Schubert / Cronnan, D. 282 (and James Macpherson, about whom Samuel Johnson was probably right)

So, I was thinking about Schubert’s Alfonso und Estrella. I should make this clear: I buy bootlegs of things only when there is no available commercial recording. Otherwise I cough up the money for the disc. Like Malin Hartelius, I am classy.

Anyway. I have been listening to my bootleg recording of Schubert’s opera, and I think I’ll have more to say about it later. Serendipitously, the score arrived from Interlibrary Loan on the same day that the CDs turned up in my mail, so I will have the advantage of actually knowing what the hell is going on in the thing. Bonus! Although I grow tired of the whole ‘soprano clef’ thing. Just. Put. It. In. Treble. Clef. Perhaps I will get used it, but the constant ‘remember that that is not an E, it’s middle C’ is driving me nuts.

But the names. Ye gods the names. What is it about the nineteenth century and names? (I am using a loose definition of ‘nineteenth century’ in this case. It starts in the eighteenth century, and ends around 1890. If you do not like it you can pay me a visit and we can fight with sharpened sticks. Winner gets to club the loser with the Historical Periodization Baton.)

My favorite character name from this period has got to be Vinvela. Yes. Vinvela. It sounds like something out of that series of children’s books about a wizarding academy that I will not name and which I have certainly never read.

And it is connected to some interesting music, also by Schubert. Not to mention one of the greatest practical jokes in the history of western Europe: James Macpherson’s “Ossian” poems. But this is an exaggeration. It was less a practical joke than a wonderful example of a species of literary forgery that was far easier to get away with in the eighteenth century than it is now. Macpherson published a series of poems that he claimed were by the ancient Gaelic poet Ossian. Many people believed him; others didn’t. Samuel Johnson famously stated that he thought Macpherson was full of shit. The poems do draw on some Gaelic/Celtic stories and mythological figures, but Macpherson probably wrote most of them himself.

Schubert set several sections of Macpherson’s text to music. The audio below is “Cronnan,” D 282. This is from the aforementioned bootleg Schubert recital. Ian Bostridge is Shilric; Dorothea Röschmann is Vinvela. Röschmann is singing her part from the edge of the stage, which is why the sound is strange. The reason for this is that Vinvela is dead. Her boyfriend Shilric does not initially realize this, but like the trooper he is he comes around to it by the end. Ultimately she vanishes in a shaft of mid-Romantic German light, which handily solves whatever relationship issues her presence/absence/lingering in the corner of the stage might otherwise have caused.

I was thinking about the connection between this song and opera because in both cases I think that what Schubert is trying to do doesn’t come off in the end, and most of this is the fault not of Schubert but of his source material.

Let us begin with the song. When our hero and heroine are named things like ‘Shilric’ and ‘Vinvela’ I have to resist the impulse to smile. (This is why I am not good at appreciating Wagner.) But I am not smiling now, because this is Serious Art and I do not want to look foolish. The situation is thus: Shilric has returned from battle, alive. While he was away, his lady Vinvela has died of grief out of fear that he was in fact dead. Shilric, you really should have written. I realize that you are intended to be a character in a pre-literate society but really, you couldn’t scratch a rune on a rock and drop it in the mail? Anyway. Shilric has returned home. He catches sight of Vinvela, but she is unusually insubstantial. They are quite glad to see one another and they catch up on a few things, like the death of all Shilric’s friends, but pretty soon Vinvela breaks the news: “ich starb vor Schmerz gegen dir . . .ich lege erblasst in dem Grab”/ “I died of grief for you . . I lie pale in my grave.”

I listened to two different versions of this, the Bostridge/Röschmann one, and a second on this CD performed by Roman Trekel and Ruth Ziesak. Trekel is a baritone and Bostridge a tenor, which makes one kind of difference. Röschmann and Ziesak also have quite distinct voices – Ziesak’s is lighter and a little cooler (I am not going to get into who I think is better at sounding dead, because that is a fool’s game). I found that I enjoyed Bostridge more than Trekel. Bostridge does not strike me as someone who would be a great actor on stage, but he is a very expressive singer.

But I wanted to talk more about the song itself rather than specific instances of it. I tried hard to like this. I listened to it several times, and I thought about it, and I listened to it again, but I was still not getting there. When I enjoy a Schubert song, it is usually some combination of the expressive piano writing and a mood, or an impression, from the singing. I get what the mood is supposed to be here. I understand what is going on, and I don’t dislike what I’m hearing, but what I’m enjoying, to take the Bostridge/Röschmann peformance, is the sound of Bostridge’s voice and the communication of intensity, not the piece itself. I am enjoying the performance more than the piece.

And I think the reason in this case is the source material. This song is a story. Some Lieder are more a mood, or an impression, or a little flash of emotion distilled. This one certainly has some of those qualities, but it is also a story. And the story is not one that is particularly gripping. Partly because it’s an episode in a longer narrative and we don’t have the emotional background, either narratively or musically, that would make us care. (There is another song about Shilric and Vinvela, called, appropriately, “Shilric und Vinvela” D. 293 but set that side for now. They are different pieces of music, and they are not always performed together.) But partly it’s the type of story this is. It’s a ‘heroic narrative’ about warriors and ladies and being carried home on your shield and all that — but unlike, say, the Iliad it is not one that has automatic resonance. Most people know enough about the story in the Iliad that Helen and Paris and Andromache and the rest carry a kind of automatic emotional resonance. Not so with Shilric and Vinvela because, well, basically because James Macpherson made them up. And the music in this instance doesn’t make the emotion or the characters specific enough that we care about them on their own terms.

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