The introduction is not dissimilar to that of Die Nacht in terms of mood and nocturnal atmosphere; the successive gliding sixths in that work find their counterpart here in murmuring thirds. In Cronnan a full seven bars of prelude (marked Langsam, schauerlich - 'Slow, eerily') give the pianist ample time to establish the sombre mood of the forlorn hero 'at the peak of the stormy hill'. The accompanist might also be reminded of the opening of Der Zwerg where the fingers feel their way around the keyboard in a similarly ominous fashion and an equally portentous bass line paints the narrator's unease and depression. But this succession of double thirds in the right hand is even more directly related to Der Zwerg. The winds are the second of the elements mentioned in the opening words of Cronnan, but water is the first. These two works have the theme of water in common, of course – the gently undulating background on which the vocal lines of both songs have been masterfully grafted. The composer seems never to have been happier than when a text encouraged him to allow the well-spring of his imagination to create endlessly varied accompanimental motifs depicting the movement of water. If Cronnan's brackish source is far from the smooth sea of Der Zwerg, and hundreds of miles from the sparkling German streams of the composer's other aqueous imaginings, it is all grist to his ceaselessly turning mill. In this case he invented an accompaniment that sounded both watery and windy. As he came to set these words the composer could not have failed to notice with glee that the sea also makes an appearance in this poem's fourth sentence; as we shall hear, he made the best use of his opportunity here too, clearly differentiating between fountain and ocean.
Cronnan is not a character in the song in his own right but the name of the bard who recounts the story of Shilric and Vinvela while allowing them to speak their own words in direct speech. We have already met these star-crossed lovers from Ossian's (or rather Macpherson's) Carric-Thura in Schubert's duet Shilrik und Vinvela (D293, 20 September 1815). He composed Cronnan a fortnight earlier but it is in fact a continuation of the Shilric and Vinvela story, and incidentally a better piece. In Shilrik und Vinvela, it is Vinvela who doubts that her lover will return from battle. Although he seems to be very much alive (although one never knows with Ossian's shady circumlocutions!) he asks her to bury him with honour, and she vows to remember him always. As Cronnan continues their story in this new episode, Shilric has returned safely from battle (although he had not expected to, and he is the only one of his clan to survive) and finds that it is Vinvela who is dead. She has died from grief in the belief that he is dead (there is a touch of Romeo and Juliet about all this) and he sees her only as a ghost.
After the prelude, Cronnan (speaking Shilric's words) begins his recitation on a monotone, raising pitch with each bar but nevertheless conserving the feeling of an accompanied recitative. At 'über mir braust ein Baum' semiquavers in the right hand are supplemented by the shuddering demisemiquavers of the left, appropriate to branches caught up in a gale. When the sea comes into the picture there is forte storm music in which angry waves pound in the inner voices of the accompaniment while accented crotchets, like tolling bells, resound in the hands' extremities. As the hero shifts his gaze from sea to forest, the agitated music subsides and melts into a gentle fermata.
A new section marked Geschwind produces piano music, capriciously staccato and flighty, which is prophetic of the music for deer, both stag and hind, which Schubert wrote in Die Nacht. To introduce the recitative for 'Die Hirsche steigen vom Hügel herab' ('The deer descend from the hill') delicate scales twitch between the hands, as if the movement of a single deer in the right is nervously mirrored by the rest of the herd (companionable thirds as opposed to single notes) in the left. Walt Disney's team of animators spent hours examining the movements of real deer for Bambi, but Schubert, as is so often the case, seems to have studied things such as this in another life. Stentorian chords in sixths evoke the horn calls of the hunter for 'Kein Jäger wird in der Ferne gesehn'. After this a tiny interlude made up of a descending figure is repeated in sequence, the harmony all the while flattening (and thus giving the impression of a dying-down or withdrawal) until we reach a chord of D flat (in the original key of the song; it is sung here a minor third lower) which announces in curfew-like tones 'Es ist Mittag, aber Alles ist still' ('It is midday, but all is silent'). The accompanied recitative of 'Alles ist still' and the piano's bar of poignant echo which follows it are worthy of Mahler in their depth of romantic longing and heartbreaking harmonies; we are left in no doubt as to how much Shilric misses his beloved. The simpler recitative on 'Traurig sind meine einsamen Gedanken' sounds disorientated and ends on an A flat minor chord on a C flat bass. At the double bar this changes enharmonically to a B natural in the left hand, and supports a B7 chord which introduces Shilric's aria 'Erschienst du aber, O meine Geliebte'. This is marked Mässig geschwind. The agitation of this section, the height of its tessitura, and its refusal to settle into any key for longer than a bar, suggest a desperate search and the panic of someone abandoned and at a loss. The line 'dein Haar fliegend im Winde' ('Thy hair, floating on the wind before thee') seems to have inspired the accompaniment in which three semiquavers in the right hand fly behind a quaver in the left. At 'deine Augen voll Tränen' this changes to panting semiquavers, each note like a drop of tears which will result in a flood. Over these the vocal line achieves an operatic eloquence on 'dich wollt' ich trösten, o meine Geliebte' ('Thee I would comfort, my love'). This forte outburst dies down to a whimper in the piano.
