The Classic, Irish Beethoven! Five Folksong Settings




Gerber, Steven K

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Among Ludwig van Beethoven’s lesser-known works in the smaller forms are several volumes of folksong settings. Edinburgh music publisher George Thomson, gambling on demand from domestic musicians in the British Isles and the marketability of anything to which Beethoven’s celebrity name was attached, commissioned arrangements of several sets of traditional Scottish, English, Welsh, and Irish folk songs. Seven albums of these song settings were published without opus numbers between 1810 and 1820, scored as vocal solos or duets with piano trio (i.e., violin, cello, and piano). In many cases Thomson provided Beethoven with only the melodies without their English- (or Gaelic-) language texts (which Beethoven might not have understood in any case; indeed, their correspondence was in French). Additionally, Thomson typically commissioned (or appropriated) new words for the old songs, and Beethoven rather enjoyed this new link to the poems of Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and other admired literary figures, whether he could read them or not. The Irish tunes in particular seemed to fascinate Beethoven, for he arranged over 60 of these, far more than the English, Scottish, and Welsh songs in these collections. In spite of Thomson’s insistence that the accompaniments be easy enough for amateurs, Beethoven did not simplify the technical requirements, and while not virtuosic, the piano parts especially demand skilled and sensitive musicianship, inasmuch the settings are quite artful. The melodies are often modal in musical character and typically of 12 or 16 measures in length, some of 20 or 24 measures, few as long as 32 measures. For these, Beethoven carefully constructed introductions and codettas that often doubled their lengths. His challenge was to preserve the modal and folk-like qualities of the melodies while harmonizing them with classical tonalities and enhancing them with evocative accompanying motives. The five Irish folksongs presented here, as a medley for an ensemble of modest size, are just a small sampling from a treasury of these gemlike miniatures—which, to Thomson’s chagrin, did not sell particularly well. The source used was Breitkopf and Härtel’s 19th-century edition of Beethovens Werke, vols. 258, 261, and 262 (freely available online at International Music Score Library Project, or IMSLP). The songs are: WoO 154, No. 8 - “Save Me From the Grave and Wise” (William Smyth) WoO 152, No. 18 - “They Bid Me Slight My Dermot Dear” (William Smyth) WoO 153, No. 19 - “Judy, Lovely, Matchless Creature” (Alexander Boswell) WoO 152, No. 1 - “The Return to Ulster” (Sir Walter Scott) WoO 153, No. 3 - “The British Light Dragoons” (Sir Walter Scott) The opening stanzas only for each appear after the last page of this score. The tempo indications here differ slightly from Thomson’s indications to Beethoven, and all metronome suggestions are the arranger’s. Although conceived for instrumental performance, these could also be presented with a vocal soloist after consulting the above sources, marking up relevant sections to repeat desired verses, and rebalancing dynamics as needed. I’d like to think that these could alternatively be danced as balletic vignettes.


Chamber orchestra arrangement of a medley of five of Beethoven's Irish folksongs, first performed by George Mason University Symphony Orchestra on October 19, 2016 under the direction of Dr. Dennis Layendecker.


Music, score, orchestra, Beethoven, arrangement