Schubert: The Erl King

The art song (or lied) by Franz Schubert, Der Erlkönig, is based on a poem by Goethe about a supernatural being, the Erl King, who is enticing a child into his realm of death (see the text below with the English translation—side-by-side). Schubert wrote about 600 lieder (art songs) and in many ways helped establish the art song as a popular genre of the Romantic Era.


Art songs are written for one singer with piano accompaniment. Though the singing style may remind you of opera singing, this is not opera. The song does have a story line, but art songs are generally a brief, self-contained story or poem.

Original German Literal Translation
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.

“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.”

“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.”

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,

Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?”

“Sei ruhig, bleib ruhig, mein Kind;

In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.”

“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?

Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;

Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,

Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.”

“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort

Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?”

“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:

Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.”

“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!”

Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,

Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,

Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;

In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?

It is the father with his child.

He holds the boy in the crook of his arm

He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”

“Father, do you not see the Erlking?

The Erlking with crown and cloak?”

“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”

“You lovely child, come, go with me!

Many a beautiful game I’ll play with you;

Some colourful flowers are on the shore,

My mother has many golden robes.”

“My father, my father, can’t you hear,

What the Erlking quietly promised me?”

“Be calm, stay calm, my child;

The wind rustles through dry leaves.”

“Do you want to come with me, fine lad?

My daughters should be waiting for you;

My daughters lead the nightly dances

And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”

“My father, my father, can’t you see there,

The Erlking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”

“My son, my son, I see it well:

The old willows seem so grey.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;

And if you’re not willing, I shall use force.”

“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!

The Erlking has done me harm!”

The father shudders; he rides swiftly,

He holds in his arms the moaning child.

Barely he arrives at the yard in urgency;

In his arms, the child was dead.




Familiarize yourself with the original German poem before listening to the song. Notice the rhyming scheme in the German (this is not captured in the translation). Also read through the translation

  1. Make a list of the characters (or roles) in the narrative.


  1. Because there is only one singer, the different characters in the story are given music that makes their roles distinct. Explain how Schubert changes the music so the listener can tell the difference between characters—pay particular attention to the Erl King and the child. How does the music reflect their characters?


  1. How does Schubert use the piano to help with the story and how does the piano help with the psychological/emotional impact? Pay attention to how the song comes to an end. Why does the piano stop?


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