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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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