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Die Nacht, D534

February 1817
author of text
author of text
translator of text

Although the text of this song is traditionally said to be by 'Ossian', its 'translator' James Macpherson, in a footnote to the epic Croma which includes both text and introduction, claimed that the poem dated from a thousand years after Ossian's time. It can therefore only be by Ossian in so far as James Macpherson and Ossian were one and the same person. The literary controversy surrounding Macpherson and his 'translations' of the great Celtic bard Ossian, son of Fingal, was one of the causes célèbres of eighteenth-century literature. Macpherson claimed that he possessed the originals, and then a lot of them went mysteriously missing. It is entirely likely that the Gaelic 'originals' which did surface eventually were translations from Macpherson (possibly his own) made to salvage his reputation. Wordsworth puts the case in a withering nutshell, commencing with a wicked parody of the Ossianic style: 'All hail, Macpherson! hail to thee Sire of Ossian! The Phantom was begotten by the smug embrace of an impudent Highlander upon a cloud of tradition—it travelled southward, where it was greeted with acclamation, and the thin Consistence took its course through Europe, upon the breath of popular applause.' And this is how of course Schubert and his generation became enthused by these rambling epics, very short on action and uncertain in detail (as when Macpherson arms the Gaels with bows and arrows in disastrous anachronism) but full of generalised and atmospheric description of heath, lake and mountain, peopled by beings of noble bearing and magnanimous chivalry. Much of the world (people like Dr Johnson apart) was prepared to accept the idea of noble savages in Scotland in the third century AD—no matter that Fingal fights off the Roman legions in that century, and then assists Cuchullin (who lived in the first century AD) to expel the Norsemen from Ireland (who first appeared there at the end of the eighth century). The fact is that this poetry, whether partly genuinely ancient or not, was full of wild Celtic glamour, strange and 'natural' newness, the tedium of ancient litany counterbalanced by a seemingly spontaneous rawness of expression. Herder, Goethe and Schiller were delighted with it, and Coleridge and Byron imitated it. Modern scholarship is tending to re-evaluate Macpherson not so much as a fraud, but as the Tolkien of his time who, unlike that twentieth-century master, felt obliged by the market place to give his imaginative work a spurious historical background. In the end he did not do too badly; he certainly avoided the fate of that other great forger Chatterton. As Haddan wrote: 'James Macpherson, an obscure tutor, flourished under persecution, exchanged angry letters with Dr Johnson, translated Homer atrociously, and died a member of Parliament'.

Die Nacht is the ninth and last of Schubert's Ossian settings. The composer left it incomplete, but it contains so much magnificent music that at its first publication in 1830 efforts were made to make a performing version which would save the piece for the public. Diabelli's attempts thus to salvage the piece for publication are understandable, but unfortunately he also attempted to `improve' the original. Because of this, the provenance of the musical work is almost as complicated as that of the poetry of Ossian. Both the Peters edition and the Gesamtausgabe of Mandyczewski follow Diabelli's re-working of the original. They had no choice because the manuscript only re-emerged in Hungary in the late 1960s. This autograph (published in Moscow in 1980, and followed by us on this disc) shows that Diabelli changed both Ossian's words and Schubert's notes at will. He has been particularly execrated by scholars for grafting a hunting song (admittedly a genuine Schubert choral composition) onto the body of Die Nacht 'in a misguided attempt' (in John Reed's words) 'to give it a rousing finale'. Although what Diabelli did is certainly not musicologically sound, I think it should be said in his defence that the fragment does break off at a moment when a hunting chorus is suggested, that Diabelli's seven bars of bridging work to bind fragment to hunting song (in its original key) are developed from a fanfare idea in the original, and that the Jagdlied is almost exactly contemporary with Die Nacht. Of course Diabelli put new words to Werner's Jagdlied which are almost certainly not by the poet. We are faced with the difficult task of how best to present the work for performance on record. John Reed makes the suggestion that the finest music of Die Nacht is that of the First Bard, and that the piece could end satisfactorily (in the tonality in which it begins) before the words of the Chieftain. Accordingly track 1 has this part of the piece—the first hundred bars or six and a half pages in the Gesamtausgabe. Track 2 continues the fragment; only the seven bars of the piano's interlude after the words 'die Hirsche erwecken' are not by Schubert himself. Track 3 is the Jagdlied with Werner's original words (not Diabelli's alterations). Thus the listener may choose to hear a self-contained part of the fragment of the purest, most beautiful Schubert, or by adding track 2 the rest of the fragment plus a tiny inauthentic coda. The addition of track 3 will show, more or less, how the piece was first published, but because Jagdlied is a piece in its own right, this may also be listened to independently of the context which Diabelli chose for it.

Macpherson's own pseudo-scholarly introduction to this poem makes clear the almost impossible task of attempting to set the complete text, and why Schubert only attempted two of its six sections: 'The story of it is this: Five bards, passing the night in the house of a chief, who was a poet himself, went severally to make their observations on, and returned with a description of, night.' The nocturnal impressions of all five bards would have made a song of nightmare length.

Section 1 - The Bard: The music of the first part of Die Nacht is a highpoint of Schubert's use of arioso and recitative. In a piece like the Schiller setting Die Erwartung (Volume 1) we have already seen Schubert's talent for the depiction of the various sounds and feelings of twilight and night. But there all was exquisite expectancy—nightfall in the bower of a German garden. In this Ossian piece the composer transplants himself to the Scottish moors of a twilight age where night is a veiled threat. Thirds and sixths glide ominously in the piano part in the beginning; they are to be the binding thread of the music of the First Bard. Pianistic illustrations abound: the murmuring of a distant stream in G flat, an E flat minor interlude ending in a dying fall to mimic the hooting owl, the sudden appearance (and disappearance into pianistic thin air) of a ghost, a B minor funeral march with muffled drums, followed by a brave attempt to suggest the dog's howling. The G major complacency of the stag is contrasted with the nervy (and very feminine) movements of the hind. Mankind's introduction to the scene is in panicky, short-breathed phrases in G minor which suggest someone lost, and confused; the music has much movement and little direction. The wind music (the quickest in the piece) and the trembling trepidation before the ghosts are rather more conventional, but they lead back to a splendid recapitulation of the thirds and sixths of the opening, and an ominously low passage for the voice to depict the tread of the dead. The final two bars of recitative have a Handelian majesty.

Section 2 - The Chieftain: This section starts well enough, but John Reed is probably right to see signs of flagging invention. After such a long spell of slow music we need a passage of faster music and we get it, even if it brings with it rather perfunctory recapitulation of the tales of the First Bard. After the cascading sextuplets there are rather conventional scale passages to introduce the idea of the chieftains of old, although the slow three-part invention for voice and two hands in the passage 'Schweigend sind die Felder' (le Tombeau de Bach to represent the graves of old heroes) is a genuine and typical Schubertian inspiration. The composer attempts to find the right tone for ancient jollification in the following section: much fanfare and clatter, and dances which were no doubt his idea of an archaic highland fling. But it is easy to see that his heart is no longer in the project; what had attracted him to the poem were the atmospheric possibilities of the very opening lines.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 6 - Anthony Rolfe Johnson
CDJ33006Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Bars 001–100: Die Nacht ist dumpfig
Track 1 on CDJ33006 [8'28] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 27 on CDS44201/40 CD17 [8'28] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Bars 101–207: Lass Wolken an Hügeln ruhn
Track 2 on CDJ33006 [4'58] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 28 on CDS44201/40 CD17 [4'58] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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