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Lodas Gespenst, D150

First line:
Der bleiche, kalte Mond erhob sich in Osten
first published in 1830 as volume 3 of the Nachlass
author of text
author of text
translator of text

The words of this ancient Gaelic bard were really the invention of James Macpherson, a Scottish student of Gaelic mythology who pretended to have discovered a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts which he then rendered into English. It is sad that Macpherson felt he needed to stand behind a bogus historical figure; his words are inventive and atmospheric enough to have earned him considerable renown in his own right. The same applied to Thomas Chatterton, another celebrated hoaxer of the eighteenth century who was talented enough to have achieved literary fame on his own account. It is true that without the bogus patina of historical authenticity, the re-discovery of a tribe of noble savages of impeccable honour and untainted naturalness, German writers like Herder and Goethe would have been less interested in these prose poems heavily loaded with misty atmosphere, short on historical accuracy and rich in (sometimes hilarious) anachronism. Dr Johnson was one of those who scoffed from the first, much to Macpherson's fury. Macpherson's motive was partly to draw attention, using whatever means possible, to what he perceived to be a dying and neglected national culture; Ossian's effusions were some of the best publicity that the cause has ever received. The Gaelic language as a part of Scotland's national heritage has very recently been in the news as a result of a British government decision to subsidise a Gaelic television service, perhaps the most important event in the language's history since the Macpherson fabrications turned the gaze of the world on Fingal and his countrymen.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his semi autobiographical Dichtung und Wahrheit (Book III, Chapter 13) described the literary atmosphere during the period when he wrote his first successful novel, Werther: 'Ossian lured us off to Ultima Thule, where we roamed about on the infinite grey heath amidst protruding mossy gravestones, looking around us at the grass blown by a chill wind, and above us at the heavily clouded sky. Only by moonlight did this Caledonian night really become day: perished heroes and vanished maidens hovered about us, and we actually began to believe that we had seen the ghost of Loda in its fearsome form.' This song describes the moment when Fingal the warrior king confronts the ghost of Loda (Odin in Norse mythology) and in standing up to him banishes the power of the god and superstition. Lodas Gespenst is Schubert's eighth Ossian setting (there are ten altogether) and one of the most successful of them, despite Capell's contention that the pages are 'singularly barren'. In fact this work is one of the most concise, fast-moving and exciting of the Ossian settings. The translation into German is by a figure almost as mysterious as Ossian himself—Baron Edmund de Harold.

The poem is a long piece of prose, and as such it does not fall into verses convenient for the printing of a parallel translation. I have accordingly divided the piece into eight sections coinciding with Schubert's musical treatment of the poem.

Section 1: 'Der bleiche, kalte Mond erhob sich in Osten'. The piece is marked 'Düster' (dark, sombre) and the opening ritornello in G minor, with its mezzo staccato chords, is full of muted suspense. Not nearly as atmospheric as the opening of Die Nacht, this passage has more in common with the introduction to Leichenphantasie. The recitative is peaceful with an undertow of unease. The gradually fading night-fire ('das sterbende Feuer') is illustrated, before the words are sung, by a series of harmonies in chromatic descent evocative of dying embers. A sudden 'Geschwind' shows us the highly restless state of the king whose climb up the hill to Sarno's tower is cleverly depicted by a vocal line which moves wearily upward (recitative here, as throughout the piece, alternates with arioso and brief interludes of illustration for the piano). By the time the spirit of Loda appears ('es stieg ein Windstoss vom Hügel herab') we are in the key of D flat; the piano doubles the vocal line in a passage heavy with portent. A martial phrase in B flat minor depicts spear-shaking and tremolandi paint the flame-like flicker of the spirit's eyes. It seems that we have arrived at this point in the story rather quickly, almost as if Fingal is rather used to the appearance of the god in this manner and, being accustomed to the phenomenon, is now prepared to stand up to it. In a confrontation that is somewhat reminiscent of that between Siegfried and Wotan, Loda attempts to dissuade Fingal from raising the siege of Carric-Thura.

Section 2: 'Zieh' dich zurück, du Nachtsohn'. Schubert has reserved some of the least complicated music in the piece for the aria (marked 'Ernst'—'serious') of the brave and down-to-earth Fingal. Fear is banished along with any complicated chromatic progressions. This passage in F major, with its trills and striding basses, could have come from a Handel oratorio; there is even a brief suggestion of counterpoint between voice and piano. This is all appropriate for a warrior king of few words who is not afraid to defy the god, and fulfil his destiny.

