Der Erlkönig

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Der Erlkönig
by Franz Schubert
Title page of the first edition of Schubert's "Erlkönig"
EnglishErlking, Alderking or Earlie-king (Aytoun and Martin)[1]
CatalogueD. 328
OpusOp. 1

"Der Erlkönig" (eng.: Erlking, Alderking or Earlie-king (Aytoun and Martin)[1]) is arguably the most famous German ballad. Goethe describes a nightly ride on horseback. A father tries to reach his home, his feverish child in his arms. The story of the Erlkönig derives from the traditional Danish ballad Elveskud: Goethe's poem was inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder's translation of a variant of the ballad.[3] The poem was originally written by Goethe as part of a 1782 Singspiel, Die Fischerin (The [female] Fisher). It has been set to music many times. Best known is the version by Franz Schubert.[3]

The poem is not only gripping for its dire theme: a sick child who dies in the end, the sudden end a depiction of the emptiness and horror the father must feel. The son's and the father's view of the world occur at the same time which leaves the listener in doubt which level is real; the father's assurance that his sons' visions are just fantasies and cannot hurt him are arguably false.

The piece requires the singer to take more than one role. This frequently occurs in songs (Der Tod und das Mädchen, Das Heideröslein), but the dramatic exchange of the Alderking, the father, and the son still create a challenge for the performer.

There is also another aspect to the song: The Alderking is characterized as a reckless abuser. First, he tries to bribe the child, sweet-talking and acting as a child himself. He then raises his bid to golden fabrics and girls for a company (the Alderking's daughters). When this also fails, he admits his physical attraction and resorts to brute force.

"Der Erlkönig" appears on the following album:

Year Album With
2021 À sa guitare (Album) Thibaut Garcia

"Der Erlkönig" is part of the following concert program:

Year Album With
20212022 À sa guitare (Concert program) Thibaut Garcia


Der Erlkönig
(The Erlking)


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, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind. –

"Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?
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 Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot."

United Kingdom
Poetic translation

Who rides so late through the grisly night?
'Tis a father and child, and he grasps him tight;
He wraps him close in his mantle's fold,
And shelters the boy from the biting cold.

"My son, why thus to my arm dost cling?"
"Father, dost thou not see the Erlie-king?
The king with his crown and his long black train!"
"My son, 'tis a streak of the misty rain!"

"Come hither, thou darling! come, go with me!
Fair games know I that I'll play with thee;
Many bright flowers my kingdoms hold!
My mother has many a robe of gold!"

"Oh father, dear father! and dost thou not hear
What the Erlie-king whispers so low in mine ear?"
"Calm thee, my boy, 'tis only the breeze
Rustling the dry leaves beneath the trees!"

"Wilt thou go, bonny boy! wilt thou go with me?
My daughters shall wait on thee daintilie;
My daughters around thee in dance shall sweep,
And rock thee, and kiss thee, and sing thee to sleep!"

"O father, dear father! and dost thou not mark
Erlie-king's daughters move by in the dark?"
"I see it, my child; but it is not they,
'Tis the old willow nodding its head so grey!"

"I love thee! thy beauty, it charms me quite;
And if though refusest, I'll take thee by might!"
"O father, dear father! he's grasping me –
My heart is as cold as cold can be!"

The father rides swiftly – with terror he gasps –
The sobbing child in his arms he clasps;
He reaches the castle with spurring and dread;*
But, alack! in his arms the child lay dead!

Translation by by W. Edmonstoune Aytoun, D.C.I. and Theodore Martin[1]
*) Though Hof in German can refer to a castle; when it does, it is used like the term "court" in English. ("bei Hofe": "at court")."Hof" originally means "yard" (also synonymously used for household, or property). The way that Goethe uses it, it suggests the yard with the connotation of "his own property" as the most likely meaning, not the castle as Ayton and Martin assumed.

Manuscripts and sheet music

Incipit of "Der Erllönig"
Incipit of "Der Erllönig"

General information:

Opus/Catalogue Number D.328 ; Op.1
I-Catalogue Number IFS 194
Year/Date of Composition 1815
  • First edition:
First Publication 1821 - Vienna: Diabelli & Cappi, Plate D. & C. No. 766, 11 pages (4th version)
1895 - Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, Plates F.S. 504-506 (1st, 2nd, 3rd versions)[2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 W. Edmonstoune Aytoun, D.C.I. and Theodore Martin (1859). Poems and Ballads of Goethe. Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons. p. 63-64.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Schubert, Franz. "Erlkönig". IMSLP. Retrieved October 4, 2021.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Erlkönig". Wikipedia. Archived from the original on October 1, 2021. Retrieved October 1, 2021.