Comparing and contrasting four Lieder

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 Schumann's 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.

Erlkönig is a poem written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 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. The song 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. He 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 keeps a continuous background of repeated, triplet octaves which is known to be physically tiring and very difficult. Schubert simplified the figuration in one of his revisions, asking for duplets instead of triplets. While the piano accompaniment continues the three characters 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. 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 become bone-chilling as the child cries, "Mein Vater, mein Vater!" It is only at the very end of the song that the piano accompaniment ceases, as the narrator states in a bit of skilled recitative that "the child was dead in his arms."


  • All Music Guide, 2008, Last accessed 11/01/2010
  • All Music Guide, 2008, Last accessed 11/01/2010

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