Section 3: Loda's reply begins with a recitative ('Mit hohler Stimme versetzte der Geist'), but his principal utterance is a noble aria in B flat ('Vor mir beugt sich das Volk', marked 'Mässig, kraftvoll'—'Moderate, powerful'. Schubert succeeds in giving the aggrieved god a lofty tone. There is menace in the use of the piano to double the voice at 'Auf Völker werf' ich den Blick' and considerable excitement is stirred up by the dotted rhythm (rather Beethovenian in its effect) used to denote the puffing and blowing of the god's revenge. Then the return to B flat for 'Aber mein Sitz ist über den Wolken' lifts the mood of this section from unseemly bickering to dignified Olympian majesty, all the more effective for its pianissimo markings. Macpherson remarks in a footnote that 'there is a great resemblance between the terrors of this mock divinity, and those of the true God, as they are described in the 18th Psalm.' He is here referring to its eighth verse: 'There went up a smoke out of his nostrils, and fire out of his mouth devoured: coals were kindled by it.' It was Macpherson himself of course who was responsible for the seemingly mysterious similarities between the two texts.

Section 4: The whole of this section (beginning 'Bewohn' deine angenehmen Gefilde') is recitative, cleverly crafted with its rising sequences to depict Fingal screwing up the courage to confront Loda once and for all. Fingal defends his actions and his own record of bravery in battle. The rhythm of the section 'Warum runzelst du denn deine Stirn' is gestural; it suggests a shaken fist or spear. Macpherson, with a semblance of great textual scholarship, explains Fingal's audacious blasphemy in the following note: 'Whether a proof could be drawn from this that Ossian had no notion of a divinity, I shall leave to others to determine: it appears, however, that he was of opinion, that superior beings ought to take notice of what passed among men'.

Section 5: Loda's riposte summons up some of Schubert's best music for the piece. A memorable martial passage in C minor ('Fleuch zu deinem Land') with an accompaniment that suggests the flourish of hunting horns builds up into an impressive aria aided by a series of rousing sequences. This music is repeated after an interlude of recitative. There is something in the military nature of this which prophesies the stirring music of warring clans, galloping horses and pacing imprisoned nobility in the composer's Walter Scott settings of nine years later; we hear a ghostly presentiment of the polonaise style of Lied des gefangenen Jägers. Perhaps this music is the beginning of Schubert's Scottish style? If so, he seems to find the national characteristics of Scots and Poles, two proud and warlike nations, somewhat interchangeable from the musical point of view. Robert Schumann was inclined sometimes to make Polish and Spanish dance music one and the same in his genre pieces.

Section 6: Loda waves his spear ('er hob sein schattigen Speer in die Höhe') but it proves rather wooden. This section marked 'Geschwind' has nothing new to frighten Fingal (or us) as it is built on already familiar hunting horn motifs. The most exceptional passage depicts the dematerialisation of the ghost once Fingal has struck Loda's spear with his sword. The piano interludes both before and after 'Die Bildung zerfloss gestaltlos in Luft' are remarkably descriptive of wreaths of smoke, disembodied and cleansed of the god's malevolent presence; the hushed euphony of thirds and sixths drains the music of the chromatics of conflict. Once again tremolandi are used (before 'Innistore bebte beim Klang') but Schubert puts them to work deep in the bass clef in order to suggest earthquake and the subverting of the order of the gods, and thus of nature itself. The very waves stop in their tracks in fear. To mirror this phenomenon, rumbling oscillations cease in favour of staccato crotchets, and a most startling and unlikely modulation from C minor to C sharp minor is achieved to illustrate the perverting of the laws of earthly harmony.

Sectrion 7: Schnell—in A major—'Die Freunde von Fingal'. This is nothing more than a short section with a number of dramatic scale passages; it serves as a link to the recapitulation. There is an effective eleven-bar section at the end which paints the upheaval in the world caused by Fingal's hubris: semibreve chords lead to snatched staccato crotchets, with portentous bars of rest to depict awe-struck silence between. As another spear-shaker (or Shakespeare) once observed, 'The rest is silence.'

Section 8: 'Der Mond rückt' in Osten voran' has the same music as the opening, but then follows a repeat of this refrain reharmonised in the relative major of B flat because the danger has been resolved by Fingal's bravery. The final page of the work seems as if the piano part were written for wordless choir. The effect is joyful enough without quite seeming to measure up to the rest of the piece. The final five bars, a postlude for piano, seem almost deliberately banal (they are marked 'Bieder' which means honest, naive or simple) and it may be, as Fischer-Dieskau contends, that the composer wanted to illustrate the tribe's return to normality after its brush with the fantastic world of the spirits. Fischer Dieskau also notes that Carl Loewe uses the same effect in Prinz Eugen where this tremendously rousing ballad has a strangely quiet and seemingly apologetic single bar of piano postlude. In any case, in 1830 Diabelli judged Lodas Gespenst to be unpublishable as Schubert had left it. He enlisted the help of Leopold Sonnleithner (a friend of the composer since July 1816) to change the text and to adapt Punschlied, a drinking song by Schubert, as a rousing finale. Die Nacht suffered something of a similar fate. According to his memoirs, Sonnleithner regretted the part he had played in fiddling with Schubert's work. Lodas Gespenst can be an effective piece in performance (it has the advantage of being of comparatively manageable length) but it needs good dramatic timing and a cracking pace to make it, in Macpherson's own words, 'the most extravagant fiction in all Ossian's poems.'

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993


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