This was an epoch when German philosophers led the way in understanding of, and tolerance for, the diversity of the different races of the world. Herder was one of the first to foster the idea of a culturally based non-aggressive nationalism. He had written a major essay on 'Ossian and the Songs of Ancient Peoples' as early as 1773, and as both philosopher and translator he helped bring Scottish culture to the attentions of the German-speaking world. Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of another great philosopher, underwent considerable physical discomfort, as did numerous other travellers, in his journey through Scotland. It seemed richly worthwhile, salutary even, for those who had read their Ossian and thrilled to Schiller's Maria Stuart. The country was romanticism incarnate, and visitors agreed that the backward Scots had a strength and integrity which pointed to spiritual virtues long forgotten by nations with easier histories. The stage was set for the international triumphs of Walter Scott, himself a scholar of German literature and much influenced by Thomas Percy's anthology. Scott's The Lady of the Lake explores what he called 'the ancient manners, the habits and customs of the aboriginal race by whom the Highlands of Scotland were inhabited.'
This poem is known best in Loewe's celebrated setting which dates from 1818, nine years before Schubert's song. The Brahms duet, Op 75 No 1, was written fifty years afterwards. Schubert's song is much more simple than either, and it is probably because of this that it has been all but dismissed by the commentators. At first glance it seems to have little in common with the great songs of the composer's last years, but the hypnotic repitition of, say, the four verses of Des Fischers Liebesglück, D933 reminds us that the composer was showing a new interest in the challenges of the strophic song at this time. Many of the songs of Winterreise from the same year are also strophic and achieve the distilled simplicity which is the main characteristic of Eine altschottische Ballade. The setting is among the most phlegmatic the composer ever wrote from the point of view of notes (or lack of them); Schubert's response to murder most foul with a twist of implied incest is to lay the bones bare, and to allow the interpreters to do the rest. He resists the dramatic approach of Loewe and allows the murderer, and the instigator of that murder, to speak with the banality of true evil. As a young man he had been attracted to Sturm und Drang, but as a mature artist he refuses to do the obvious; there is no blood and thunder in the music, only a hollow type of shock and revulsion. If one accepts this, one can come to think of the underplaying of this setting as a masterly game of cat-and-mouse between the protagonists, and with the listener; it is certainly a song which seems ineffective on paper, but which somehow generates a sinister excitement in performance.
Loewe's Edward was published in 1824, and it is not impossible that Schubert was shown this setting, and perhaps challenged to equal it, by the pianist Marie Pachler with whom he was staying in Graz in September 1827. By coincidence, Josef Abel whose nativity scene had so appealed to Schubert at the art exhibition in 1816, had painted a portrait of Marie Pachler in 1817. On page 469 of Deutsch's iconographical volume we can see this picture—a Biedermeier muse with harp in rather a seductive pose. The link is rendered more curious by the fact that Frau Pachler was the mother of a little boy, Faust (for whom Schubert wrote a charming piano duet, Kindermarsch), and that the Scottish ballad set in Graz, at Marie's behest (so Faust's memoirs tell us), shows Edward and his mother caught up in a web of twisted evil. In the context of this programme, this song is a grisly antithesis to the idealised Christian relationship of mother and child.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991