Bartók’s Arrangement of Beethoven’s Erlkönig, WoO 131

It has been a while since we have brought forward some Unheard Beethoven for our listeners; at one time our website was primarily devoted to the unpublished and unrecorded works of Ludwig van Beethoven. Recently, the Beethoven 200 Years Ago Today feature has come to dominate, but we have not lost sight of our roots, as we add to our hours of Beethoven music that can be heard nowhere else the arrangement of Beethoven’s sketches for the song Erlkönig, WoO 131, as arranged by none other than Béla Bartók.

About sixty years ago, a mysterious orchestral score was found in the holdings of the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, which turned out to be an arrangement by Bartók of Reinhold Becker’s 1897 completion of Beethoven’s sketches made in the 1790s for the song Erlkönig, on the poem by Goethe. These sketches, reflecting two separate attempts at setting the poem, are found in the archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde and the Paris Conservatoire. We were fortunate enough to be at the Champaign-Urbana campus some years ago, and got access to this score. It is here presented in an mp3 version, created by Danielle Nicole D. of the Garritan forums:

The orchestration by Bartók is for voice (notated in treble clef), accompanied by strings, double woodwinds and trumpets, four horns and timpani. The vocal line in our mp3 version is handled by a solo oboe.

First page of Bartók’s score of Beethoven/Becker’s Erlkönig, WoO 131 (courtesy University of Illinois)

Bartók essentially follows Reinhold Becker, and pays no attention to where Becker’s completion departs from Beethoven’s sketches. The comparison to Schubert’s much later four versions of the song reflects quite a few striking similarities, starting with the driving bass emphasizing the rider on horseback, clutching his young son.

Bartók’s orchestration was brought to public light by Alexander L. Ringer, in his article “The Art of the Third Guess: Beethoven to Becker to Bartók,” The Musical Quarterly vol.52/3 (July 1966) pp.304-312. As Ringer relates it:

“The occasion that prompted Bartók’s orchestration of the Beethoven-Becker Erlking presents as much of a mystery as its reappearance in a stack of sheet music most of which belonged to the late George Reeves, the well-known accompanist, who was a member of the University of Illinois music faculty during the final period of his life. On the back of a printed copy of the Becker arrangement, found together with the Bartók arrangement, an unidentified hand has written in pencil the names of the pianist Margit Varró, one of Bartók’s more intimate friends, and Professor Scott Goldthwaite, for many years a member of the University of Illinois Musicology Division. But neither Madame Varró nor Professor Goldthwaite has been able to shed any light on the manuscript’s history.”

“The inevitable suspicion that this score might be a relic from his orchestration studies with Ferenc Szabó is quickly dispelled by a summary comparison with a variety of Bartók autographs accessible in facsimile. For one, his signature, especially the capital B and the small r, underwent marked changes during the years of artistic maturation preceding World War I. As far as that goes, the Erlking manuscript would seem to fall, broadly speaking, somewhere between the Kossuth Symphony (1904) and the opera Bluebeard’s Castle (1911).” Rnger at 308-309. The Thematic Catalogue of Bartók’s works (BB) tentatively dates the transcription to “c.1905.”

Ringer notes, “What sets Bartók’s orchestration completely apart from the Becker model is its highly sophisticated treatment of color and dynamics. Beethoven’s sketch contains but a single dynamic indication, a fortissimo sign on the last word of the phrase “mein Vater jetzt fasst er mich an,” followed immediately by “piano.” Becker, who added dynamics freely in accordance with his personal interpretation of the text, generally favored forte. Only Erlking himself speaks on a reduced dynamic scale, first pianissimo, then piano. Bartók, in contrast, uses the orchestra most effectively, not only for purposes of coloristic differentiation but also for a great variety of dynamic shades. A truly haunting instance occurs towards the end, as the child utters its dying words to the halting pianissimo chords of pizzicato strings.” Ringer at 310.

We hope you enjoy this intriguing collaboration between two great composers, heard here for the first time, likely since around 1905.