Erlkönig: The Beginning of Schubert’s Fast and Furious Career


by Katherine Jardon

Erlkönig: The Beginning of Schubert’s Fast and Furious Career

    Erlkönig is a standard piece of repertoire from the Schubert canon for many reasons. It epitomizes what the nineteenth century audience valued in music. This piece incorporates supernatural topics and characters, prompts our imaginations to see imagery from nature, depicts extreme emotions, and conveys the impact of human love, loss, and suffering. Schubert’s effective use of these elements in his compositions established him among the composers whose pieces form the permanent Romantic repertoire.

In this project I will explore the Romantic elements of Erlkönig in text and in composition. I will present a brief analysis of the key theoretical components that tie this piece to the text and time period. I will also present my lesson plan and a video of myself teaching the lesson to a class. I will structure the lesson by placing the students in the role of a Schubertiade audience. Then I will write a summary of the comments and opinions the students share about this piece.

Imagery of both the natural and the supernatural is present in Schubert’s Erlkönig. The poem by Goethe is a retelling of this tale from German folklore. This scene is set in a forest late at night as a father and son on horseback hurriedly return home. In the narrative, the Erlkönig (a goblin or ghoul-like figure) attempts to seduce the son to come live with him. Fearfully the boy cries out to his father. But the father dismisses the son’s visions merely as rustling leaves in the wind, the mist, and the gleam of the willow trees. To a rational adult such as the father this goblin fiend merely appears to be a fantasy story. It is only logical that the natural images are rousing his son’s vivid imagination. It is merely nature, and man has the upper hand. But the poem cautions otherwise. It is no dream or illusion that the boy sees. It is a reality that ends in his death.

In the Romantic era, death was a prominent topic. Life was fragile, and there was no certainty that one would live a long life. Children often didn’t live into adulthood. This fantasy story would have resonated strongly with audiences because of the reality of the ending. It isn’t a surprise then that this piece “made an instant impression within the Schubert circle” and “launched Schubert on the road to fame.”[1]  However, it wasn’t just his choice of text that the listeners appreciated, but his compositional choices.

How does Schubert relate these Romantic topics in his composition? He paints the text through music. The most prevalent example is the triplet motive. It pounds almost incessantly throughout the piece as a representation of the running horse. (Image A) This driving motive changes to an um-pa-pa when the Erlkönig begins his enticing major melody. (Image B)  Then at the climax, the triplet motive charges on as the demon escapes with the child. This rhythmic motive drives the piece and provides unity in spite of the frequent modulations. It, “gives a stamp of finality to the gruesome ending, intensifying the listener’s shock.”[2]

The harmony does not drive the piece as the rhythm does, but it still has an unmistakable role in Schubert’s characters depiction. At the opening the harmony is open G octaves. One is drawn in by the desire to hear if the piece is major or minor.G minor is the tonal center for the ballad, and the modulations that occur throughout change with the motives of the different characters. As the danger heightens, the son’s fearful; minor lines modulate upward. The battle for the boy that occurs between the father and the Erlkönig is in major. With each line the Erlkönig sings in the key the father’s line just finished.

At the conclusion of the piece the rhythm no longer conveys the story, rather the harmony does. The triplets halt at the final stanza as the father arrives home and dismounts his horse. This is followed by the sign of death: a held Neapolitan chord.  As the narrator sings in recitative “in seinen armen das kind war tot!” (in his arms the child lay dead!) the final cadence (vii dim7 of V-V- I) interjects with a sickening Major PAC. The child is dead, and the Devil has won. (Image C)

My Schubertiade discussed the Romantic elements of the piece in both text and composition. Duncan mentioned that the father character used nature to attempt to console his son, but that nature was a force that could not be stopped. Abe appreciated the text painting in the piano accompaniment, and connected it to the same technique in Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade”. He also commented on how the dynamic range helped convey the story line.

Nathaniel pointed out how the constant triplets built up tension and anxiety for the listener. Then he presented the idea that the reason the father cannot see the Erlkönig is because he was not the person dying. The closer we are to death, the closer we are to the supernatural. Abe mentioned how death is a process that causes us to look at ourselves introspectively, because we each die our own death. We try to understand and depict the ultimate force of death with magic and mythology. The fantasy is not quite a concrete image, but it gives us a limited ability to imagine the sublime experience of death.

Schubert’s Erlkönig embodies the core themes that dominate the art and music of the Romantic era. The topics of nature, the supernatural, introspection, myth and legend, and death are all strongly present and musically depicted in Erlkönig. Schubert had an understanding of the value the Romantic audience placed on such expressions of art. His utilization of these styles and themes began his career and placed him into the permanent repertoire of our Nineteenth century canon.

Topic or Essential QuestionHow does Schubert’s Erlkönig exemplify music of the Romantic era?
Academic Language Functions and Forms (including key lesson vocabulary)

  • Schubertiade
  • Erlkönig
Resources and Materials

  • This video:

  • Copies of the score for everyone
Objective/ Performance Indicator(s) (including Language Function, Content, Support):

  • The class will demonstrate their understanding of the material through their participation in the discussion that occurs during the “Schubertiade” and by answering the two *bonus* questions on the exit slip.
Assessment of Objective(s)/Performance Indicator(s) (including both Language Function and Content):How will you know that everyone learns what you intend for them to learn?Each participant will complete an exit slip at the end of the presentation. The exit slip asks two questions:1. List 2 characteristics about Schubert’s Erlkönig that epitomized the Romantic era.2. What was the purpose of a Shubertiade?


