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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Schubert's "Erlkonig"

By analyzing the final ten measures of "Erlkonig" one can see Schubert's true mastery of text painting and complex harmony. Measures 137 through 148 are harmonically analyzed as follows:
137: i
138: i - i64 - i6
139: V7/iv
140: iv - iv64 - iv6
141: iv passing to a V
142: IV6 -IV64
143: bII
144: viio42/bII
145: bII
146: bII6
147: vii/V - V
148: i

One can see that Schubert begins to use the Neapolitan (or bII) chords at the the actual arrival of the father to the courtyard. This signifies a disheartening finish filled with despair. The progression of vii/V to V to i as a cadence it a very definite and dramatic ending to the story. Another unique aspect of Schubert's use of the Neapolitan chord in these measures is his voice leading. Typically le is in the bass of Neapolitan chord and it leads to sol. However, Schubert begins with a root position bII and instead of leading the e flat down to the d flat, in m. 144, he leads it up to the f flat. When he finally brings the listener to the actual N6 in measure 146 he leads us in abruptly by moving the ra from the previous measure straight into the first inversions le. Usually ra leads to ti in a Neapolitan chord, so this change allows the final line to be separated from the chaos of the previous line. It makes the last words, "in his arms, the child was dead" incredibly potent and tragic.
The sweeping scale in the left hand creates an image of a swiftly riding horse, which is carrying the father and child. This motif happens throughout the song to raise tension and to signify a switch of character. The motif happens more frequently after m. 132 and reoccurs every two measures until seven measures before the end. This repetition raises the urgency of the fathers journey and lets the audience know that the young boy is close to death. By ending the motif before the last line Schubert is telling the listener that all hope is lost. The absence of that familiar pattern is haunting and chocking at first. It gives the last line an eerie effect because all of a sudden there is a silence which hasn't happened yet in the song. Without this motif the vocal line stands out. Also, the final cadence is even more resounding because the listener knows the Erlkonig has won.
Schubert really tells the story though these last ten measures. Every aspect of his harmony, along with motifs found earlier in the song, paint a perfect picture of the last moment of the child's life. It also conveys the emotions of the characters in a way the audience can actually feel without the words. The Neapolitan chords at the end are especially effective because they fit perfectly with the text and heighten every lyric.


Brett said...

Helpful! But a Neopolitan chord is usually in first inversion, so fa is typically in the bass (not le. That would make it second inversion)!

Anonymous said...

in measure 143 he switches to A flat so instead of Neapolitan six it would be Aflat 1