A Controversy Discarded and Ossian Revealed: An Argument for a Renewed Consideration of The Poems of Ossian
Since its publication in the eighteenth century The Poems of Ossian has been shrouded in controversy, resulting in an overshadowing of its influence on music. Most who encounter literature that mentions The Poems of Ossian will be dissuaded from interest in the poems, since the majority of writings dismiss the poems outright. An example is found in the authoritatively titled book The Celts, which provides a detailed history of the Celts over the past two millennia. In describing the Celtic revival of the last three centuries the authors write:
It is with the poetry of Ossian in the eighteenth century that we can speak of a European cult of (one might say a craze for) things Celtic that brings us to the threshold of modern thought. It is ironic that this is due neither to a great artist nor to much that is genuinely Celtic. The poetry of Ossian is due almost entirely to the forgeries of the minor Scottish man of letters, James Macpherson.1
Here the authors simultaneously credit the Poems of Ossian with initiating the modern Celtic craze, and then dismiss the work as something not Celtic at all. The irony of their statement has been repeated many times during the last two centuries.
The initial purpose of this paper is to defend the collection from this inaccurate perception, and then to show that its historical weight alone makes casual dismissals unacceptable. Once I have cleared the controversy hurdle I will show that Ossian significantly influenced music.
The Poetry and the Controversy
The Gaelic speaking Scotsman James Macpherson first published Fragments of Ancient Poetry in the summer of 1760. It was a collection of Gaelic poems he gathered in the Highlands and then translated. The small collection was warmly received, prompting Macpherson to search for more poems and to eventually publish another collection called The Poems of Ossian in 1765.2 The works were enormously successful, in part because Macpherson claimed that the poems were the remnants of an epic by the third-century bard Ossian. As can be imagined, the claim of a “Homer of the north” aroused much curiosity. The work itself was also intriguing, with unusual prose-like poetry and rich romantic imagery. A brief example from “The Songs of Selma” demonstrates the unusual nature of the text:
It is night;—I am alone, forlorn on the hill of storms. The wind is heard in the mountain. The torrent shrieks down the rock. No hut receives me from the rain; forlorn on the hill of winds.3
While generating interest it also incurred skepticism, with some accusing Macpherson of fraudulence. The foremost critic of Macpherson was the great English writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson. This empiricist could not fathom that the ancient Scottish people could produce quality literature. He later took a tour of the Highlands, in part to investigate the matter of Ossian. On the trip he met many Gaelic-speaking Highlanders who affirmed that Macpherson’s poems were authentic, yet Johnson did not trust his sources. Instead, he demanded evidence, specifically ancient manuscripts. Johnson was entrenched in his opinion that no ancient manuscript existed, and even doubted that ancient Scottish Highlanders were literate at all. He pronounced that “the bard [Ossian] was a barbarian among barbarians,”4 and wondered if the ancient Scots could even count to six.5 Johnson’s vehement criticism, conveyed through his revered pen, has been the dominant voice in the debate, and his charges of fraudulence have cast a long shadow over Ossian. The debate has been ongoing since the eighteenth century.
A recent resurgence of research has done much to exonerate Macpherson from accusations of fraud. Research by Howard Gaskill, Fiona Stafford, Derick Thomson, and others have shown that Macpherson’s poems were largely authentic, as many of the poems have since been corroborated with other Gaelic sources. However, not all of the poems have historical precedence, which does not disprove their authenticity, since he was gathering poems from an aural tradition. Many of his poems that have been corroborated show that he was often rather liberal in his translations, which was typical for the time. Most modern scholars on the subject now agree that the majority of the poems are based on genuine, ancient Gaelic poetry, but that Macpherson’s claim he had found a lost epic was overly ambitious.6
It seems that the academic criticism of Johnson and others did little to dampen the immense popularity of the poems. Only when the Romantic aesthetic faded did enthusiasm for the work diminish. Despite its success, the collection has remained haltingly alive only because of the work of academics who have maintained an interest in the controversy, or because some feel a need to grudgingly acknowledge its influence. Although there are notable exceptions, historical discourse has often focused on the controversy and disregarded the actual popularity of the work, thus avoiding the stigma of studying a “forgery.”
