Saturday, 4 February 2017

Fingal, fantasy and creativity - Schubert and Ossian

Ossian on the banks of the Lora - Francois Gérard 1801
Despite inspiring some of the most sublime music ever written (Mendelssohn) and founding the Scottish tourist industry, Fingal was a fantasy.  Schubert set several texts attributed to Ossian, supposedly a 3rd century Celtic bard.

I've been listening to Loda's Gespenst D150 (1815). Der bleiche, kalte Mond erhob sich im Osten.  Fingal's soldiers sleep, their blue helmets glittering in the moonlight. But Fingal doesn't sleep. He looks toward Sarno's tower (see it in the pic?) . Suddenly ein Windstoß rips down from the mountains. It's the phantom Loda, umringt von seinen Schrecken.  Defiant, Fingal raises his sword. Schwach ist dein Schild, Kraftlos dein Luftbild und dein Schwert. You're a windbag, Loda! The text is heroic declamation - no ornamentation in the piano part, little lyricism in the vocal line.

Fingal defies Loda - Asmus Jacub Carsters 1754-98
Then Loda speaks. Ich dreh' die Schlacht im Felde der Tapfern.....Mein Odem verbreitet den Tod.  Fingal isn't fazed. His phrases are hurled like thunderbolts, Faß die Winde und fleuch! the piano pounds affirmation. Loda advances but Fingal spears him. Der blitzende Pfad des Stahls durchdrang den düstern Geist, and Loda disintegrates in a puff of smoke, and Fingal goes back to his men.  Considering the histrionic potential of this text, Schubert's setting is fairly straightforward. The lines aren't difficult to sing but the song runs around 12 minutes and needs a singer who can do drama without taking the mickey, because the poems were taken very seriously indeed, and were, in many ways, the germ from which grew the whole Romantic revolution .

In an age before widespread media coverage, Scotland and Ireland were wild, unknown regions, beyond civilization.  The Ossian poems captured the imagination because central Europeans could project their own concepts onto an exotic template.  Fingal and Ossian served a function like the gods of Classical Antiquity, as depicted in the 18th century blended with the concept of idealized Primitive Innocents, as in Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Even if Mendelssohn realized that the poems weren't authentic, by travelling to Fingal's Cave, he was making a pilgrimage of sorts  to the source of an imaginary world where things could happen beyond the bounds of convention.  Names like "Carric-Thura" and "Sora" and "Comhal" thrilled, precisely because central Europeans didn't know what they meant, because they sounded wildly exotic.

This song is unusual because it's not strictly speaking by James Macpherson but by  Edmund, Baron  von Harold, born in Ireland, but resident in Düsseldorf from a very early age. When the craze for Ossian swept Europe, von Harold might have spotted an opportunity to "translate" yet more manuscripts that weren't lost so much as non-existent.  Indeed, it seems that von Harold didn't actually speak Gaelic, so his sudden discovery of Dark Age documents is improbable.  Fingal and Ossian represent the creative spirit, precursors of the 19th century fascination with strange lands and myths. So Loda was an apparition? Loda, Fingal and Ossian served a purpose even if they were fantasy. 

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