Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Another Wonderful Discovery

TACKLING 'DER ERLKÖNIG' WITH A COLD

Yesterday I happened across this daimon posing dramatically in the shadow of a tree:

"MIT KRON UND SCHWEIF"

The figure looked to me like all those mysterious and scary supernatural beings from all the fairytales of old rolled into one.  In particular, I was reminded of two characters:  Chernobog, the Satan-like deity in the 'Night on Bald Mountain' segment of Disney's Fantasia, and 'Der Erlkönig', the sinister spirit in the poem and song of the same name.  Which reminded me...

Some years ago I went to a party at a friend's house.  There I saw this attractive young woman sitting by herself, seemingly in sore need of a chivalrous gentleman to come and offer her his company.  I had come alone myself, so I offered her a glass of punch (turned out she already had one, but I hadn't noticed) and engaged her in conversation.  She spoke English with a charming foreign accent, and it turned out she was from Stuttgart, Germany (unlike many people in the English-speaking world, I happen to think German is a beautiful-sounding language).  Well, I had to do what I do whenever I run ito a German person -- I proceeded to impress her by breaking into a heartfelt rendition of 'Der Erlkönig' in the original German.  It's a truly wonderful lied, with the words of Goethe set to a melody by Schubert (others have composed tunes for the poem, but Schubert's version is the most famous -- the one most people automatically think of when they hear 'Erlkönig';  also, it's the only version I can sing).  The song starts thus:

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.

(Translation)
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

-- and so on.  The words tell of the young child describing to his father the blandishments the 'Erlkönig', or the Elf King, the supernatural lord of the woods through which they are riding, is whispering to him, unheard by the father, to try and take him away.  The King starts out soft and seductive at first, but becomes increasingly insistent.  With each new enticement the child grows more frightened, and at each turn the father tries to reassure the child that it is only the leaves rustling or a sheet of mist, that he mistakes for the Elf King.  Finally the child cries out desperately that the Elf King is dragging him away -- and as the father, now terrified himself, reaches the destination, he finds the child dead in his arms.

Wow, I just got goosebumps as I typed those words, replaying the song in my head!  With an amazingly effective piano accompaniment to underscore the action, the song divides the drama among four vocal parts -- the Elf King, the child, the father, and the 'narrator' -- plus the galloping horse, whose hoofbeats are heard in the piano throughout the song.  When I first heard the song I was just a kid and had no idea what it was about, but I fell in love with it anyway.  I found the German lyrics somewhere, together with a translation, painstakingly worked out the pronunciation (interestingly, even though this happened when I was just ten or so, long before my move to the West and acquirement of English, somehow I had learned to read German phonetically -- go figure) and read them aloud over and over until I had memorized them.  Talk about being obsessive-compulsive -- but I guess when your brain is still young and springy and absorbent you can do things like that.

The thing about trying to sing this song is, though, that the different vocal parts are sung at different pitches;  the narrator occupies the neutral, easy-to-sing middle register (except at the very end).  The victimized child and the Elf King are at the higher reaches of the range, and the father, calm and dignified, is lower-pitched than the others.  Although I like to sing my vocal range is not so great and when attempting 'Der Erlkönig' I have to take care not to start too low, just so I can reach the lowest notes later.

It so happens I've been fighting a cold these last several days, and my voice is jammed way down in the basement.  Earlier while listening to Bryn Terfel's recording of 'Erlkönig', I started to sing along, and even though Terfel is a bass-baritone, I found I could sing the low notes just fine, thanks to the cold^^

Anyway, back to the girl at the party -- she was suitably impressed.  She said she doubted most Germans even know all the words (no, I didn't sing the whole thing).  Then her tall and handsome boyfriend came back.  So.

But I'll bet anything he didn't know a single line of 'Der Erlkönig'.

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