Ossian as Creative Wellspring
Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian was remarkably influential, stimulating writers, artists, and politicians across Europe and in the Americas for decades. The poems were published and reprinted several times by Macpherson and were circulated throughout Britain, Europe, and the Americas. Many unauthorized editions were also published, including at least ten translations into other European languages.7 The most immediate and widespread influence of the work was on literature. It is no understatement to say that literature was forever changed by Ossian. In England, nearly sixty years after its first printing, the esteemed writer and critic William Hazlitt considered the work one of the four “principal works of poetry in the world,” listing Ossian in company with “Homer, the Bible, [and] Dante.”8 German pre-Romantic figures embraced and also adulated Ossian as the equivalent of Homer and often esteemed him as greater.9 Klopstock, Herder, and Goethe were all deeply affected by the poems. For Herder, Macpherson’s collecting of aural poetry encouraged him to seek the folk poetry of his own people, 10 and Goethe included a sizable quote from Ossian in his The Sorrows of Young Werther, helping propagate a German thirst for Ossian. In Scotland Walter Scott found Macpherson a remarkable poet, “capable not only of making an enthusiastic impression on every mind susceptible of poetical beauty, but of giving a new tone to poetry throughout all Europe.”11 Further south in England—the hotbed of criticism against Macpherson—Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth were also influenced by the poems.12
Americans Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Whitman were also captivated by Ossianic verse.13 Admiring the poems, Thoreau said, “Ossian seems to speak a gigantic and universal language.”14 Similarly influenced was Whitman, whose free verse may have been inspired by Macpherson’s rhythmic prose.15 The Poems of Ossian also resonated with visual artists, particularly in France, resulting in what Albert Boime has described as an Ossianic mode in painting.16 The artistic interest had much to do with Napoleon’s devotion to the work. Ossian consoled and inspired Napoleon, who carried a copy with him on all of his military expeditions. He commissioned the artist Ingres to paint an Ossian mural on the ceiling of his bedroom in the Quirinal Palace, Rome.17 French painters such as Harvey, Duqueylar, Gérard, Girodet, and Franque also painted images of Ossian.18 The poems even had a significant impact on the political beliefs of Thomas Jefferson. He so admired Ossian that he described him as the “greatest poet that has ever existed,” and he even made some attempts to learn Gaelic. Although it would be difficult to measure, Ossian’s portrayal of a benevolent primitive society may have contributed to the formation of Jefferson’s ideas about the equality of humankind.19
The impact of the poems is easy to discern in literature, art, and politics. Recognizing its impact on music is more difficult. Yet gauging the widespread influence of the work one would assume that Ossianic ripples were also felt in music.
Influence on Music
The most pressing evidence that Ossian influenced music can be seen in the significant number of pieces that have Ossianic titles or texts. In 1993 Manuela Jahrmärker identified 207 pieces with references to Ossian, and in the next year Matthias Wessel generated a separate list of 219 pieces.20 I have combined their lists, eliminating duplicates, and added another dozen or so pieces I have found, resulting in a complete list of 296 pieces with explicit reference to Ossian.21 Prominent composers in this list include Dittersdorf, Piccinni, Haydn, Le Sueur, Pleyel, Zelter, Schubert, Rossini, Mendelssohn, Donizetti, Bishop, Gottschalk, Bizet, Gade, Brahms, Saint-Saëns, and Schoenberg.22 Several scholars have identified the influence of Ossian on the musical style of certain composers. Larry Todd has identified what he describes as “Mendelssohn’s Ossianic Manner.”23 John Daverio similarly proposed the existence of an Ossianic manner in select works of Schumann.24 What is most interesting about his study is that none of Schumann’s works actually have any explicit reference to Ossian. Daverio also notes that the term “Ossianic manner” was not actually used in the nineteenth century. Instead critics were using the phrases “Nordic character/tone,”25 “Scottish style,” and “chivalric style,” and he recognizes that these terms overlap and may be interchangeable.26
A question then arises: is there an Ossianic manner common among other Ossian pieces? In my analysis of Ossian related pieces I have identified commonalities among several of the pieces. I have separated my findings into two categories: textual themes and musical characteristics. In most of the pieces there is interplay between the textual and musical characteristics. This is especially the case because of the peculiarity of the Ossian poetry, and the music often responds to the mannerisms of the poetry.
