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Pain and Secrets

Worse than a pronated grip chin-up routine, Schubert's fiendish "Erlkönig" provides a tortured muscle-flailing workout like no other:

Schubert's Erlkönig - an exercise in repetitive muscle pain

Think of it: 4 minutes of spastic, non-stop, high-speed, highly coordinated arms feel like falling off barely a third of the way through! What i'd give to be able to play this on a nice, light 19th century Pleyel instead of our modern Steinway elephants...

My old teacher, Jorge Bolet, was the quintessential master of pianistic cheating. Hand over substitutions, clever fingering, subtle note omissions - his point was as long as it sounded good, who cares how you get the results? Here's my humble approach at cheating the fearsome Erlkönig:

My Erlkönig cheat

The red lines indicate where the left hand leaps up to give my right arm some relief - both hands simultaneously finger out the octave orgies with 3-2-1's.

Interestingly, a YouTube video of Fischer-Dieskau's pianist (whom i suspect to be the famed Gerald Moore, but i could be wrong...) reveals an even cleverer cheat - look carefully at the pianist's hands at the very beginning of the video:

Here's what this cheat looks like on paper:

Hey, if it works...

Essentially what's happening is that the pianist is taking the first note of every right hand triplet (wherever possible) as a single note with the left hand (omitting the top octave note of the right hand). Hey, sounds good to me - and sure is a LOT easier than being slavishly faithful to the masochistic muscle shredding score!

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Oh my goodness!!! This timing is spooky!! Hahaha! I JUST started learning this art song (e minor in my case), and I was fixed on playing it the 'real way' though I haven't gotten up to speed yet...these suggestions are a HUGE help! Thanks so much for posting!
by: Patrick Merrill (contact) - 09 May '07 - 20:07
Hahaha! Don't thank me - thank Mr. Moore for such a clever solution to a thorny problem! Oh, and thank YouTube - another cutting edge example of the pedagogical power of the 'net!
by: Hugh (contact) - 09 May '07 - 20:16
As I recall, Bolet's recording of Liszt's solo version is much slower than any singer would ever take it. And the Liszt version is easier in some respects!

I always find it amusing that the first "breather" occurs when the Erlking speaks for the first time, lulling us as well as the child. It's always such a tremendous relief to arrive at that moment and the next entrance of the bad guy. Very Screwtape-like.

I honestly never know what's going to happen over the last few pages. Sometimes I play most of the notes, and sometimes it's a free-for-all of substitutions and just plain faking, arms screaming like the child. But it's always exciting.
by: Michael Monroe (contact) - 10 May '07 - 13:11
"My old teacher, Jorge Bolet, was the quintessential master of pianistic cheating. Hand over substitutions, clever fingering, subtle note omissions"...I love it, and your teacher is quite correct. It's the overall affect that is important. Oh, and your construct "pianistic cheating" is wonderful! I'm stealing it... :)
by: John A. Carollo (contact) - 10 May '07 - 19:40
Hi Michael - wow, i'll have to track down that recording, thanks! I'm thinking now that the Liszt version of this would make an AMAZING visual recital piece...
by: Hugh (contact) - 12 May '07 - 12:15
Hi John - LOL! Steal away, my friend!
by: Hugh (contact) - 12 May '07 - 12:16
Hi Hugh,

You can hear the first 60 seconds of Schubert/Liszt/Bolet at Amazon (linked to my name).
by: Michael Monroe (contact) - 12 May '07 - 17:18
Thanks so much, Michael - hm, that IS slow!! Sounds really ominous and threatening too, especially with those lower octaves! Certainly sounds so much more playable than the original version, especially at that tempo!
by: Hugh (contact) - 12 May '07 - 20:02
My teacher at college, a fortepiano specialist, always said that Erlkonig would have been a lot easier on Schubert's piano than a modern Steinway. When I started learning it, years ago, he said, "Oh well, perhaps you'd better start digging up the road to get in shape"! I know exactly what Michael means about "arms screaming"... So thanks for the tips!
by: Valerie (contact) - 29 May '07 - 21:52
Although I always oppose "slavish faithfulness" to the point of negating reason, one must agree that 'tis better to strive to play all the notes as well as possible, and not just some of them, and also, to face the challenge head on as written. The pianist who can accomplish that, is the great pianist!

Walter Ramsey
by: Walter Ramsey (contact) - 14 Jun '07 - 20:27
The Liszt version may be easier in some respects, but I don't know of any pianist who could play those octaves as fast as they should be.
by: Jake (contact) - 12 Sep '07 - 00:48
Yes, yes, yes.
by: David White (contact) - 05 Oct '07 - 05:14
I am not up to tempo yet, although I'm quite fast, and I'm playing this on March 1st. e minor, in my case. I've been doing the metronome thing, increasing by 10 notches or so a day, and then decreasing by 5 notches the following day as a starting point. It never occurred to me to cheat, and now I'm too close to my deadline to change!!! I'm more worried about having a decent piano in the concert hall! I find that slight fingering changes make a huge difference-I'm putting 5 everywhere for the chords...
by: Brigitte Garzia-Capdeville (contact) - 05 Feb '08 - 14:02
I salute anyone brave enough to play this on a modern piano! I have just started learning in on my early square, and it is still quite taxing even with the feather-light action!
by: EMG (contact) - 18 Aug '08 - 20:32
Kissin's recording of the Liszt version is a lot faster than Bolet's; i can't tell if he's fudging the repeated octaves or not. which bears out Bolet's point. And I recall reading somewhere that Schubert admitted he couldn't play them, even on the instrument of his day--he turned the triplets into eighth notes.
by: rootlesscosmo (contact) - 05 Jul '09 - 16:32
Sounds really ominous and threatening too, especially with those lower octaves! Certainly sounds so much more playable than the original version, especially at that tempo!
by: Cassandra (contact) - 30 Apr '10 - 03:25

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Meta Information:

Title: Pain and Secrets
Date posted: May 09 '07 - 07:37
Filed under: Backstage Ballades

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