Ludwig van Beethoven - Folksong Arrangements of Scottish, Irish and Welsh Songs for one or several voices and piano trio

One of the greatest joys for a music lover is to discover repertoire that one has not yet heard from a composer whose music one believes to be largely familiar with. Beethoven’s folk song settings are truly a treat; this is easily the least familiar and least appreciated realm of his considerable output. What is probably the most striking aspect of these folk song settings is that Beethoven wrote far more of these than any other type of composition, having composed an astounding 179 folk song arrangements spanning a period of eleven years from 1809 to 1820.

An intriguing feature of these folk song settings is that they are almost entirely in English and consist mainly of Scottish, Welsh and Irish songs. This is particularly surprising given that Beethoven never visited the British Isles during his lifetime and had no obvious association with Britain. The reason why this association exists lies with a Scotsman, George Thomson of Edinburgh (1757-1851). There existed at the time in Scotland a movement to collect folk songs with the most notable collections dating back to the early eighteenth century. George Thomson, a civil servant by profession, came on this scene relatively late in the 1790s with the aim to make his collection surpass all previous ones in scope and quality.

Rather than relying on local composers to write the arrangements, Thomson wished to have major figures with international reputations and at first approached Pleyel, Kozeluch and Haydn. These composers did provide numerous settings but eventually all three stopped writing arrangements for Thomson. It was then that he turned to Beethoven. He first made contact with Beethoven in 1803 but did not propose that Beethoven arrange folk song settings for him until 1806, about which time he sent Beethoven a collection of 21 un-texted traditional melodies. Herein lies the beginning of an intriguing collaboration.

Beethoven’s first reply is dated 1 November 1806. It discusses various proposals and shows that the composer knew full well that ‘Mr. Haydn was given a British pound for each air’. It was 1809, though, before Beethoven finally agreed to collaborate, with the first batch of settings – 53 in all – completed in July 1810. Sending these consignments back and forth from Edinburgh and Vienna when the Napoleonic wars were at their height proved to be immensely difficult. Beethoven originally sent three copies by different routes and then another a year later. None reached Thomson until about July 1812 and when it finally did, it appears to have been sent via Malta! Beethoven later found that sending shipments to Edinburgh via Paris proved to be the most effective route. The most difficult link in the chain was the English Channel. The only way of sending consignments at the time was to enlist the aid of smugglers.

For many songs Beethoven was not sent the intended text, which often was not yet written, as Thomson  commissioned contemporary Scottish poets, principally Robert Burns, to write new verses to the original airs. There are many possible reasons for this - not least a publisher’s desire to avoid verses in Scots dialect, to remove verses that have a coarse, vulgar meaning, or to modernize the poetry by referring to contemporary political events and or people. Beethoven repeatedly demanded the texts from Thomson, however, arguing that he could not compose proper arrangements without them.

As Barry Cooper points out in his book Beethoven’s Folksong Settings, Beethoven described his settings as compositions, which suggests that he took the commissions seriously. Responding to one of Thomson’s many requests that he simplify his accompaniments, Beethoven placed the settings implicitly on a level with his other works when he testily declared:
“I am not accustomed to retouching my compositions; I have never done so, certain of the truth that any partial change alters the character of the composition. I am sorry that you are the loser, but you cannot blame me, since it was up to you to make me better acquainted with the taste of your country and the little facility of your performers.”

Beethoven’s arrangements are ingenious. The violin and cello parts are designed to be optional, but they are no simple reproduction of the piano part. They are sufficiently independent so as to add interest when used, while detracting nothing when omitted. Another is that the folk settings required Beethoven to work with modal harmonizations in a classical context, sometimes using drone basses which are suggestive of a bagpipe, yielding some strikingly beautiful results. These settings display tremendous energy in the faster settings and haunting expressiveness in the slower ones, combining rich textures and innovative harmonization with delightful variety.

Publications of the Irish (1814, 1816), Welsh (1817) and Scottish (1818) settings failed to sell well. Thomson lamented that, ‘He composes for posterity’, that they were too elevated and difficult for the intended public. Nevertheless, he continued to reissue earlier songs, as well as publish a few new ones, right up to the 1840s, but never with much commercial success. Perhaps this is why they sank into obscurity.

Why did Beethoven devote such a substantial proportion of his compositional output to these settings? The available evidence shows that financial gain was not Beethoven’s primary motivation. Of all the reasons put forth, the one suggested by Barry Cooper resonates most strongly, namely that ‘he was tapping into the immortality of time-honoured songs from the past, so as to create with Thomson a folk song monument for future generations’.


Ludwig van Beethoven - list of all 179 folksong arrangements

25 Scottish songs for voice and piano trio, Opus 108
25 Irish songs for one or two voices and piano trio, WoO 152
20 Irish songs for one or several voices and piano trio, WoO 153
12 Irish songs for one or several voices and piano trio, WoO 154
26 Welsh songs for one or two voices and piano trio, WoO 155
12 Scottish songs for one or several voices and piano trio, WoO 156
12 songs of diverse nationalities for voice and piano trio, WoO 157
23 songs of diverse nationalities for one or several voices and piano trio, WoO 158a
  7 popular English songs for one or several voices and piano trio, WoO 158b
  6 songs of diverse nationalities for one or several voices and piano trio, WoO 158c
11 uncatalogued settings