Time Lesson SequenceLABEL the following components: 1) Hook/Opening 2) Linking to Student Background and Experience, 3) Linking to Past Learning, 4) Developing/Reviewing Academic Language and 5) Summary/Closing
Time estimate for each activity within your plan HookThe SchubertiadeWelcome! Today we are traveling back to Nineteenth century Vienna. Napoleon Bonaparte recently suffered his final defeat, and Europe is now disenchanted after the devastation he left in his wake. No longer shall we encounter the happy fairy tale endings of the classical period. We have moved onto the raw emotional despair and suffering of the real world.Developing/Reviewing Academic LanguageIt is a social custom in Vienna to gather among friends for a salon. These salons included a wide variety of activities such as discussions, dancing, games, poetry reading, speeches, and music. The Salons Schubert attended began to focus predominantly on music. Because of this, they were coined the term Schubertiades.We are the intellectuals and like minded friends of Schubert’s. (select student for each) We are poets, authors, artists, and composers. We are at the home of a wealthy hostess (me), and we are enjoying an evening of social pleasures and entertainment. But now for the highlight of the evening: Schubert is sitting down to play the fortepiano. We were captivated by his Erlkönig at the 1821 Benefit Concert, and now we request him to sing it for us.It is more than likely that when Erlkönig was performed at a Schubertiade, the audience felt an immediate emotional connection to the piece. The listeners could hear the intrinsic Romantic qualities and responded to those characteristics. As we listen with their ears, pay attention to these attributes.As a Viennese audience, we all speak German fluently of course, and don’t need a translation. But for our benefit, the English translation is given on the video.Listen to ErlkönigAesthetic Discussion as the Schubertiade

Link to past experiences: What did you enjoy, find disturbing, etc. How was it similar/dissimilar to the other works of this era/by Schubert we’ve heard?

(If enough students, break into 4 groups of 2?)

Link to past learning: In this course we discussed the topics that music in the Romantic period encompassed.

What are some of these topics?

Assign each group one of the Romantic themes below.

  • Dreams and Supernatural
  • Fantasy/Focus on the past (myths and legends) and Nature
  • Introspection and Expression of own emotions
  • Yearning- love (unattainable) and Death

Discuss in musical and textual terms how your topic is present in Erlkönig. Then we’ll talk about it as a group.

Point out theory aspects not covered in discussion yet-

  • Triplet accompaniment- then jump bass- triplet- sudden halt
  • Modulations upward when the son cries for help
  • battle between Erlkönig and Father-Erlkönig mimicking the Father’s key
  • Major/ Minor- Son in minor, Erlkönig/Father in major. Son dies, minor key dies. PAC in GM. (Kinderman 67)


The purpose of this class was to present this material to you in a way that would give you an experience similar to that of a Schubertiade in Nineteenth c. Vienna.


Classroom Components (double-click to check the boxes of the components that are present in your lesson plan. LABEL or INDICATE where your lesson plan includes the components you’ve checked.)
Scaffolding Comprehensible Input Modeling X Guided Practice(analysing the Romantic aspects as a group) Independent Practice
Grouping X Whole Class X Small Group Partners X Independent
Cooperative By Readiness X By Interests By Learning Profile/Style
Student Processes X (Score) Reading X Writing X Listening X Speaking
Assessment X Individual X Group X Written X Oral
Formative Summative X Formal X Informal


Lesson Reflection:  A couple of sentences here for your group reflection. Think in terms of if your objective(s) were met and what you would do differently if you could teach it again.I think I should have played more with the story opening idea. Also if I had been able to get more people in the class, the group discussion might have gone smoother. I might have structured the discussion section differently had I anticipated that I would only have 3 audience members. However, I was very pleased with the level of depth the group covered at the discussion. With so few people in the class, I felt like they could go deeper into the discussion.I was also worried I had too much material and would run over on time. So I mentioned the theory aspects while we listened to the piece. In the end I actually didn’t go nearly as long as I had anticipated. Had I realized I was under my time limit, I would have let them discover those things on their own after the discussion.Two of my three audience members are Schubert fans, so I don’t know how much they knew before the class and what they learned. I know that it was new material for one of my audience members. By reading the exit slips, it is clear that my students understood the material and the learning objectives.I wish I had time to do this lesson again. Next time I would like to go further with the idea of the Schubertiade. I would like to give enough detail and context for us to delve into that mindset and live there.



Burkhart, Charles. Anthology for Musical Analysis, Postmodern Update 6th ed. Belmont: California, Schrimer Cengage Learning, 2008.

Hilmar, Ernst. Franz Schubert in His Time. Portland: Oregon, Amadeus Press, 1985.

Hirsh, Marjorie Wing. Schubert’s Dramatic Lieder. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Kinderman, William. “Schubert’s Tragic Perspective.” In Schubert: Critical and Analytical Studies, edited by Walter Frisch, 65-83.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Porter, Ernest G. Schubert’s Song Technique. London: Dennis Dobson, 1961.

Schubert, Franz. Erlkönig, D 328. A Goethe Schubertiad. England: London, 1993. Compact disc. A Goethe Schubertiad. The London Schubert Chorale. London: Hyperion Records Limited. Compact disc.

Schubert, Franz. Erlkönig D 328. Schubert Lieder Hoh Stimme. Edited by Walther Dürr. Germany: Bärenreiter- Verlag Karl Vötterle GmbH & Co. KG, 2005.

Whitton, Kenneth S., Goethe and Schubert: The Unseen Bond. Portland: Oregon, Amadeus Press, 1999.


[1] John Reed, The Schubert Song Companion (NY: Universe Books, 1985), 223.

[2] Majorie W. Hirsh, Shubert’s Dramatic Lieder (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 117.

Text and Translation of Erlkönig