Erlkönigs Tochter (Elverskud)
Erlkönigs Tochter (Elverskud/ The Elf-King's Daughter)
Elverskud (The Elf-King’s Daughter) is a dramatic cantata from 1854, based on Danish medieval ballads. It became one of Niels W. Gade’s greatest successes, not only in his native Denmark, but throughout Europe, where Elverskud was performed several hundred times, often conducted by Gade himself. Gade was especially admired in Germany, and on this album Elverskud is not only played on period instruments for the first time, but is also sung for the first time with the German text that brought the work international fame. Perhaps this Danish national work isn’t so Danish after all?
The Elf-King's Daughter – Ballad founded on Danish legends
The first half of the nineteenth century was the age of National Romanticism in Denmark. In literature, art and music this period was characterized by an intense preoccupation with Norse mythology, the old Danish popular ballads and other national subjects. Gade’s teacher and mentor, the versatile composer, organist and publisher A.P. Berggreen, had quite simply made it part of his aesthetic programme to incorporate the ballad style as an element in art music. And these very thoughts were to be of crucial importance to Gade’s music. From his breakthrough work, the overture Echoes of Ossian (1840) and the First Symphony (1841-42) he drew inspiration from ballad melodies. But the inspiration was not only musical: in some notes from the period 1839-41, referred to as Gade’s ‘composer’s diary’, he actually put together a kind of literary programme for the compositions he was working on at this time. For example, under the heading Symphony (After heroic ballads) he noted a literary synopsis for what was to become his First Symphony. There we find, among other things, an extract from the old Elf-Shot ballad as a model for the second movement of the symphony.
Some ten years later Gade once more made use of the Elf-Shot ballad, but this time as the text for a work for soloists, choir and orchestra. This period – the beginning of the 1850s – was one of the most fruitful periods in Gade’s career as a composer and probably also one of the happiest in his life. After a meteoric career start in Leipzig in 1843-48, as an internationally acclaimed composer and conductor, Gade now established himself in Copenhagen where, as the conductor of the musical society Musikforeningen and organist at two important city churches – Garnisons Kirke, and later Holmens Kirke – he played a central role in the musical life of the city. In 1852 he had married Sophie, the daughter of the composer J.P.E. Hartmann – a happy but sadly short marriage. Sophie died as early as 1855.
It has never been established in detail how the text of The Elf-King’s Daughter was created, but Hans Christian Andersen was probably responsible for a first draft, which however Gade rejected. After this it was the philologist Chr. K.F. Molbech who drew up most of the final text, which Gade had nevertheless reworked to such an extent that in the end Molbech had no wish to be credited as the librettist. It is not known with certainty who made these reworkings, but – besides Gade himself – it seems to have involved Gade’s later father-in-law, the music publisher Emile Erslev, the journalist Gottlieb Siesbye, and possibly also Gade’s half-cousin Carl Andersen. Gade – probably on his own initiative – incorporated B.S. Ingemann’s text for the morning song I Østen stiger Solen op (The sun now mounts the eastern sky).
The music for The Elf-King’s Daughter was created over a period of about three years from 1851 until 1854. The first part was composed in 1851 – a fair copy is dated December 1851. After this Gade put the work aside and concentrated instead on works such as Frühlings-Phantasie op. 23 and his Fifth Symphony op. 25. Not until sometime in the course of 1853 did he resume the work on The Elf-King’s Daughter, and on 12 September 1853 he end-dated a sketch; but the fully drawn-up score was only available in March 1854. In this connection it is worth noting that in the same period Gade was busy with another work related to the same group of motifs, the Bournonville ballet A Folk Tale, for which Gade composed music in collaboration with J.P.E. Hartmann. A Folk Tale was premiered at the Royal Theatre on 20 March 1854 and only ten days later – on 30 March – Gade was able to give The Elf-King’s Daughter its first performance. This happened at a concert in Musikforeningen, held in the small hall of the Casino establishment in Copenhagen. The Elf-King’s Daughter was given a splendid reception and just under a month later – on 27 April – Gade had the work performed for the second time, this time in the large hall of Casino with a slightly larger orchestra. The soloists in these first two performances were all opera soloists from the Royal Danish Theatre: Louise Sahlgreen (the The Elf-King’s Daughter), Josefine Zinck (the Mother) and Peter Schram (Oluf). The chorus consisted of about 100 amateur singers recruited among the Copenhagen bourgeoisie. Among the chorus singers we find both Gade’s wife Sophie and her friend Mathilde Stæger, who became Gade’s second wife.
