the german style of comedy

the german style of comedy

From an invisible murder to an invisible murderer is just a step. One that brings us to the moonlit countryside of Thuringia. Or more precise ; to the park of Tiefurt Palace at Weimar. There to hear star singer Corona Schröter, under the alders (Erlen) along the river Ilm, in the nightly prelude to her 1782 semi-opera Die Fischerin (The Fisherwoman):

Wer reit(e)t 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 leis(e) verspricht? —
Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind,
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind. —

„Willst feiner Knabe du mit mir gehn? 
Meine Töchter soll(e)n 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 düster(e)n Ort? — 
Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh’ es genau: 
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. —

„Ich liebe dich, mich reizt dein(e) schön(e) 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 den Armen das ächzend(e) Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh(e) und Not,
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
after ‘Erlkönigs Tochter’ by Johann Gottfried von Herder

Thirty-two lines (the age of Goethe at the date of first performance) of wordsubstitution to go. And this time there is no getting around. Unless you can read German, of course. Or find the translation in Wikipedia. But one better sticks to the basics, assisted by the guidance of this short synopsis :

At a late hour the father rides through the dark with his son in his protecting arm. He asks the boy why he covers his face in such fear. “But father, don’t you see the Elf King?” The father explains the appearance away as a wisp of fog. He then dismisses the voice that whispers in the boy’s ear as the gale playing with the fallen leaves. And when the son points at the dance of the elf’s daughters, the father assures him that a line of willows moving in the wind make the same impression. At that very moment, aroused by the boy’s beauty, the elf makes his move, and his target suffers some shortlived agony. Horrified, the father rides on, now holding his moaning son with both arms. But when he arrrives at his destination, it is for the boy too late. 

This summary covers all the recorded facts. Facts that allow to define the son’s age, as Goethe had it in mind, with pinpoint precision. But everything else is conjecture : the ballad perhaps suggests, but never comfirms the boy to suffer a dangerously high running fever. Or the hallucinations that go with it. Whence father and son come, or where they go, is anybody’s guess (‘Hof’ leaves several options open), while the galloping horse is only present in the mind of the reader. And, of course, in the song’s piano accompagnement by Franz Schubert.

Having sung this ouverture on a more airily tune of her own, young miss Schröter introduces herself as Dorchen, a fisherman’s daughter who suffers as much from lack of manly appreciation as that boy had suffered from excess.

Corona Schröter set the words, under Goethe’s direct supervision, on music in the simple pattern of a traditional ballad. This evidence of his artistic preference may explain why Goethe returned, without comment, the dedication copy of Schubert’s masterpiece to sender. And why Carl Loewe’s attempt to perform his version in Goethe’s presence got nowhere : these were songs rather than ballads.

Life, apparently, isn’t fair. And to do something about it, she is now setting the stage for her death. Not for real, of course, but convincingly enough to make her father and her boyfriend search for her corpse : that will teach them (it is a comedy). And they will both pay her due attention when she has turned up again.

If this is a context to go by, it is evident what attentive reading (i.e. careful wordsubstitution) is going to reveal. The question that matters therefore is : are there any ‘Oh’s?

go to next chapter – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – back to the previous chapter

write a comment