Most of the Ossian settings slumber at the back of Volume 4 of the Peters Edition and rarely reach the concert hall. Of course we now know that 'Ossian' was a fake front for James Macpherson, and there is something outmoded, even faintly ridiculous, about this 'Celtic twilight' world of moors, mists and heroes. But there is something glorious about it as well, with the appeal of a black-and-white film of the forties - Wuthering Heights or Rebecca perhaps - both of which depend on bleak, stormy locales where one accepts the larger-than-life performances (some of which border on caricature) because of the sheer romantic sweep of events and the skill of the direction. One also forgets for a moment that Brontë and Du Maurier are here inauthentic and misrepresented - that they have been cut and changed in the interest of cinematic effect, and that the screenplay inevitably fails to match the original prose of the novels. However 'fake' one may judge the Ossian 'screenplays' to be, it is clear that they serve their purpose in that they enable Schubert to have a grand time as producer, director and general régisseur. In any case one should not apologise for Macpherson too much; he was a considerably talented pasticheur who would have made a fortune as a writer of historical novels today. The world of Carricthura, as one of Macpherson's epics is titled, may seem near to caricature, but in a twentieth-century world which accords cult status to Tolkien and his invented mythology, not to mention more recent sci-fi fantasies, the Ossianic world should appear far from ridiculous. As for Schubert, he recycled the bleak and atmospheric moods he had captured in the Ossian settings into many other songs. Without this apprenticeship would he have been able to capture the atmosphere of wintry discontent of Winterreise?
For some reason Der Tod Oscars is perhaps the least likely of the Ossian settings to get an Oscar (at least Hollywood unwittingly embraced Ossian to the extent of giving away statuettes to a name of his creation.) It lacks the spellbound atmosphere of Die Nacht, the melodic sweep of Kolmas Klage, the ghostly evocations of Lodas Gespenst, and the sheer symphonic sweep and formal unity of Cronnan. But what it does have is the best story. Instead of a generalised mood-picture, blurred around the edges, we have an easy-to-follow passionate tale about two men who loved the same girl, but who loved honour and each other more. The story has resonances of David and Jonathan, Virgil's Nisus and Euryalus who perished in battle together, and the Sacred Band of Thebes. As such it seems to belong to the Mayrhofer songs of Greek antiquity (Uraniens Flucht comes to mind) although Schiller's Die Bürgschaft also elevates friendship to this quasi-sacred level. The heated debate about Schubert's sexuality that has long been raging between Vienna and New York (the former rather predictably defending a heterosexual orthodoxy on his behalf, the latter, also some what predictably, preferring to see him as gay) seldom takes note of the song texts to which he was drawn. Although there is nothing in Der Tod Oscars which proclaims overt homosexual sympathies (at this stage in his life we know that Schubert was devoted to the baker's daughter Therese Grob), the composer shows here that he understands passionate and committed friendship 'passing the love of women.' He had left school relatively recently (where only boys were accepted as pupils), and his circle already included such figures as the attractive Schober and the ambivalent Mayrhofer. It seems probable that Schubert was as vulnerable to the 'crushes' of adolescence as any sensitive teenager, and it would scarcely be unusual that two sets of strong, even sensual, emotions should co-exist for his male and female friends. It may well be that these feelings continued to run on parallel, rather than conflicting, paths throughout his life. In Der Tod Oscars Dermid and Oscar are both fiercely attracted to the daughter of Dargo and fight to the death over her, but the tragedy here is that in killing Dermid, Oscar proves the point that 'each man kills the thing he loves' (to quote another Oscar). Schubert's music depicts the pair's manly prowess with great ease, but it is one of the composer's glories, and surely significant in understanding his character, that his feminine side is equally strong: the vulnerability and tenderness of Oscar, a man guilt-ridden and bereft without his friend, are also painted unselfconsciously and naturally.
For the purposes of this commentary the poem printed above has been divided into sections which correspond to the musical sections of Schubert's setting. This does not of course correspond to how the 'poem' was originally printed in continuous prose.
