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Franz Schubert Composing The Erlkonig Poem English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1940 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This essay will compare and contrast four Lieder by Schubert and Schumann. Firstly, I will be referring to Schubert’s Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade. Secondly, I will be referring to Schumanns Dichterliebe Op.48 and Liederkreis Op.24.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was an Austrian composer who, more than any other, was noted for his artistic skill in Lieder. He arrived into the music scene in 1814 with one of his first songs, Gretchen am Spinnrade which is a selection of text from Goethe’s Faust. Schubert produced many masterpieces throughout his short career, composing in nearly every genre, all which was characterized by strong, rich harmonies and having an endless gift for melody. Schubert initially started out as a vocalist where he sang at the chapel of The Imperial Court. Eventually he explored composition and became known as a young genius. After Schubert’s voice broke in 1812, he was directed by his father to become a school teacher and follow in his footsteps, even though he was committed to his passion of composing. He worked miserably by day while composing profusely by night and at the age of 20, Schubert had written over 100 songs as well as various operatic, symphonic, and chamber music scores. Throughout the rest of his short life, Schubert produced a large quantity of operas, symphonies, piano sonatas, chamber music pieces, and masses. He is known first and foremost for composing hundreds of songs including his most popular works Gretchen am Spinnrade, and Erlkönig. He greatly affected Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler’s vocal writing.

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Erlkönig is a poem written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in 1782. It is part of his singspiel Der Fischerin and is easily one of his most familiar works from the German song repertoire; it gave Schubert his most known dramatic ballad to date. Goethe was a German poet, dramatist and novelist. He was one of the most important literary and cultural figures of his age, impacting Germany like Shakespeare impacted us. He studied law in Leipzig and Strasbourg, but worked as a newspaper critic after returning to Frankfurt in 1771. He moved to Weimar and became a court official and a privy councillor. However, what sustained his reputation was his literary works, and his relationship with music.

Erlkönig was composed between August and December 1815 and published in 1821 as Schubert’s Opus 1. It tells the tale of a father and his son riding through the woods late at night. The boy is only able to see the evil Erl-king (Erlkönig), and not his father. The Erl-king calls out to the young child, playing with his mind. The boy cries out for his father’s help many of times, but as the father cannot see the Erl-king or his demons, he takes his son’s behaviour as a one natural occurrence. When the boy is wounded, the father then realises that desperate measures are called for, he rides through the woods with all his strength and skill, but the boy dies in his arms before he reaches a safer place.

Schubert, while working as a school teacher composed nearly 145 lieder and numerous instrumental works in the year of 1815. Erlkönig gained many stories during the nineteenth century; one being that some people believed it was composed in a matter of minutes. It took Schubert three times to revise his song, he mostly adjusted the piano accompaniment and inserted/deleted bars in the music to somewhat better the pacing. He played about with the dynamics, altering them greatly each time.

The piano accompaniment, known to be physically tiring and very difficult keeps a continuous background of repeated, triplet octaves creating a horror theme. Schubert simplified the figuration in one of his revisions, asking for duplets instead of triplets. While the piano accompaniment continues the three characters and narrator sing their simple lines. Each character is given their own unique quality: the child is frenzied and emotional, the father dignified and confident, Erlkönig himself tranquil and attractive as he attempts to trick the child. The song is usually sung by one vocalist, but on occasion, four separate singers have performed it. The narrator sings in middle range and is kept in a minor key throughout, the father sings in low range and sings in both minor and major keys, the boy sings in a high range, also in a minor key, signifying the fright of the child and the Erl-king’s vocal part is in the major key resulting in a contrast as the piano accompaniment is minor, his part is sung pianissimo and undulates up and down to the accompaniment, portraying a sneaky persuasiveness. The horse is implied through the piano accompaniment by the rapid triplets, which represent the horses galloping. As the drama unfolds, the boy becomes more and more terrified, this is shown as the character sings in a much higher register, the harsh dissonances occur as the child cries, “Mein Vater, mein Vater!” The music quickens towards the end, portraying an image of the father desperately trying to encourage his horse to go faster. It is only at the very end of the song that the piano accompaniment ceases and that the horse has come to a halt, as the narrator states in a bit of skilled recitative that “the child was dead in his arms.” The piano accompaniment then ends with a dramatic perfect cadence.

Gretchen am Spinnrade was composed by Schubert on October 19, 1814. The poem is taken from Part 1 of Goethe’s enormous recasting of the Faust legend, which finds Gretchen sitting at her window waiting for her lover to return. She spins as she waits for him and Schubert translates the imagination of her foot rising and falling on the pedal, the wheel rotation, and the semi-quaver piano accompaniment showing the twisting of the thread.

