Franz Schubert/Bernhard Cossmann, Erlkönig - Le Roi des Aulnes,
The White Prince Edition 102
The fascinating and frightening Danish legend of the Ellerkonge was introduced to German literature by the poet Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) with the poem Erlkönigs Tochter inserted in the second book [no. 27, pag 158] of his Volkslieder, published in Leipzig in 1778-79 (reprinted in 1807 with the title Stimmen der Volker in Liedern, Voices of the People in Song).
It was, however, the ballad Erlkönig of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) of 1781 that made the Nordic legend of the King of the Elves universally known. A father rides in the dark of night protecting his son from the fury of the wind; when suddenly the child sees the Erlking, the King of the Elves, wrapped in a cape and wearing a crown, who, drawing near, promises amusements, golden vestments and nocturnal songs and dances of his daughters.
In vain the father tries to reassure his son explaining to him that what he saw was only the fog, that what he heard was only the wind rustling through the dry leaves, and what scared him were the shadows of old grey willow trees. The Erlkönig insists and threatens to take the child by force. The child makes a final plea to his father, who quickly gallops off, fearfully holding his child tightly to himself, but when he reaches his house, he finds his son dead in his arms.
J.W. Goethe used the ballad, as an “Aria”, in the opening of his Singspiel Die Fischerin, performed for the first time in the park of Schloss Tiefurt, a small castle on the river Ilm located about four km northeast of the centre of Weimar (for about 25 years the summer residence of Anna Amalia Duchess of Saxe-Weimar and Saxe-Eisenach), on 22 July 1782, and later published on 21 and 28 September 1782 in the „Berliner Litteratur und Theaterzeitung“.
“Dortchen” (Dorothea) who sings the ballad in the opening of the Singspiel, was first performed by the famous German soprano Corona Schröter (1748-1802) who composed the first musical setting of the Erlkönig, published in her collection 25 Lieder in Musik gesetzt in Weimar in 1786.
The 18-year-old Franz Schubert (1797-1828) composed music for the Erlkönig of Goethe in 1815: Joseph von Spaun, his intimate friend, left us a famous story of the circumstances relative to its creation: “One afternoon (in the year 1815) I went to Schubert with Mayrhofer …We found him excitedly reading Erlkönig aloud from the book. He paced back and forth several times with the book in his hand; then he suddenly sat down, and in the shortest time imaginable, as fast as he could write, he committed the magnificent ballad to paper.” [Otto Erich Deutsch, ed.: Schubert: Die Erinnerungen seiner Freude, Leipzig, 1966].
The Lied (D 328), has come down to us in four versions, which differ in only a few details. It was published (Schubert’s first printed work, financed on commission) by Cappi & Diabelli in Vienna, and appeared as op. 1 on 2 April 1821, dedicated to his patron, the Austrian composer Grafen Moriz von Dietrichstein (1775-1864). The first public performance was given at Kärntnertor Theater on 7 March 1821, when it was sung by the baritone Johann Michael Vogl, accompanied on the piano by Anselm Hüttenbrenner.
Schubert’s extraordinary musical expression of Goethe’s elegant presentation of the intriguing legend of the Erlkönig soon attracted and fascinated important musicians who wanted to undertake transcribing the Lied for their instruments.
Transcriptions and paraphrases for solo piano were prepared by Franz Liszt in 1838 (Erlkönig, Lied von Fr. Schubert Fur das Piano-Forte Ubertragen von Fr. Liszt, Wien, bei Diabelli et Comp., S 558 No. 4, LW A42/4), […].
The first version for solo violin appeared in 1843, a work by the German violinist Auguste Möser, (Berlin, 1825 – died on tour in America, 1859), son and pupil of Karl Möser; this was followed by the celebrated version of the great Austrian virtuoso, imitator of Paganini, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (Raussnitz [Rousínov (Vyškov)], near Brünn [Brno], 1814 – Nice, 1865), who in 1854 published in Hamburg and in London ‘Le Roi des Aulnes’ Grand Caprice pour le violon seul, par H.W. Ernst [Schott & Co.].
The historical version for solo cello of the Erlkönig of Schubert that we present in this edition was adapted by the great German cellist Bernhard Cossmann in 1890 for the exclusive use of his student Heinrich Kiefer, as the autograph edition indicates in the dedication on the fifth page of the manuscript after the last chord of the transcription: "Übertragung der Erlkönig von Schubert für Cello allein, zum alleinigen Gebrauch für Heinrich Kiefer"; "Fr[an]kf[urt] 28. Nov. 90" von B. Cosßmann [Transcription of the Erlkönig of Schubert for solo cello, for the exclusive use of Heinrich Kiefer, Frankfurt 28. Nov. 1890 by B. Cossmann.].
Bernhard Cossmann, author of many original works and of diverse “Phantasien” on motifs from opera (such as Freischutz, Euryanthe, etc.) as well as on well-known pieces (also for solo cello such as “Paraphrase sur une chanson populaire allemande Ach, wie ist’s möglich dann. Thüringen Volkslied”,), had formerly dedicated his Fünf Neue Concert Etuden to Heinrich Kiefer.
The transcription of the Erlkönig was given to Kiefer in manuscript, for his exclusive use, because with his great talent he would be able to explore the possibilities of the piece and bring it to life; we know that in reality Kiefer studied the Erlkönig prepared by his maestro very carefully and wrote another copy (now in a private collection) with many alterations.
Cossmann’s transcription reveals a truly deep knowledge of the cello and of its peculiar potential: nowhere does it show, for example, any influence of the transcription for violin of H.W. Ernst; and in it we can see the reasons for the special admiration that Bernhard Cossman and the Italian virtuoso Alfredo Piatti had for each other, as Carl Fuchs tells us: “Alfredo Piatti was one of the great ‘cellists. He dedicated to my master Cossmann his Twelve Caprices, beautiful studies. The admiration of these two great ‘cellists was mutual, for Cossmann dedicated his five great Concert Studies (op.10) to Piatti.” [Musical and other Recollections of Carl Fuchs ‘cellist, Sherratt and Hughes, The Saint Ann’s Press, 1937, pages 51-52].
In my edition of the Erlkönig I chose to leave only the original indications of fingerings and bowings of Bernhard Cossmann: after careful analysis we believe that all the indications of fingerings in the manuscript, both in black ink and in pencil (correction), are original and in the hand of the author B. Cossmann.