The Elfking has done me harm! It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on, He holds the moaning child in his arms, Reaches the farm with great difficulty; In his arms, the child was dead.
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear? Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train? For many a game I will play there with thee; On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold, My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold. The father now gallops, with terror half wild, He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child; He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, — The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.
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Beethoven attempted to set it to music but abandoned the effort; his sketch however was complete enough to be published in a completion by Reinhold Becker Schubert revised the song three times before publishing his fourth version in as his Opus 1; it was cataloged by Otto Erich Deutsch as D. The four characters in the song—narrator, father, son, and the Erlking—are usually all sung by a single vocalist; occasionally, however, the work is performed by four individual vocalists or three, with one taking the parts of both the narrator and the Erlking.
Schubert placed each character largely in a different vocal range, and each has his own rhythmic nuances; in addition, most singers endeavor to use a different vocal coloration for each part. The piece modulates frequently, although each character change between minor or major mode depending how each character intends to interact with the other characters. A fifth character, the horse, is implied in rapid triplet figures played by the pianist throughout the work, mimicking hoof beats.
The left hand of the piano part introduces a low-register leitmotif composed of successive triplets. The right hand consists triplets throughout the whole piece, up until the last three bars.
The constant triplets drives forward the frequent modulations of the peace as it switches between the characters. Near the end of the piece the music quickens and then slows as the father spurs his horse to go faster and then arrives at his destination. The absence of the piano creates multiple effects on the text and music.
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The piece is regarded as extremely challenging to perform due to the multiple characters the vocalist is required to portray, as well as its difficult accompaniment, involving rapidly repeated chords and octaves which contribute to the drama and urgency of the piece. Although the melodic motives recur, the harmonic structure is constantly changing and the piece modulates within characters.
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The elf king remains mainly in major mode due to the fact that he is trying to seduce the son into giving up on life. Using a major mode creates an effect where the elf king is able to portray a warm and inviting aura in order to convince the son that the afterlife promises great pleasures and fortunes.
The son always starts singing in the minor mode and usually stays in it for his whole line. This is used to represent his fear of the elf king.
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This indicates his urgency in trying to get his father to believe him as the elf king gets closer. The rhythm of the piano accompaniment also changes within the characters. The first time the Elf-king sings in measure 57, the galloping motive disappears. However, when the Elf-king sings again in measure 87, the piano accompaniment is arpeggiating rather than playing chords.
Nay, fear not, it is nothing, my child, The leaves but rustle sharp o'er wild. Thou gentle boy, wilt thou with me go? My daughters all pretty pastimes know, My daughters nightly their gay revels keep, They'll dance and they'll sing and they'll rock thee to sleep, they'll dance and they'll sing and they'll rock thee to sleep.
My father, my father, I feel sore afraid, See Erl-king's daughters in yon dark shade!
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My son, my son I see it full well, The grey knotted willows bend to the gale. I love thee, child, in vain wouldst thou now be perverse, For if thou'rt are not willing I'll take thee by force. My father, my father, his cold hand I feel! Erl-king has hurt me, with grasp strong as steel.
The Father shudd'ring gives spur to his steed, Holds fast his darling, and groans in his need, He reach'd his home in doubt and dread, Within his fond arms the child lay dead.