Schubert's first Ossian setting (Kolmas Klage) dates from 1815, as does his first foray into the Greek myths (Körner's Amphiaraos). It seems to me that wind-swept, misty Scotland was a northern counterpart to Schubert's Greece; if Greece was the cradle of intellectual civilization, Ossian's warriors and their women signposted a romantic age full of feeling, the more authentic for being untutored and instinctive. The last books Schubert ever read were by Fenimore Cooper whose Red Indians embody the attraction of the 'noble savage'. If ancient Greece meant clarity, light, hedonism, pagan energy in the major key, Fingal's Scotland was in the minor, mysterious and shrouded by the mists of time, cold rather than hot, more closely related to the sagas of the north in which all German speakers feel the background of their race. The warriors of Greece were capable of great heroism, but Ossian's heroes were even more like we ourselves would like to be—idealistically upright, trusty and true, with all the good and none of the bad of primitive peoples. The Rev Archibald Clark, gullibly defending Macpherson's integrity as late as 1870, writes of Ossian's female characters: 'in purity, dignity and tenderness (they are) immeasurably superior to the coarse, scolding, fighting goddesses of Homer'. Coarse in the gorse? Never! Schubert believed in the historical authenticity of this non-Christian race; in his mind they represented the power of the sacred and the ideal, a romanticised contrast to the searing reality of a Gretchen in extremis.
Section 1: (Vinvela) The introduction bears a disconcerting similarity to 'God Save the King', probably co-incidental, unless Schubert had heard the tune hammered out at the first performance of Beethoven's 'Battle' Symphony in December 1813, or perhaps all around Vienna in celebration of the Allied victory at Waterloo a few months before he wrote this ballad. Shilric and Vinvela were, after all, British citizens in the broadest sense. All the musical illustrations, in the manner of Haydn's Die Schöpfung, precede what they describe: the flight of the deer (two of them, male and female in canonic imitation), the panting dogs (the modulation between two bouts of panting suggests great doggy willingness to please) and the fluttering sound of reverberating bow strings. The aria beginning 'Ruhst du bei der Quelle des Felsen' a duet between the vocal line and a cello in the pianist's left hand, is a ravishing example of Schubert's water and nature music. When Vinvela goes to look for Shilric and decides to `behold him from the rock' (the fast interlude before 'Ich sah dich zuerst liebreich') the climbing modulations echo the astonishing music to the same purpose in Haydn's Arianna a Naxos. This is followed by a short recitative which ends with a melting setting of 'der Schönste'; Schubert is stricken by Shilric's beauty through Vinvela's eyes.
Section 2: (Shilric) We are not certain, as is often the way with this poetry, if we are dealing with Shilric in person, or whether it is his spirit who speaks in the manner of Mahler's Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a genre of Knaben Wunderhorn poem much influenced by Ossian. Schubert finds a wonderful little figure—a crotchet followed by a dotted minim in rising sequences—which is a perfect tonal analogue for the pricking up of Shilric's ears before the lines 'Was ist's für eine Stimme?' The same type of eloquent flowing plaint accompanied by double thirds ('Ich sitz' nicht beim neigenden Schilfe') can be heard in the mourning music for the warrior killed at the end of the Kenner Ballade, D134. The dogs pant dutifully as they are mentioned. The cupola of heavenly skies and the moon on the waters inspire a magical ten bars of infinite tenderness and rapture.
Section 3: (Vinvela) This is set-piece aria in G minor which lacks some of the spontaneity of the recitatives. It has an old-fashioned eighteenth-century air, as if Schubert is attempting to depict the stoicism of former times. 'Felde der Gräber' plunges the voice to an all-time low with the worms. But this is followed by 'Ihr Fremden, ihr Söhne der Wellen' which is somehow much more personal—a twice-repeated phrase of Mozartian beauty and poise.
Section 4: (Shilric) Steadfast music this, in F minor—a song of duty (Mit Würde) having to master love with a heavy heart but a patriotic will. The sixths between voice and accompaniment of 'Graue Steine' are stonily uncompromising. The casual everyday quality of the recitative 'wenn der Jäger beim Haufen wird sitzen' is lifted into realms of immortal fame and memory by a shift from F minor into a hushed G flat. Shilric's last arioso to his beloved, 'erinnre dich meiner, o Vinvela' achieves a genuinely lofty tone, and returns this section to F minor.
Section 5: (Vinvela) Without any ado, Vinvela starts her final aria in A major. This gives a sudden lift to the proceedings that some have found inappropriate for a war widow ('Not altogether sorry to be rid of him' opines John Reed). This music begins with the same heady defiance of death, and its supposed ability to kill love, that we find in Hektors Abschied (D312) written less than a month later. But it conveys a more subtle mixture of emotions than most battle paeans. 'Ich werde diese Hügel am Mittage durchstreichen' suggest Vinvela as a prototype of Norna the roving soothsayer. The end of the piece does not end in a blaze of glory; we are left, rather, with Vinvela's private grief. The postlude in simple minims consigns Shilric softly to immortality in her breast; it is the Celtic counterpart to the heavenly means by which Ganymed is lifted to immortality on a cloud of rising minims in the final bars of his song. The mythologies of Ossian and that of the ancient Greeks are related to each other in Schubert's mind.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991