Regarding textual characteristics, memory is perhaps the over-riding theme of Ossian. Predictably, this regularly occurs in music settings. It commonly surfaces in textual and musical depictions of nostalgia, reminiscence, and dreams of the past. While portraying journeys to the past through memory, many of the pieces also encounter the past through visitations of the deceased. Musical depictions of ghosts result from a variety of techniques, including chromaticism, striking dissonance, and a general portrayal of the ghastly.
In Brahms’s “Gesang aus Fingal,” op. 17, no. 4, the text recalls the death of Trenar, a figure in the poetry. Set to an unusual harp and horn accompaniment, the women’s chorus laments the death of Trenar. The middle section of the piece describes the visitation of Trenar’s ghost: “See his growling hounds, they howl in his hall; suspicious his ghost walks past the door. Trenar, ah, Trenar the fair is dead! Dead.”27 With this text the four-part vocal texture is reduced to a chromatic and haunted unison that is interrupted by sforzando, fully-diminished chords on the words “howl” and “past.”
Storms also often appear in Ossianic music, including depictions of wind and rolling waves, often set against a nocturnal background. These storms commonly relate to the visitation of apparitions, but they primarily portray the sublime, loneliness, isolation, and vulnerability. These images easily translate into music via fast repeated figurations, dramatic melodic rises and falls, and notable crescendos and decrescendos.
Schubert’s setting of “Cronnan,” D. 282, contains several storm connotations, including the opening and closing material. The quavering alteration between semi-tones creates a classic portrayal of a frightening and tumultuous storm setting (see Example 1).
Example 1. Schubert, “Cronnan,” mm. 1-2.
This storm-like theme continues as the singer declaims the song of Cronnan: “I sit by the mossy fountain; on the top of the hill of winds. One Tree is rustling above me, Dark waves roll over the heath.”28 This last sentence is particularly evocative in its combination of ocean images and wind, with wind assuming the surging characteristics of rolling waves. All the while the undulating current of the piano’s storm theme rolls tumultuously underneath.29
Central themes in the Ossian text and Ossianic music also include death, lost love, and military heroism.30 In Ossianic music passages frequently evoke war through the sounds of horns. These martial themes, though, often deflate with themes of defeat. According to the text the figure Ossian remains as the lone survivor of a once indomitable band of warriors. Blind, old, and weak, he also symbolizes past glories and demise. Much of the music relating to Ossian also expresses—almost celebrates—these themes of heroism and defeat.
One of the most significant images is that of the bard. This one theme supersedes and subsumes all of the other themes and symbols. In the poetry the bard Ossian tells his stories, which include tales told by other bards. Additionally, it must be remembered that this epic legend came through the pen of Macpherson, who was acting as a sort of modern bard in his own right. The poems and related musical works embrace multiple levels of narration, where bards often depict other bards, and this bardic voice or persona is central to the Ossianic manner.
Musical Characteristics of the Ossianic Manner
In addition to the literary themes and images, many works possess common musical characteristics.31 These features often relate to extra-musical themes and images such as ghosts and storms, but they also may stand independently and thus provide a second way to formulate parameters of an Ossianic manner.
The instrumentation, melodies, and construction of the pieces often relate to the image of the bard. Concerning instrumentation, many of the pieces are scored for harp, and in pieces with limited ensembles, scoring figuration often imitates the harp.32 The harp is a sonic and physical symbol of the bard who tells stories to the accompaniment of his harp. Additionally, in many of the pieces the composers create an Ossianic atmosphere by including folk-like melodies.33 Scottish folk tunes were in vogue at the turn of the nineteenth century, and the Ossian image is intrinsically related to portraying people from ancient times. Inclusion of folk-style melodies in these pieces helps convey this concept and its association with the simplicity of a noble past.34 Another common feature related to the image of bards and folk songs is frequent and sudden contrasts in musical material.35 These musical juxtapositions often relate to the episodic nature of the Ossian text and the general process of storytelling, and they often create vignettes of musical images.
One of the most identifiable and salient musical characteristics is the framed form. In this form the introductory material, which is often slow and melodically nebulous, returns at the end of the piece, thus creating a frame that encompasses the work. The inner material may have its own form, but the outer frame creates a sense of narration or storytelling. These introductory and concluding episodes help transport the listener from physical reality to a musical reality, and they are in this sense liminal.36 By introducing and concluding the inner musical adventure, these frames personify the bard.
