Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Erlkönig Hacks for the Schubertian Pianist

No other composer had such an auspicious Op. 1 as Franz Schubert--his Erlkönig literally stood the lieder tradition on its head. Legions of pianists have tried over the years to overcome its technical challenges, often to no avail.

Hugh Sung recently wrote an article on possible ways to lessen the strain on the right arm with some clever finger substitutions. In addition to listing the traditional 3-2-1 redistribution of the octaves, he figured out what Gerald Moore's solution was (via the embedded Youtube of DFD/GM performing the song). I agree with Hugh's two possible solutions, although I have only tried the more traditional 3-2-1 substitution.

I can't help thinking back to an Erlkönig class that Gwendolyn Koldofsky gave in the summer of 1989 at the Academy of the West. She prefaced her discussion by stating that she didn't know what all the fuss was about--Erlkönig was just another Schubert song! As shocking as that comment may seem in light of the E-King's technical demands, I believe Madame K was totally right in saying what she did. If you fear a song for a purely technical reason and set it apart from all others, you'll have more problems with it than if you were to just learn it, figure out a technical solution, and play the darned thing. And don't forget that the singer's main challenge is how to differentiate the multiple narrators and will need help from the piano in the tonal color department.

My take on all this? The key to playing this song well and a minimum of pain is in the warmup. Ideally, I like to take a full half-hour to warm up before actually playing the song up to tempo. Play the song cold and you're doomed to a tense right wrist and susceptible to possible injury.

Here are some possible warmup ideas:
  • Prior to even trying to play the song, do some sort of octave work in the preceding weeks. RCM Grade 10 octave scales in all keys will work, as well as slowly working through the first volume of the Kullak School of Octave Playing. Hanon exercises #51 and 53 are also useful.
  • On the day you need to play the song, set aside half an hour before the rehearsal, lesson, or recital to warm up specifically for Erlkönig.
  • Start by playing the song at tempo at the dynamic of piano to mezzo-piano, with regular eighth notes in the RH instead of triplet eighths. Keep the wrist as relaxed and loose as possible, with a larger up-down wrist motion than you normally would use.
  • Graduate to playing the full triplet figure as you warm up, but at slower tempos. Keep the wrist motion going.
  • When you're warmed up, speed up the tempo. You'll need less wrist motion than at slower tempos, but keep the essence of the wrist movements to minimize tension.
  • Finally, play the song. I generally move around more than usual playing this song since sitting completely still tends to get me a bit tense in the upper body.

This method works whether you do the 3-2-1 substitution, the Moore substitution, or play octaves all the way through.

My final advice: spend a lot of time on the words and really know the translation. Erlkönig is a Schubert lied, not an etude. Make sure what you do at the piano still fits into the story--it's only another Schubert song, with its characters, story, imagery, and language.

School of Octave Playing, Volume I - sheet music at School of Octave Playing, Volume I By Theodor Kullak. For Piano. Piano Collection. Kalmus Edition. 0. Masterwork. Book. 40 pages. Published by Alfred Publishing. (K03597)
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