The story is set around 1700. The hero is Clement Cleveland, a buccaneer who is shipwrecked on the Shetland coast. He is rescued and brought ashore, but his exotic presence wreaks havoc on the tightly knit community to which chance has brought him. Ulla Troil, or Norna of the Fitful-head as she is known because of the towering sea-cliff where she dwells as a recluse, believes she possesses supernatural powers. Her bogus spells and prophecies enable her to meddle in the lives of the superstitious islanders with fateful results for herself and her son, whom she eventually discovers to be Cleveland himself.
The song occurs in Chapter XIX of the novel. Brenda and Minna, daughters of Magnus Troil, are both having nightmares in which they hear 'some wild runic rhyme, resembling those sung by the heathen priests of old, when the victim (too often human) was bound to the fatal altar of Odin or of Thor.' They awake to find Norna sitting in their room and singing 'in a slow, sad, and almost unearthly accent.' She has come in the middle of the night to recount a complex narrative of woes. Today these portentous comings and goings would be the stuff (and nonsense) of high comedy; even the Victorians dispatched their pirates to Never Never Land or Penzance. Schubert endows Norna with more than a hint of hocus pocus, but he allows her to take herself as seriously as she is taken by her gullible captive audience. The song is set in the mezzo or contralto range, taking its cue from Brenda's dreams of 'deep tones and wild and melancholy notes.' As befits an incantation, it is strophic except for the vocal line at 'ihr Schein verlischt', the 6/8 rhythm swaying from side to side, which chimes with Scott's description of Norna 'who moved her body slowly to and fro over the pale lamp, as she sung.' The bottom-heavy accompaniment opaquely hugs the vocal line and suggests darkness and the smoke of the flickering lamp by which Norna sings. In gait and mood Nornas Gesang is reminiscent of the last two verses of Matthisson's Romanze, D114, which describe how the ghost of Rosalia de Montanvert haunts 'the ruins of the tower by the sea'—the type of scenario developed by Scott from his readings of early German romantic writers, transplanted to a Scottish milieu, and triumphantly re-exported to German lands.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991