Schubert’s composition seems to be a simple background for the poem, but doesn’t just portray the spinning wheel; it also represents Gretchen’s restlessness. Schubert creates this tension by moving through different key changes, from D minor, then to E minor and finally to F minor. In addition, he alters the text so that the opening lines keep returning throughout the song, which pull the harmony back to the original key. The first stanza of the song reads “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy, I shall never, never again find peace.” This sets a sad atmosphere for the rest of the piece, and Schubert composed the accompaniment so that it would sound ‘sad’ along with the text, beginning the song in D minor.

At the climax of the song, the accompaniment stops with a fortissimo ascent when Gretchen thinks of her lover’s kiss. She stops spinning completely, and it’s only after several faltering efforts that she is able to regain full composure and resume her spinning.

Robert Schumann (1810- 856) was one of the great composers of the early romantic era. He was uncomfortable with writing symphonies and concertos, the larger musical forms, but still composed works in these genres which contain moments of great beauty. He preferred to express his talent in songs and short pieces for piano. Schumann had an ability to translate deep and delicate states of the soul. He did this in works such as the song cycle Dichterliebe by Heinrich Hein which means ‘A Poet’s Love’ and in his collections of short piano pieces, which include Phantasiestücke (Fantastic Pieces), Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), and Waldszenen (Forest Scenes).

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Schumann began playing the piano at the young age of 10, after being encouraged by his father to pursue his musical and literary talents. In 1828, he became a law student at the University of Leipzig, even though he preferred music, philosophy, and Leipzig’s taverns. He also started piano lessons with well-known Leipzig piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck. Schumann became a compulsive womanizer and a heavy drinker. He failed to become a concert pianist when he became partially paralysed in his right hand. Wieck had a daughter, Clara, who grew up and fell in love with Schumann but her father didn’t approve. Despite his opposition, Clara and Robert gained the legal right to marry in 1840.

Heinrich Hein (1797-1856) was a German poet and critic. He received his early education at the Lyzeum in Düsseldorf and went to Hamburg in 1816 to work in the banking office of his uncle, Salomon Heine. The business failed in 1819 and he entered the University of Bonn attending August Wilhelm Schlegel’s lectures on literature. He matriculated as a law student in 1820 at the University of Göttingen but ended up getting suspended for participating in a duel. He continued his studies in Berlin between the years of 1821 and 1823.

Heine’s poetry was used by all the major composers of the 19th century and by some minor figures as well. His verses were also popular in music well into the 20th century, and the 19th century witnessed the production of approximately 8000 lieder on Heine texts. It was the year 1840 when Schumann launched his ‘year of song’ with a Liederkreis (op.24) on a poetic cycle from the ‘Junge Leiden’ section of the Buch der Lieder. For his Dichterliebe, he selected 16 poems from the Lyrisches Intermezzo. Schumann set 43 of Heine’s verses.

Dichterliebe was composed during the year of 1840 and apparently in a matter of days. It was composed during the same month that Schumann wrote his Liederkreis, Op 24. The texts originate from 16 poems from the “Lyrisches Intermezzo” which is a section of Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder which was wrote in 1827. The song cycle originally held 20 songs, but when it was published as Op. 48 in 1844, four songs were omitted.

In the opening poems, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai which translates to ‘In the Wonderful Month of May’ and Aus meinen Tränen spriessen, ‘Springing from my tears’, optimistic imagery of springtime and birds singing is featured. Schumann used to end the vocal line of a song hanging on a dissonant chord, and the piano would complete the rest of the piece. In Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, Schumann ends the piano accompaniment also on an unresolved chord, this suggests that the love the singer is showing may remain unreturned. In the fifth song of the cycle, the speaker now sings in the past tense, instead of the present. The seventh song, which is Ich grolle nicht, has a decidedly sardonic tone. The accompaniment has a powerful bass line which supports a repeated chordal right hand part, while the singer sings in a royal, heroic tone. However, the text pretends to have austerity in order to cover its suffering. “I saw you in a dream, and saw the darkness trapped in your soul, and saw the serpent that gnaws at your heart; I saw, my love, how miserable you are.” Schumann’s accompaniment makes it clear that the miserable one is the speaker, and not his beloved. In the conclusion of the collection, the speaker’s tone is ‘fed-up’ and all pretence is gone. The music in Die alten, bösen Lieder sounds ‘ploddy’ and unrelenting in its rhythm and figuration, it also sounds dark. Ascending arpeggios break the minor key into a brief major mode, only to find an ironic answer in minor once again. In the end of the song, the singer’s final, sorrowful strains fade and a last piano postlude offers a sense of rest, not found anywhere in Heine’s original.


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