Just as the knowledgeable literary critic approaches the poetry of the Celtic bard Ossian with wary trepidation, knowing that Ossian was a literary hoax perpetrated by an eighteenth-century Scottish schoolmaster, so too does the knowledgeable music critic approach Schubert's ballad settings of Ossian with cautious hesitancy. While many of them contain much beautiful music, none of them is without its dramatic and structural flaws, and all of them contain passages which rank among Schubert's least interesting. And some of the music is frankly awful.
Shilrik und Vinvela (Shilrik and Vinvela, D. 293) of September 20, 1815, tells the tedious tale of the warrior Shilrik and his mate Vinvela. It is arguably Schubert's best Ossian setting in that it contains the most good music and the least bad music. The ballad's five verses alternate between the two characters and are thus sung alternately by soprano and baritone with piano accompaniment. Each verse is set to different music, with the best music given to Vinvela in the first, third, and fifth verses. After a ponderous opening which bears a striking resemblance to God Save the King!, the first verse becomes a lovely aria followed by a sensitive recitative for Vinvela. The second verse starts as a recitative for Shilrik and slides into a sweet but insipid song. The third verse contains what may be the best music of the work, a aria full of sorrowful yearning in G minor for Vinvela that represents Schubert at his most inspired. The fourth verse, however, starts in a tub-tumping F minor as Shilrik returns to battle but thankfully closes with his moving farewell to Vinvela. The fifth and finale verse in bright A major seems oddly cheerful for a woman who has just lost her mate in war, but Schubert's music makes an effective end to one of his better ballads.