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Ossians Lied nach dem Falle Nathos, D278
First line:
Beugt euch aus euren Wolken nieder, ihr Geister
September (?) 1815; published in 1830 as part of volume 4 of the Nachlass
author of text
author of text
translator of text

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Ossians Lied nach dem Falle Nathos, D278
The background to this story is rather a convoluted one, but nevertheless appropriate to the enthusiasms of a young and patriotic composer mindful of the heroes of his own country’s recent war with Napoleon. The poem (in reality a piece of prose) is taken from Dar-thula, one of the 22 books or sub-sections which make up Fingal (1762), the collection of so-called translations from the Gaelic by James Macpherson which initiated a European craze for Scotland and its past. In one of his ‘learned’ footnotes Macpherson tells us that Nathos (the name signifies youthfulness) was one of the three sons of Usnoth, Lord of Etha, who were sent to study the arts of warfare with the king of Ulster, their uncle Cuchullin. On arriving in the foreign kingdom the boys discovered that Cuchullin had recently died. Nathos successfully led the armies against the usurper, the villainous Cairbar, and earned the love of Dar-thula with whom Cairbar was also infatuated. Nathos and Dar-thula eloped, but a storm at sea stranded them within reach of the enemy forces. Despite the terrific bravery of the three sons of Usnoth, Nathos was slain and Dar-thula slew herself on her lover’s dead body. ‘Ossian’ takes up the story the night before the final battle, and tells the whole tale with a number of episodic flashbacks.

Much has already been written about James Macpherson in these commentaries: the listener is referred to the notes on Die Nacht (the use of a superscript after a song title denotes the Schubert Edition volume in which that song may be found), Shilrik und Vinvela, Kolmas Klage, Lodas Gespenst and Lorma which discuss the background to this elaborate literary hoax and the part it played in the formation of Schubert’s ballad style. This particular song, however, was written before the composer had established what was to become his typical Ossian manner. It is the second of Schubert’s settings of the Gaelic bard (Kolmas Klage was the first) and also one of the simplest. However wonderful the complexities of the later settings – extended dramatic scenes of recitative, aria and arioso of which Cronnan and Die Nacht are perhaps the greatest examples – there is something about the grand and uncomplicated utterance of Ossians Lied nach dem Falle Nathos which goes to the heart of the nineteenth century’s nostalgia for a distant mist-enshrouded past, peopled by savages of a fiery yet noble disposition. Hugo Wolf strikes a similar note in his Gesang Weylas where the music of the goddess of Mörike’s mythical realm of Orplid eschews complex chromaticism in favour of what might be termed an elaborate simplicity, a bardic diatonicism which reflects the eternal verities before man’s fall into the chromatic abyss. A similar gravity and clarity of utterance is heard at the end of the song and of course at the outset; the phrase ‘Beugt euch aus euren Wolken’ (another similarity with Gesang Weylas and its ‘Vor deiner Gottheit beugen sich Könige’) falls and bows in appropriately impressive hymn-like incantation and homage. By contrast, the music of the section beginning ‘Sein Kleid von Nebel sei nah’ departs from the harmonic simplicity of grave-side dirge; there is a restlessness here brought about by an astonishing chain of chromatic sequences. The affectionate fervour of ‘ach sein Gesicht war lieblich’ changes the mood once again; although the passage is safely ensconced in the dominant key (which thus prepares us for the recapitulation in the tonic) it is written for the upper reaches of the bass voice. This tessitura lends the music a heightened emotion as if a normally taciturn and deep-voiced warrior has been stirred to the point of weeping. As Richard Capell pointed out, this is one of the very few Ossian settings that can truly be called a song as opposed to a ballad. Although it may lack the scale and scope of some of the later masterpieces of the genre it nonetheless achieves a colour and mood that show the composer’s ability to create another world from far away and long ago.

from notes by Graham Johnson 1994

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