1: The ballad opens with an impassioned little introduction in the piano - two sequential phrases and a third bar which falls to a diminished chord. It is one of those works which opens rhetorically in midstream; before the song starts we have to imagine a question put to Oscar's father about his son's death. This initiates a burst of emotion which suggests welling tears and a painful surge of memory. The composer's marking at the beginning of the song is 'Mässig, in schmerzlicher Erinnerung' (Moderato, in painful recollection). The phrase 'Meine Augen sind von Tränen erblindet' (My eyes are blind with tears) is set to a descending chromatic phrase which changes direction on the erblindet as if to suggest a tear-stained face turning upward and warming to his narrative task (it is astonishing how Schubert's music often powerfully suggests body language). The whole of this opening section, in fact an extended recitative in the grand manner, ends on a question ('Wie kann ich … erzählen?', 'How shall I find a way to tell this tale?'). Having asked himself this, the old bard seems to come to a decision as if to say 'Ah, now I have it - thus!'.
2: A hefty semibreve E flat major chord announces the real beginning of the narrative in which the old seer partially addresses his interlocutor (the son of Alpin) and partially speaks directly to Oscar himself as might a fond parent imaging that their child were still alive. A march-like motif begins at 'Führer der Helden'; for the first two bars the voice is doubled by the piano in a sort of vocative unison. Each phrase begins forte with great resolve for two bars and is then balanced by another two bars which taper into a wistful piano, as if the narrator lacks the heart to continue in martial mode. This arioso section like a battle hymn from times long past is broken up by snatches of recitative which take Alpin's son into the narrator's confidence as if at least the real story of what happened is being told. It is all like an evening in Vienna where the visitor is told by one of the city's old survivors that whatever they may have thought or read, here is the truth - the scandal, the hidden secret, about Mahler, Wolf, Berg et al - handed down by word of mouth but never printed in the books.
3: At 'Einst war Dermid und Oscar' there is a change of key signature (for the first time) from E flat to F. For Schubert this means a type of time change. The mourning is over and we now begin to come to grips with the story itself by taking us right back to the beginning and explaining how strong the friendship between the two warriors was. This music manages to be both straightforward and tender. The setting of 'Wer glich Oscarn als Dermid?' followed by 'und wer Dermid als Oscar?' is strangely moving. The phrases are absolutely sequential and symmetrical; they belong to each other (thus suggesting that the two warriors are also indivisible) and they balance each other; the two names also scan in the same way (a heavy syllable followed by a light). Schubert follows 'und wer Dermid als Oscar' by two pairs of chords in the piano which silently recite the two names, the first pair (dominant to tonic in the key of F) answered and complemented by the second (the same harmonies resolving an octave lower) a perfect tonal analogue for two hearts joined as one.
A simple recitative introduces the enemy Dargo who is quickly dispatched. Just as quickly his daughter is introduced.
4: The arioso - marked 'Sanft' (softly) in response to the sentence in the bar before where the girl is described as 'sanft wie der Strahl des Abends' - is in a gently luminous B flat. It praises the girl's eyes which are like stars. Both the tune and the dotted rhythm of the accompaniment are strongly prophetic of the Mayrhofer song Nachtviolen which also uses metaphors taken from nature to describe eyes. This motif yields to a cradling accompaniment to describe her floating breasts. The two heroes fall in love with her suddenly: two chords under 'sie ward von den Helden gesehen und geliebt' are only a semitone apart but enough to signal the sudden and irrevocable change in their lives. This shift into G flat major continues for the words 'Jeder liebte sie gleich seinem Ruhm' ('Each loved her as his fame') which are significantly set twice, the second tune a sequence of the first as if even in this the two men are twinned, and that it is inevitable that they should fall in love with the same girl. The girls own reactions ('Aber ihr Herz wählte Oscarn' - 'but her heart chose Oscar' in Macpherson's original) are tenderly shown by a sensual shift from C flat major (B) to E major and an arioso marked 'Mässig'; she prefers Oscar and for a moment we glimpse how she feels in her attraction to one of the men rather than the other. A veil is drawn over the fact that she seems strongly drawn to the very man who has just killed her father.