Niels Gade’s Overture, Echoes of Ossian, provides an excellent model of this framed form because it contains multiple frames, and it also provides an example of several of the characteristics I have been describing. Gade based the structure of the overture on sonata form, which itself is a plotted form apt for storytelling, but he reversed the return of the primary theme with the secondary theme, creating a palindrome structure. Two primary frames emerge: one comprising the slow outer sections, the other formed by the primary theme and its recapitulation as the penultimate passage (see Diagram 1).
Diagram 1: Palindrome structure of Gade, Echoes of Ossian.
In the introduction a slow succession of chords creates an archaic, out-of-the-mist image that sets an atmosphere for storytelling and evokes the act of remembering. This opening theme remains separate from the rest of the piece and does not appear again until the end.
The primary theme seems to represent the voice of the bard. Based on a Danish folk song37 this melody relates to the beginning of the piece’s program,38 “An ancient melody! Presents the great achievements of the day! Such were the Bard’s words.” The harp is also associated with this theme, and it only surfaces when the theme is played, further linking the theme to the bard. The theme grows louder and clearer with repetition. The third statement is the most complete, as if to demonstrate that the ancient stories of the bards grow in clarity and memory with each repetition. The repetition of the bard theme here, and throughout the piece, also represents the echo suggested in the title.
With the bard theme established, the music then commences to tell a story of the heroic past. In the transition, trumpets and rhythmic and harmonic commotion, created by rapid chromaticism that emphasizes diminished harmonies, portray a battle scene that accords with the program’s second stanza about war. The pastoral secondary theme relates to the third stanza of the program and its images of a meadow in the night. After the succession of these musical images the bard theme returns at the end of the piece and reminds us that a bard has narrated these episodes of war and peace. In the final measures, the mystic, primordial-sounding opening theme returns, as the story and its storyteller fade (or echo) into the past.
Gade’s piece is only one example of the way composers responded to Ossian. Some responded in similar ways, so that an Ossianic manner can be observed in many pieces with and without explicit references to The Poems of Ossian. Others responded in different ways, but ultimately many composers were inspired by the poems. Given the abundant evidence of Ossian’s influence on culture, it should be no surprise that Ossian also resonated with musicians. The authenticity argument rightfully belongs as a footnote to the story of Macpherson and his Ossian, so that undiminished by biases its significance for and close interconnectedness with music may fully emerge.
Boime, Albert. Art in an Age of Bonapartism, 1800-1815. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Bold, Valentina. “‘Rude Bard of the North’: James Macpherson and the Folklore of Democracy.” Special issue, Journal of American Folklore 114, no. 454 (2001): 464-77.
Boswell, James. The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson. London: Henry Baldwin, 1776. Reprinted and edited by R. W. Chapman. London: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Carpenter, Frederic I. “The Vogue of Ossian in American Literature.” American Literature 2 (1930-31): 405-17.
Celenza, Anna Harwell. The Early Works of Niels W. Gade. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
deGategno, Paul. James Macpherson. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
________. “‘The Source of Daily and Exalted Pleasure’: Jefferson Reads the Poems of Ossian.” In Ossian Revisited, edited by Howard Gaskill, 94-108. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
Daverio, John. “Schumann’s Ossianic Manner.” 19th-Century Music 21 (1998): 247-73.
Dunn, John J. “Coleridge’s Debt to Macpherson’s Ossian.” Studies in Scottish Literature 7 (1969-70): 39-54.
Gaskill, Howard. “Herder, Ossian and the Celtic.” In Celticism, edited by Terence Brown, 257-71. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi, 1996.
________. “Ossian, Herder, and the Idea of Folk Song.” In Literature of the Sturm und Drang, edited by David Hill, 95-116. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2003.
________. “Ossian in Europe.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature 21 (1994): 642-78.
Gaskill, Howard, ed. Ossian Revisited. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991.
Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Edited by A. R. Waller and Arnold Glover. Vol. 5, Lectures on the English Poets (1818). London: J. M. Dent, 1902.
Howie, Alan Crawford. “Schubert and the ‘Exotic’—the Macpherson (‘Ossian’) and Walter Scott Settings.” The Schubertian: Journal of the Schubert Institute 39 (April, 2003): 12-21; and 40 (July, 2003): 15-21.
Jahrmärker, Manuela. Ossian: eine Figur und eine Idee des europäischen Musiktheaters um 1800. Cologne: Medienservice und Verlag Dr. Ulrich Tank, 1993.
