A Scottish Fantasy
For composers in 19th-century Italy, Scotland was an exotic and alluring realm. Tucked in the far northwest corner of Europe, home to wind-swept heaths and rocky shores, and boasting a history full of bloody civil wars, Scotland was a dramatic location par excellence. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, translations of Scottish folk poetry had enchanted some of continental Europe’s most prominent writers, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the doyen of German verse. Romantic composers and writers were especially enamored with the odes of the medieval Celtic poet “Ossian” (no matter that the poems in question were actually written by one James Macpherson in the middle of the 18th century).
By the second decade of the 19th century, Europe’s most beloved sources for Scottish stories were the novels and epic poems of Sir Walter Scott. This impact was felt particularly strongly in the realm of music, where composers in a variety of genres drew inspiration from Scott’s writing. For instance, the German composer Franz Schubert wrote songs with lyrics taken from several of Scott’s works, including seven poems from Scott’s epic poem The Lady of the Lake, and both the French composer Hector Berlioz and the German composer Carl Czerny wrote symphonic overtures inspired by Scott’s stories. As for opera, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians counts nearly 100 19th-century operas inspired by Scott’s writing, including Gioachino Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Elizabetta al Castello di Kenilworth, Vincenzo Bellini’s I Puritani, and George Bizet’s La Jolie Fille de Perth. Perhaps the oddest example of an opera based on Scott’s novels was a Parisian pastiche of Ivanhoe, stitched together from pieces of Rossini’s operas without the composer’s permission. For his part, Scott found this last adaptation, at least, to be far from ideal. The story was “greatly mangled,” the author commented in a scathing critique, and “the dialogue [was] in great part nonsense.”
Can you think of any other stories (or movies, television shows, etc.) based in Scotland? Can you think of any countries or regions that seem as exotic today as Scotland seemed in the 19th century?