In the course of 1854 the author Edmund Lobedanz drew up a German translation of the vocal text and in 1855 The Elf-King’s Daughter appeared under the German title Erlkönigs Tochter from the publisher Fr. Kistner in Leipzig in both a German/Danish piano score and orchestral and vocal parts. The basis was thus laid for the further dissemination of the work, and as early as the spring of 1855 The Elf-King’s Daughter was performed three times in Germany (Elberfeld, Leipzig, Hamburg). In the 1860s and 1870s The Elf-King’s Daughter also appeared in versions with English and French vocal texts and afterwards came performances in quick succession in Scandinavia, on the Continent, in England, the Middle East, the USA, Russia and Australia. The Elf-King’s Daughter is thus – along with the Fourth Symphony – the work by Gade that achieved most popularity abroad in the composer’s lifetime.
In Denmark too The Elf-King’s Daughter quickly became very popular and soon achieved the status of national heritage. The Elf-King’s Daughter is furthermore among the few works by Gade that have appeared regularly on Danish concert programmes after Gade’s death and until our own time. In 2006 The Elf-King’s Daughter was listed in the national ‘Cultural Canon’ of the Ministry of Culture.
The Elf-King’s Daughter is framed by a Prologue and an Epilogue, in which the chorus reflects on how dangerous it is for young men to approach the Elf-Hill by night. Prologue and Epilogue are both based on the ballad The Elf-Hill, and Gade uses the same musical material in both.
The actual dramatic narrative of Sir Oluf’s fateful nocturnal ride to the Elf-Hill is taken from the ballad Elf-Shot and is structured in three main parts. In the first part we meet Sir Oluf, who wishes to ride out the evening before his wedding to invite the last guests to the celebration. His worried mother attempts to talk him out of this, singing the warning “Beware, beware of the Elf-Hill” (no. 1, 3). In the famous romance “Oft do I ride along the shore” (no. 2) Oluf sings about how he is torn between his fair-haired betrothed and the girl with the coal-black hair and “a mouth so bold and brazen”. The dramatic core of the whole work is concentrated in the concluding line: “It is as if my heart is split, in time it may grow together.” The text of Oluf’s romance has no relation to the ballad original, but is solely the work of Molbech, who with these lines created a fully effective representation of the inherent conflict in the Victorian sexual morality of the nineteenth century.
The second part begins with an orchestral prelude which, with richly coloured harmony and instrumentation, evokes the misty night atmosphere around the Elf-Hill, where Oluf rides alone (no. 4). Soon the elf-maidens appear with their seductive song “Light trips the dance through the woodlands” (no. 5) and finally the daughter of the elf-king bids Oluf welcome (no. 6). Now comes the dramatic climax of the whole work, in which Oluf, in an almost opera-like scene, rejects the advances of the elf-king’s daughter, in the end receiving his death sentence in a highly dramatic culmination followed by a hectic orchestral postlude.
The first number of the third part, Morning Song, to B.S. Ingemann’s text “The Sun arises in the East” (no. 7), forms the perfect transition from the sombre night atmosphere to the tragic conclusion in the morning at Oluf’s castle. Oluf’s mother has waited sleeplessly for her son, and when he at last appears he turns out to have been fatally wounded. To the question “Where are the guests you rode out to invite?” Oluf replies that only one came home with him – Death.
The work is rounded off with a brief Epilogue in which Gade, as mentioned above, takes up the theme of the Prologue. In this way the whole work is given a structure that recalls the classical Greek tragedy.
The Elf-King’s Daughter is one of Gade’s most consummate and happy inspirations. Textually and musically, he has struck a fine balance in it between national and more universal elements. Gade himself emphasized that the music was not based on folk songs and insisted that the subtitle of the work should be Ballad after a Danish folk tale and not ‘after a Danish folk ballad’. Nevertheless the melodic material in several cases reveals subtle affinities with the ballad melodies of Elf-Shot and The Elf-Hill, not in the form of direct quotations but rather in what could be called ballad intonations. And in this way Gade supremely realized Berggreen’s vision of an integration of folk melodies in art music.
The 1864 version
Gade was constantly refining his instrumentation technique and in 1864 – ten years after the first performance of The Elf-King’s Daughter – he made a number of changes in the instrumentation of the work, adding changes in red ink to the Musikforening’s score and parts. It was this version that Gade used for the rest of his life when he conducted The Elf-King’s Daughter, and it is this version that forms the basis for the present recording. For unknown reasons he never included these changes in the printed versions of the score. After Gade died, the revised version was forgotten and it was only in connection with the preparations for a new edition of The Elf-King’s Daughter that this musical material reappeared in the orchestral collection of the Royal Library. The extent and character of the revisions varies greatly from number to number. Some numbers remain practically untouched while others have undergone more extensive revisions. The instrumentation of a single number – Oluf’s Romance (no. 2) – was so radically reworked by Gade that he actually drew up an entirely new score (in the original version there are only four wind instruments): 1 oboe, 2 bassoons and 1 horn, while the wind ensemble in the revised version was expanded to eight instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons and 2 horns.
Niels Bo Foltmann is a senior researcher at the Danish Centre for Music Editing at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. In addition, he has been the editor of the Gade Edition since 1991.