It is then that he sees Vinvela. At first she seems real (a loud chord to accompany 'Aber ist sie es?'- 'But is that she?') but then, when he notices that she is as insubstantial as a beam of light, the dynamic of the accompaniment retreats to mezzo forte, and thence to an even more uncertain piano. After 'auf der Heide erscheint' a tiny phrase of four quavers introduces a miniature aria (it is perhaps more accurately an arioso) marked Etwas langsam and of ravishing effect. All the tenderness of his love for her seems encapsulated in these rather Mozartian phrases accompanied by a succession of thirds which suggest a physical embrace, as if the beautiful girl is cradled in Shilric's arms. Double thirds have already established themselves as a feature of the piece and John Reed sees in them a motif suggesting Vinvela's loyalty as well as her beauty. At the next recitative, 'Sie spricht' ('She speaks'), we are made to listen to the sheer euphony of these thirds (and euphony is surely a musical analogue for beauty) in ethereal semiquaver figures which decorate a C7 and then an F7 chord. These upwardly-arched figurations seem to stretch out towards something that is not really there; we can almost see Shilric's ear stretching out to catch the sound of Vinvela's voice. We can only wonder at Schubert's ability to mirror infallibly a complicated dramatic notion like this with the most simple of musical means. Needless to say, these bars set up the entrance of Vinvela in a way worthy of the music to come.
Vinvela now sings an arioso of rare beauty ('Kehrst du vom Kriege schadlos zurück?'). The piano doubles the voice as if to coax a frail spirit into vocal life and to guide her through the musical straits. The left hand stays almost entirely in the treble clef, an old Schubertian trick in which, by minimising the power of the bass line, the voice seems to dematerialise and come from another world. The dactylic rhythm (long-short-short) heard at 'Kehrst du vom' and at 'Wo sind deine' reinforces the impression that Vinvela is no longer of this world and that she speaks in some celestial guise. Schubert keeps this rhythm for the inscrutable workings of nature, the humming dynamo of the stars for example. But we also hear gravely beautiful dactyls in the last and greatest of Schubert's settings of Mignon's Heiss mich nicht reden and there is no doubt that the purity and innocence of Goethe's character, as well as her wisdom and pathos, are all prefigured in Vinvela's music which unites images of waif and wraith. Senn's Schwanengesang which talks of death and transfiguration also uses the same rhythm, not to mention the figure of death in Der Tod und das Mädchen.
There is a clever return to reality as Shilric's reaction to this music is brought back into a sharper focus; a G7 chord (all naturals) seems to cut a swathe across the chromatic complexities (and accidentals) of Vinvela's plaint. We are thereby thrown back into the real world; but we are soon to return to chromaticism. Shilric's short account of the death of his comrades is marvellously done, with just the right mix of grief and manly stoicism. The insidious descent of the phrase 'ich hab' ihre Gräber auf der Fläche errichtet' lays bodies to rest with the stately majesty of Schubert's other more celebrated gravediggers. His next question to Vinvela ('Aber warum bist du am Hügel der Wüste?') is straightforwardly accompanied by a chord or two, but those upwardly- and downwardly-floating thirds associated with loyalty and beauty make a reappearance as an introduction to her parting words. It would be difficult to find a better illustration in all Schubert for the richness of the composer's arioso style and how infinitely touching it can be. The setting of 'Shilrik, ich lieg' erblasst in dem Grab' is a masterstroke. It begins chromatically heartbroken and disorientated, but the last four words (in a simple dominant-tonic cadence – we are in A flat major at the time) find repose in an infinitely poised classical style which suggests there is no more need for romantic emotion. As a result we can almost hear her fade before our eyes; she retreats into the musical elegance of another age and from thence into the infinite.
The piano now has an interlude (marked Etwas langsam) which is one of the glories of the piece. 'Sie gleitet' (`She glides away') says Shilric, and the piano illustrates this process with stunning ingenuity, and before we hear the words. These four bars start in the middle of the keyboard and float upwards, seeming to evaporate as they do so. Built into the tender cadence just before 'sie gleitet' is also Shilric's longing and the ache of his bereaved heart. A further interlude of triplets then mirrors the words about Vinvela sailing away. He begs her to stay. Another severely classical cadence ('Im Leben warst du schön' - 'Fair thou wast') encapsulates his manly grief in terms which are heartbreaking in their understatement.
This is followed by something of a recapitulation of the C minor opening section. The music is far from the same – no facile repeat this – but it strikes the same mood. Shilric is back mourning by the mossy fountain, and the effect of a return of those murmuring watery semiquavers is to give the song a feeling of completion and wholeness rare in the longer ballads. The text must take the credit for this; whether or not Ossian was genuine is immaterial to the effect that Macpherson's words had on Schubert's imagination. As in many of the composer's da capo passages, the life of the narrator has been changed forever by what has happened in the middle section. Thus do memories of Vinvela enliven and warm the song's conclusion. He begs her spirit to reappear to him. The setting of 'Komm auf dem leichtbeflügelten Hauche' ('Come on the light-winged gale') is enchantingly delicate, with piano writing which whispers and dances, beguiles and sings. We soon lose this feminine presence however; it is, after all, only a chimera. We return to the more sombre progression of thirds which lead the song to its melancholy conclusion. There are surprises up to the end however: the penultimate bar of the piece has a superbly unusual harmonisation of the semiquavers in the inner voices of the accompaniment. The composer has been at his magical best throughout. Cronnan is a masterpiece which deserves to be revived by tenors and baritones. We have assigned the role of Vinvela to a soprano in this performance in the spirit of a Schubertiad, but there is nothing to say that one male singer should not sing her music too. After all, it is the bard Cronnan who is recounting the story of Shilric and Vinvela, and we have no proof that Schubert thought of this music specifically as a duet.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994