung
In The Romantic Imperative, Frederick C. Beiser (2003, 25) argues that the Romantic concept of Bildung developed out of an eighteenth-century tradition and that it was “the Romantics’ fundamental ethical ideal, . . . self-realization, [and] the development of all human and individual powers into a whole.”11See Norton (1995) and Bruford (1975) for more information on the development of the Bildung tradition in the eighteenth century and beyond. Beiser (2003, 100) cites Friedrich Schlegel as having “defined Bildung as ‘the development of independence’ (Entwicklung der Selbständigkeit), famously arguing that what is characteristic of Bildung in the modern world, in contrast to the ancient, is precisely its striving for freedom.” In the case of Erlkönig, I argue that the boy is striving for independence, or freedom, from his father, and that the Erlking represents the various stages in life toward self-actualization or individuation associated with that journey. The poetic narrative concerns the boy’s struggle between the world of his father, who represents an ordinary and mundane perception of the world, as exhibited by his answers to the boy’s questions, and the world of the Erlking, or that of sensibility, filled with fears, carnal desires, and love. Indeed, such early Romantics as the Schlegel brothers and Novalis believed that the chief aim of an aesthetic education is the cultivation of sensibility, and love was its central theme.12Bildung as an idea is also analogous to an organism—the organic concept in nature as represented in Naturphilosophie.
According to Beiser (2003, 103–4, emphasis mine), eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conceptions of Bildung and the Romantics’ heightened role for the education of sensibility involved “the development of the faculty of desire[;] . . . to awaken, nurture, and refine the power of love, [the cultivation of which] was essential to self-realization, to the development of our humanity and individuality . . . because love is the very core of our humanity[,] the very center of our individuality.”
Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s Erlkönig, characterizing the personas in the ballad primarily through tessitura, harmony, and melody, has been the subject of numerous analyses. To what extent might my reading be supported by such analyses? In order to suggest the extent to which Schubert’s interpretation might parallel mine, I will summarize both Stein’s (1989) and Kramer’s (1984) interpretations.
Stein (1989, 145–58) identifies harmonic associations and key motives connected with the Father, Son, and Erlking, as well as highlights Schubert’s use of motivic transposition, transformation, and convergence that conveys the poem’s dramatic narrative. The Father’s key areas are G minor and its subdominant, C minor. The Son’s tonal areas are less static and more chromatic (kinetic), most often represented by the diminished-seventh chord. The Erlking is represented by major tonalities, specifically B♭, C, and E♭ major. Stein’s motivic analysis reveals how Schubert’s “Erlkönig” in stanza 7 appropriates the son’s motive through motivic parallelism:
Just as the alternation of [motives] between the Erlking and the boy chronicles their ongoing struggle, so [do] the most important forms of appropriation by the Erlking—of the father’s tonal associate and the boy’s primary motive—capture the essence of the poetic drama—the systematic encroachment of the Erlking into, and his ultimate destruction of, the world of the father and his child. (Stein 1989,157)
I disagree with Stein’s conclusion that Schubert’s song suggests a “destruction of the world of the father and his child”; rather, it reflects the transformation of the child from the world of his father to that of the adult, as suggested by the changing associations of the Erlking. Not mentioned by Stein is the Erlking’s appropriation of both the Father’s and Son’s motives, which reinforce the conclusion that the Erlking appears in the poem as both a father and a son.
Kramer echoes the questions others have asked surrounding the death of the child:
Was the child really lost to supernatural forces or did he die of his own imagination? Why do the father’s rational ‘reassurances’ focus more and more on withered forms as the Erlking’s fatal lures grow more erotic? Why does the circular form of this art-ballad violate the blunt narrative linearity of most folk-ballads? And why does the narrator submerge himself under the play of voices throughout, to return only with [the] news of death—news announced with a neutrality so toneless that it is brutal?” (Kramer 1984, 157)
These questions launch Kramer’s discussion of Schubert’s song, which he believes “breaks the frame that raises them” rather than providing any answers (Kramer 1984, 157).
Resurrecting the Son
My suggestion that the Erlking represents different stages of maturity, and that the poem is essentially a coming of age or type of Bildung, offers some answers to Kramer’s questions. As I have argued, the child does not die of “supernatural forces,” nor of his “own imagination,” both of which imply a literal death. The Father’s rational “reassurances” focusing more and more on “withered forms as the Erlking’s fatal lures grow more erotic” reinforce the separation of the Father and the Son, as well as the boy’s development from the innocence of childhood to a world of love and pain. The “withered forms” and the Father’s reassurances are both from nature. They are natural—that is, nature forms—and while they may seem scary when encountered, they are all part of life’s experiences. The growing eroticism of the Erlking involves the desires, fears, and pains associated with love. The circularity suggested by the return of the narrator at the end, moreover, merely frames this eroticism. It does not, as Kramer (1984, 157) suggests, “violate the blunt narrative linearity of most folk-ballads.” Indeed, this circularity suggests the eternal life cycle from birth to death.
In Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History, Kramer writes:
Interpretation consists of neither discovering prior meanings nor inventing new ones nor even teasing out latent meanings from a stable field of possibilities, although it may do a little of each. Instead it catalyzes meaning between different perspectives, different histories, different subjectivities. Proposing a meaning is the initiating gesture of interpretation, not its result [my emphasis]. (Kramer, 2002, 27)
Indeed, I hope that the nuanced interpretations of Goethe’s Erlkönig—involving both poem and persona—that I have proposed in this article will not only be viewed as an initial attempt to interpret this work from said vantage points but also as a case study that may be of value to music history teachers, who might be interested in exploring such interpretive strategies, ultimately raising the possibility of further readings.
1. In particular, see Gibbs (1992).
2. Olrik’s 1939 collection includes the ballad “The Elvin Shaft,” the source of Herder’s “Erlkönigs Töchter,” which was Goethe’s primary source for his ballad that he wrote in 1781 and published in 1782 (initially as the opening song performed by Corona Schröter in his Singspiel Die Fischerin).
3. See Walter Scott (1799).
4. The text and translation of Erlkönig are taken from Miller (1973, 60–63).
5. The Erlking addresses the Father’s son in stanzas 3, 5, and 7.
6. Most scholars have noted the ultimate separation between the Father and Son; the interpretation of this event is central to my argument, namely, that the Erlking’s transformations represent symbolic representations of the boy’s maturity.
7. For Deborah Stein (1989, 147), “Goethe’s use of recurring rhymes reinforces the poem’s large-scale dramatic structure. The end of the poem’s first half is shaped by the occurrence of the first of two such recurrences. In stanza 4, the rhyme in the father’s final couplet, ‘Kind/Wind,’ recalls the narrator’s opening ‘Wind/Kind’ in a textual reversal that is understood retrospectively as a foreboding of the child’s fate; when the rhyme scheme recurs once again in the narrator’s final stanza (‘geschwind/Kind’), the child is already dead.”
8. See Calhoon (1992, 19) for a discussion of Erlkönig as demonstrating “the peril that arises” when an authority figure attempts “to turn mystery into rational knowledge.”
9. For Goethe, separation and parting were likened to death. Accordingly, a primary theme in Erlkönig is the separation of the boy from his father, which is represented both narratively and structurally (as I have argued), evinced in Goethe’s early poems and later, in his retrospective poem to Werther. In the third of the “Three Odes to my Friend,” we read, “Tod ist Trennung” (Separation is death), and in his retrospective ode to Werther, “Scheiden ist der Tod! (Parting is death!).” See Williams (1998, 56–57).
10. “The child is father of the man” is a line from Wordsworth’s poem entitled, “My Heart Leaps Up,” also known as “The Rainbow.” The poem can be found in Sunil Kumar Sarker’s William Wordsworth: A Companion (2003, 424).
11. See Norton (1995) and Bruford (1975) for more information on the development of the Bildung tradition in the eighteenth century and beyond.
12. Bildung as an idea is also analogous to an organism—the organic concept in nature as represented in Naturphilosophie.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Translated by Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Beiser, Frederick C. 2003. The Romantic Imperative: The Concept of Early German Romanticism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bruford, W. H. 1975. The German Tradition of Self-Cultivation: Bildung from Humboldt to Thomas Mann. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Calhoon, Kenneth S. 1992. “The Politics of Infanticide: Goethe’s ‘Erlkönig’.” In Fatherland: Novalis, Freud, and the Discipline of Romance, 25–48. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Cone, Edward T. 1974. The Composer’s Voice. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Driesen, Otto. 1904. Der Ursprung des Harlekin. Berlin: Verlag von Alexander Dunker.
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Kevin E. Mooney (PhD, University of Texas at Austin) is Senior Lecturer in Musicology at Texas State University. As an author, he has contributed to the Grove Dictionary of American Music, Journal of the Society for American Music, and others. His book, Texas Jazz Singer: Louise Tobin in the Golden Age of Swing and Beyond, is forthcoming from Texas A&M University Press.