5: The next aria (still in E major) 'Caruths Sohn sprach Dermid' is marked 'Etwas geschwind'. The subject matter is deadly rivalry for a woman's hand but Schubert's chromatic shifts (the music is almost like a three-part invention à la Bach) perfectly captures the anguish and guilt felt by both men and also their tenderness for each other. Their conversation is neither loud nor angry - even this catastrophe does not essentially ruin their friendship. Dermid wishes to be killed, but only by Oscar who naturally declines the honour.
6: Oscar is eventually persuaded to fight. E major yields to E flat major and three loud martial chords which will form the musical basis, on various pitches, of the cut and thrust of their fight. 'Dermid, brauch' deine Klinge' ('Make use of your sword') says Oscar 'Would that I fell with thee! That my death came from the hand of Dermid.' The battle music for piano, rather Beethovenian in manner (dotted rhythms alternating with the three-chord motif) is among the best of its genre in Schubert's ballads. When blood begins to run, and after the words 'und rann um die bemoosten Steine', it is very clear in the piano music when Dermid's body sinks to the ground on a diminished chord. The cadence at 'fiel und lächelte im Tod' (fell, and smiled in death) suddenly marked 'Langsam', is exquisite. This passage vividly brings to mind A E Housman's lines about the soldier and foeman,
That took the sabre straight and took it striking
And laughed and kissed his hand to me and died.
7: The fight is followed by a recitative ('Und fällst du, Erzeugter Diarans'). A criticism of the remainder of this piece may be that the death of Dermid seems to knock the stuffing out of the music as well as out of Oscar. Nothing now seems to have much vigour. A mournful interlude after 'seh' ich dich also erliegen?' has the quality of music for a Passion or Stabat Mater with a slightly old-fashioned chromatic character. (Schubert was to write a Stabat Mater to a Klopstock text (D383) in the same month.) After a monstrously insensitive question from the maid, 'Why that gloom, son of Caruth?' (surely she must have guessed all was not well? If not, all does not bode well for their marriage!) a strangely jaunty 3/8 aria in A flat major follows ('Einst war ich O Mädchen, im Bogen berühmt' - 'Once renowned for the bow, O maid I have lost my fame'). It is the music of dissembling and forced jollity. At 'Am Baum, beim Bache des Hügels, hängt der Schild' ('fixed on the tree by the brook of the hill is the shield') dotted rhythms re- establish the martial character of the music at the same time as suggesting a shield suspended in mid-air and slightly shuddering in the wind. It is clear that the daughter of Drago is no blushing flower and is accomplished at archery. Oscar cleverly tricks her into trying out the bow so that she should kill him. The whole of this section sounds like a casual game, as indeed it must seem to be to the duped girl. After 'in meiner Kunst frohlockte mein Vater' a rather remarkable seven-bar piano interlude turns and tightens the screw of harmonic tension in such a way as to suggest the winding-up of a crossbow (a typically Ossianic anachronism). It is all over in a flash and the arrow pierces his breast.
8: Here the most disjointed and surprising harmonic juxtaposition takes place. After being hit in four flats, Oscar delivers his dying swansong ('Heil, der schneeweissen Rechten') in four sharps, suddenly transfigured by his Liebestod. His last request is to be buried next to Dermid. The girl is made of stern stuff and kills herself too, perhaps in desperation that her beauty was not consolation enough for the death of Oscar's friend. At this point the accumulation of deaths is proving to be somewhat unintentionally comic but 'Sie fiel … bebte … und starb' is set to an noble cadence which leads the music back to E flat major. The postlude (from 'Ihre Gräber liegen beim Bache des Hügels' is once again in the composer's best Ossianic style with a gravity worthy of an aged narrator. The demisemiquaver oscillations which accompany 'wenn der Mittag seine glühenden Flammen ausstreut' (when mid-day is all in flames) flicker in masterful illustration reminiscent of Cronnan where the same figuration describes the movement of leaves and waves.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995
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