Haunted Schubert for Halloween
“Who's riding so late through th' endless wild?” The first line of the best way to scare yourself on Halloween: Franz Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s “The Erlking.”
While my wife tells me she has officially reached the point in her life of not wanting to be scared, I still revel in being spooked, shocked, shaken, and surprised—especially on Halloween. While my enjoyment of mental self-flagellation may seem hard core, rest assured that I indulge my desires in a happily dorky way: with classical music in the comfort of my own WXXI FM radio studio. With all the lights turned up. And my childhood blanket and a glass of warm milk.
OK, so I don’t bring my blanket to work, and we’re not allowed to have beverages in the studio (comfort-inducing or otherwise), but nevertheless I will be scaring myself silly this Halloween by listening Schubert’s “The Erlking.” The Erlking is a frightening figure to be sure; and I figured there’s no better time than a blustery late fall day to relate his tale. He’s described variously as a hedonistic king of spirits, or a child-maligning horse-riding elf, but no matter how you slice it, you don’t want to meet him in your local dark alley. The most well known depiction of this ghoul is probably in Goethe’s “The Erlking” from 1782. This writing follows a father, carrying his young son on horseback through the woods, rushing back to their home to provide treatment to the son’s deadly illness. We join in mid-action, and soon find that the son is, in fact, being enticed by the nefarious Erlking. By the time the father and son reach their courtyard, the son has succumbed to the Erlking’s temptations, and has fallen victim to his ghastly touch: the son is dead.
Goethe’s literate recounting of the phantom inspired countless other visual works, including this stunning depiction by Albert Sterner:
We also have this image by J. H. Ramberg that was inscribed onto an 1821 edition of the sheet music for Schubert’s song of the same name:
The tale of the Erlking is the stuff that Romantic poets and artists dream of: otherworldly, frightening, tragic, solitary, bound to nature, and of course: deadly.
For me, though, images and writings aside, Franz Schubert’s musical setting for baritone and piano rises above the artistic fray to stand apart. To me, Schubert’s song takes all the terrifying aspects of the visual and written interpretations, mixes them up in your brain, and presents the most complete and vivid portrayal of the heart-stopping fear the Erlking inspires. To hear what I mean, here’s a clip of Ian Bostridge performing the song. I encourage you to turn down the lights, turn up the volume for a couple minutes, and let your brain wander into the night with Schubert. For Halloween, there’s no better way to get in the mood than to briefly wrap yourself up in this world of darkness and the terrible gallop from the dreaded Erlking. Oh, and don’t forget the milk and blanky.