Macpherson, James. The Poems of Ossian and Related Works. Edited by Howard Gaskill. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996.
Moulton, Paul. “Of Bards and Harps: The Influence of Ossian on Musical Style.” Master’s thesis, The Florida State University, 2005.
Moscati, Sabatino, Otto Hermann Frey, Venceslas Kruta, Barry Raftery, and Miklós Szabó, eds. The Celts. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.
McLaughlin, Jack. “Jefferson, Poe, and Ossian.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 26 (1993): 627-34.
Moore, John Robert. “Wordsworth’s Unacknowledged Debt to Macpherson’s Ossian.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 40 (1925): 362-78.
Radcliffe, David Hill. “Ossian and the Genres of Culture.” Studies in Romanticism 31 (1992): 213-32.
Stafford, Fiona J. The Sublime Savage. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1988.
Stafford, Fiona J., and Howard Gaskill, eds. From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations. Atlanta, GA: Rodopi: 1998.
Thomson, Derick S. The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson’s “Ossian.” Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1951.
Thomson, Derick S. “James Macpherson: The Gaelic Dimension.” In From Gaelic to Romantic: Ossianic Translations, edited by Fiona Stafford and Howard Gaskill, 17-26. Atlanta: Rodopi: 1998.
Tombo, Rudolf. Ossian in Germany. New York: Columbia University Press, 1901.
Todd, Larry. Mendelssohn: The Hebrides, and Other Overtures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
________. “Mendelssohn’s Ossianic Manner, with a New Source—On Lena’s Gloomy Heath.” In Mendelssohn and Schumann: Essays on Their Music and Its Context, edited by Jon W. Finson and R. Larry Todd, 137-60. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1984.
Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969.
Wessel, Matthias. Die Ossian-Dichtung in der musikalischen Komposition. Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 1994.
4It is insightful to look at Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (London,1755). In it he defines “Barbarian”as “1. a man uncivilized; untaught; a savage. . . . 3. A brutal monster; a man without pity: a term of reproach.” And he defines a “Barbarism” as “1. A form of speech contrary to the purity and exactness of any language. . . . 2. Ignorance of arts; want of learning.” Johnson may have thought of the Scots in similar terms. Perhaps because they were ignorant of language he considered them to be savage barbarians.
22The most famous Ossianic piece is Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture, Fingal being the hero of the poetry. However, as R. Larry Todd has shown, the piece might not be about Fingal’s Cave at all, but more representative of the Hebrides Islands of Scotland. Mendelssohn, though, seems to have read Ossian and was very aware of the poetry during his visit to Scotland. See Todd, Mendelssohn: The Hebrides.
25Wessel also refers to a “nordische Ton” (12), but Schumann may have been the first to use the term, when he was describing Gade’s overture as possessing a “unique Nordic color” (quoted in Daverio, 256).
27The English translation quoted here is taken from the Peters edition (Four Songs, 1965). The text used by Brahms was a translation of Ossian by Herder: “Seine grauen Hunde heulen daheim; sie sehn seinen Geist vorüber ziehn. Trenar, der liebliche Trenar starb, starb!” Macpherson’s version appears in Fingal, Book I: “Trenar, lovely Trenar died, thou maid of Inistore. His gray dogs are howling at home, and see his passing ghost,” Poems of Ossian, 60.
29Some of the most well-known storm evocations occur in Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture and his Scottish Symphony, both of which have been described by Todd as Ossianic pieces. See his “Mendelssohn’s Ossianic Manner.”
36This is an anthropological term coined by Arnold van Gennep and propagated by Victor Turner. The liminal stage relates to a period of transition, the term deriving from the Latin root limen, meaning “threshold.” See Turner, Ritual Process, 94.
38The program was not included at the beginning of the score, but was part of the actual program circulated at its performance. Celenza has located and translated the program in her comments on the piece in Early Works of Gade, 128-34.
As a musicologist, Paul Moulton teaches a wide range of historical and education courses. In his research he often approaches historical musicology from an ethnomusicological point of view, and he is particularly interested in the way music impacts the lives of individuals. His scholarly interests include music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Scottish, Celtic, Navajo music, and music of place. Moulton has presented research at regional, national, and international conferences, and he has published several articles in scholarly journals and books. Paul completed his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University and his MA and PhD at Florida State University. Paul joined the faculty at The College of Idaho in 2007.