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During the 1760s, the Scottish writer James Macpherson published a series of epic poems that he attributed to Ossian, a bard of the Celtic regions said to have lived and worked in the third century. The collections generated excitement in the [End Page 309] literary community within and beyond English-speaking Europe. German poets, in particular, saw value in a Northern genius who could perhaps also serve as evidence for a similar Germanic literary tradition in the past. German composers participated in this trend by setting German translations of Ossian to music. There was just one problem. Instead of admitting that he had primarily written his own versions of the tales from oral tradition, Macpherson claimed to have based his work on extant manuscript sources. As Sarah Clemmens Waltz explains in her edition, German Settings of Ossianic Texts, 1770–1815, “an apologetic tone has dominated the reception of Ossian for the last hundred and fifty years or so” as a result of Macpherson’s deceptive misstep (p. ix). Waltz’s well-researched and thoughtful edition drops this “apologetic tone” to look instead at why German poets and composers found so much to value in Ossian. In the process, the edition documents how the German interest in Ossian led to musical settings that involve aspects of eighteenth-century musical style and form that can be seen as important precursors to musical romanticism.
Waltz’s edition also serves several additional goals. With respect to the broad genre of the lied, the collection examines how the subgenre of the ballad was an important site for formal experiments in through-composition throughout the later eighteenth century. This point of focus in the edition also makes it valuable for the study of lieder in dialogue with other musico-poetic genres of the period, including opera, melodrama, and the secular cantata. Furthermore, the collection focuses on composers who are too often only considered in light of their potential influence on Franz Schubert and other later innovators of the lied. The composers examined include Christian Gottlob Neefe, Karl Siegmund Freiherr von Seckendorff, Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Friedrich Heinrich Himmel, and Carl Friedrich Zelter. While important connections to Schubert’s own work with Ossian are not ignored, Waltz primarily places these composers in their own immediate cultural and aesthetic contexts. The edition also makes the selected works more available than before to current performers, a facet that is supported by clear editorial work and detailed information on vocal ranges and performing practices.
With respect to Ossianic poetry, Waltz’s introductory notes discuss the circumstances surrounding Macpherson’s work in his English-speaking context, and the special characteristics of the German fascination with Ossian. She explores why both literary communities were receptive to a poet like Ossian, who “proved” that genius could be found in an oral tradition. She also points out additional cultural factors involved in Ossianic reception, and the role that disputes over the authenticity of Macpherson’s collections had soon after their publication. Several points concerning the English context for the success of Ossian are especially illuminating. Macpherson studied with the scholar Thomas Blackwell, an early proponent of the theory that the Homeric epics were themselves the result of several centuries of oral transmission; more broadly, the English literary elite had also been entertaining the ideas of Joseph Addison concerning how genius need not depend on education (p. xii). Ossian was also successful with the English public due to the tendency, since the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, to romanticize the bravery and other cultural aspects of the Scottish Highlanders (p. xii).
German poets were interested in Macpherson’s Ossian for reasons that...