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Kolmas Klage, D217

First line:
Rund um mich Nacht
published in 1830 as volume 2 of the Nachlass
author of text
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The young Schubert of 1815–1817 was mightily taken by the poetry of Ossian. Kolmas Klage was the first of Schubert's 'Ossian' settings (and, in John Reed's opinion, the best of them) and one may wonder how it was that the composer came across this poetry for the first time. To this question there seems to be both a literary and a musical answer.

Like every German speaker of the time Schubert was sure to have read Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774). Towards the end of that influential novella, Werther, contemplating suicide, has his last meeting with his beloved Charlotte:

'Have you brought nothing to read?' she enquired. He had nothing. 'There in my drawer,' she continued 'is your own translation of some of the songs of Ossian. I have not read them yet. I always hoped to hear you recite them; but it never seemed possible to arrange it.' He smiled, and fetched the manuscript. A tremor ran through him as he took it in his hand, and his eyes were filled with tears as he looked at it. He sat down and read.

Werther reads aloud none other than the story of Colma in which the heroine discovers the bodies of her lover and brother who have slain each other in mortal combat. Goethe continues: 'Werther and Charlotte felt their own fate in the misfortunes of Ossian's heroes—felt this together, and merged their tears.' In the novella Colma's tragedy unfolds in Goethe's own translation which uses a far more complete rendering of Macpherson's narrative than we find in Schubert's song.

Schubert was also familiar with the story of Colma from a musical setting by Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752–1814), a song entitled simply Ossian which dates from 1798. The younger composer must have composed his own setting direct from Reichardt's music, using the same anonymous poetic translation of Macpherson's prose. To a certain extent Schubert also modelled the musical shape of Kolmas Klage on the older composer's ideas. This type of imitation (and improvement, for the young master's inspiration almost always eclipses the original) is to be found often enough when Schubert encounters the ballads of Zumsteeg and reworks them in a spirit of what might be termed back-handed homage; this work shows that Reichardt (the subject of a recent biography by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) was an equally powerful influence on him.

This stormy ballad, apparently popular enough at one time to warrant inclusion in Volume 2 of the Peters Edition, is now almost totally neglected. It has certain curious features not typical of Schubert's songs—the lack of any piano introduction is very unusual for a work of this size, for example. Its most unsettling aspect, however, and one which has probably kept it out of the concert hall, is its form: a rousing strophic song in three verses (C minor, 'Ziemlich langsam' in alla breve time) is followed by two slow movements (A flat major and F minor) which for all their beauty fail to live up to the momentum and impact of the opening. Of course the composer has scrupulously followed the sense of the words where the description of a storm yields to moonlight and then Colma's tragic but introverted and contained lament. Perhaps if Schubert had set the final verse, as Reichardt had done, a more rousing finale would have been possible, but he preferred to leave Colma singing 'will ich ewig ruh'n', and very beautiful it is. Placing the work in a group of songs in a recital, however, could easily make an anticlimactic impression.

Sections 1-3: Influenced by the no-frills directness of an earlier age of song composers, Schubert has the voice plunge immediately into the fray, and a tremendous whirlwind effect is whipped up in the accompaniment by 'mezzo staccato' triplets in the right hand accompanied by rumbling sextuplets in the left. For the vocal line Schubert has found just the right grandeur to suggest druidic incantation—this is not a song for a small voice. On the words 'der Sturm braust vom Gebirg' ascending staccato triplets in the left hand are precursors to the storm accompaniment of Die junge Nonne of a decade later. Much of this strength of purpose is to be found in Reichardt's music, but it is the romantic heaving of Schubert's affecting modulations (the semitone rise between 'Der Sturm' and 'Der Strom' for example) which outclasses the older composer's efforts. The way Schubert has set the sixth and seventh lines of the poem with a dying fall on the word 'Regen' in F minor followed by an ascending answering sequence and a cadence in A flat on 'Hügel' is magnificently effective. In fact the seventeen bars which comprise the first verse are such a success that it is little wonder that they are deemed good enough to repeat twice, the composer merely indicating in the score that the mood of the second verse should be lighter (as the moon is called on for assistance) and more stormy for the third.

Sections 3-4: This is a beautiful but more conventional fourteen-bar cantilena in A flat which, like the opening C minor movement, is strophically repeated. One might have expected that Colma's discovery of the bodies would prompt new music, but Schubert remains true to the spirit of his predecessors: he makes the pathetic chromatic sequences of 'Ist's mein Geliebter, Er' and 'und neben ihm mein Bruder' (Verse 4, where they are heartrendingly apt) also do service for the earlier 'die Flut im Tale glänzt' and 'im Mondlicht wallt de Heide' (verse 3) where they seem a lot less appropriate. In this instance there seems no doubt that it is the sentiment of the later verse which has inspired the music.

Sections 5-6: Once again each of the two verses has the same music (F minor, 'Langsam, trauernd') repeated without variation or interlude. Here it is the questioning inflection of 'ach, in welcher Höhle soll ich euch nun finden?' (followed by an 'empty' bar of piano writing as the question goes unanswered) which has obviously governed the vocal line. In this instance it is the later verse which makes do with music conceived for a sibling and wears hand-me-down musical clothing. The simplicity and eloquence of this section is very telling, but Schubert has miscalculated in the matter of the vocal stamina necessary to switch tessituras in a work of this length and power. The final pages of the song are extremely demanding because much of the singer's line lies in the break between vocal registers—the so-called passaggio; high passages follow a great deal of low-lying music at the beginning, and the demands of these contrasts no doubt account for why Kolmas Klage makes so infrequent an appearance in the concert hall. It is nevertheless a remarkable work with touches of real Schubertian genius tempered by the guiding example of a former age. It says much for the composer's humility that he worked so hard to create a song in an old-fashioned style which his own musical experiments, in the year of Reichardt's death, had already consigned to the annals of the musical past. It is even not impossible that this work was conceived by Schubert as something of a tribute to the memory of the older composer.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992


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