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Das Mädchen von Inistore, D281

First line:
Mädchen Inistores, wein’ auf dem Felsen
September 1815; published as part of volume 4 of the Nachlass
author of text
author of text
translator of text

Mention Ossian to the Schubert enthusiast and he will immediately think of ballads like Die Nacht and Cronnan. But here is another setting which, like Ossians Lied nach dem Falle Nathos, is a real song, compact and eloquent rather than discursive and diffuse. At first glance it seems to be in conventional ABA form (there is a sense of recapitulation on the second ‘O Mädchen Inistores!’) but closer examination shows that in essence it is a through-composed song which responds imaginatively to a number of illustrative challenges in the text.

The key is an eloquent C minor and the nature of the music is such that one cannot help looking for an operatic model. Die Zauberflöte was the inspiration behind many of Schubert’s earlier ballads and songs, but in this case Ossian’s ‘ancient’ text (Schubert thought it was genuinely ancient anyway) seems to have called up an older musical shade. There is an elevated tone of mourning in the grand manner in Das Mädchen von Inistore which recalls a musical style both impassioned and statuesque, and Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice comes to mind. The composer was said to have known that work from the score although he never saw it performed. The interval between C and E flat a minor third higher at the start of the tune recalls Eurydice’s ‘Che fiero momento’ in the third act of Gluck’s opera. Schubert uses the mournful whine inherent in this interval to suggest whistling wind, the weeping of the maiden and the howling of the dogs. In this early use of a type of Leitmotif technique, the piece achieves a formal unity rare in the Ossian settings. The middle section of the song beginning ‘Er ist gefallen!’ is in fact a recitative, but it is so masterfully incorporated into the whole that we do not notice the boundaries between one type of writing and another. This was undoubtedly the composer’s aim. Particularly moving is the final section which begins ‘In seiner Halle liegt sein Bogen’ where the hero’s absence is felt in music which seems hopeless and empty without him. The hardest thing is to write music about silence, but Schubert manages it here. Mournfully pivoted around D flat, the flattened supertonic, the same phrase is repeated three times, each time quieter than before. The effect of a softening D natural on the final ‘keinen Schall’ is that Trenar de-materializes before our very ears, as if he had never been. The bereft little piano postlude (nothing more than a downward C minor arpeggio) is the antithesis of the grand air of dramatic tragedy and bereavement which opened the piece; it is as if the pomp of public grief has ceded to the reality of personal loss. Johannes Brahms was also attracted by this poem (albeit in a different translation) which he set in 1862 as his Op 17 No 4, an extremely beautiful setting for women’s chorus, two horns and harp.

It is Trenar rather than Nathos who is mourned in this song, but the same theme of bereavement and admiration for those fallen in battle governs the music as in Ossians Lied nach dem Falle Nathos. The background to the story (including a typically British concern for dogs’ and horses’ relationship to their masters) is provided by James Macpherson’s footnote: ‘The maid of Inistore was the daughter of Gorlo, King of Inistore or Orkney islands. Trenar was brother to the King of Iniscon, supposed to be one of the islands of Shetland. The Orkneys and Shetland were at that time subject to the King of Lochlin. We find that the dogs of Trenar are sensible at home of the death of their master, the very instant he is killed. It was the opinion of the times that the souls of heroes went immediately after death to the hills of their country, and the scenes they frequented the most happy times of their life. It was thought too that dogs and horses saw the ghosts of the deceased.’

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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