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Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo, alto flute), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, percussion (bass drum with cymbals, bongos, castanets, antique cymbals, suspended cymbals, glockenspiel, marimbaphone, snare drum, tam-tams, tom-toms, vibraphone, woodblock), harp, piano ( = celesta), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Hans Werner Henze, who celebrated his 80th birthday in July and made a moving appearance at the Salzburg Festival in August, marked Schubert's 200th birthday in 1997 with a composition that serves as a modern composer's response to the older composer's most celebrated song, "Erlkönig." It was first performed on Schubert's birthday, January 31, 1997, in Paris by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Marek Janowski. It was derived from an episode in a ballet Henze wrote in 1962, Le fils de l'air. It has been recorded on Tudor Records by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under tonight's conductor, Jonathan Nott.
Henze has produced a prodigious amount of music in his long life, with a versatility in both forms and styles that few can match. He has also enjoyed unbroken success and critical esteem (and sometimes notoriety) ever since his emergence as a leading German composer just after the war. His catalog includes about 20 operas (very diverse in theatrical concept), 14 ballets, ten symphonies, 15 concertos, plenty of songs, choral music, chamber music, and so on. He is also an appealing writer, and he has conducted and staged his own works.
He has clearly never shown any shortage of energy, and it is an exuberant and perhaps terrifying energy that communicates itself in his Erlkönig. There are a few fleeting references to musical elements in Schubert's song: the pounding rhythm, the rising bassoon scale at the beginning, and suggestions of the child's desperate cry "Mein Vater, mein Vater!". But more striking is Henze's picture of the traumatic ride described in Goethe's ballad. The father clutches and vainly tries to comfort his child, who is aware only of the grim spirit's presence in the darkness, while the horse gallops blindly on. This music is driving and relentless, spurred on by incessant percussion and strong orchestral gestures, especially in the brass. Henze can be as formalist as the driest 20th-century composer when he wishes, but he has never been shy of full-blooded romantic expression, and here, in Erlkönig, he draws on Goethe's imaginative world and Schubert's brilliant masterpiece to produce a powerful tone-painting of his own.
- Hugh Macdonald is General Editor of The New Berlioz Edition.