top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Beethoven's Folksongs

One of the things I love to do is to introduce people to a lesser-known corner of the repertoire, and usually this is the result of someone introducing me to such a corner. Some time ago a friend visited my house and ran to the CD player. He put on a disc and came out with that line we music lovers inflict on our friends from time to time: Who do you think wrote this?

What I heard was words in English which sounded like a traditional or folksong text, an accompaniment with piano and a couple of string instruments, and a classical-early romantic feel... This is what he played. [listen]

The discussion eventually revealed that this was the music of none other than Beethoven. In the dim recesses of my mind I seemed to have a recollection that Beethoven had made some arrangements of British folksongs, but like most people I’d assumed that these were minor and insignificant parts of his output. How wrong I was! My friend had brought with him a 7-CD set and they were all Beethoven folksong arrangements!

In 1806, the Edinburgh-based music publisher George Thomson wrote to Beethoven (who lived in Vienna) and asked him if he would make some arrangements of Scottish folksongs. Capitalising on the popularity of such arrangements in Scotland for domestic use, Thomson had since 1790 commissioned and published such arrangements by Ignaz Pleyel, Leopold Kozeluch and Joseph Haydn, all popular composers of the day. Thomson was determined to publish arrangements by composers with an international reputation, so it was natural that at some stage he would approach Beethoven. [listen]

Raeburn: George Thomson (c. 1820)

Thomson sent Beethoven a collection of 21 untexted traditional melodies 1806 but Beethoven did not set these to music at that time. In 1809 Thomson sent Beethoven 43 melodies, including duplicates of the earlier 21, and requested that they be arranged for one or more voices with accompaniment for piano or pedal harp, with optional parts for violin and cello. Moreover, the songs were to have preludes and postludes and be able to be played by amateurs.

So began a long and fascinating professional relationship between Thomson and Beethoven which lasted for a decade. Their correspondence was carried out mostly in French, and the translations used here are drawn from Barry Cooper’s thorough and ground-breaking study of Beethoven’s folksongs published in 1994. This fascinating book, called Beethoven’s Folksong Settings, has been my primary source in researching this corner of Beethoven’s output, about which I had known so little.

Over the next ten years Beethoven composed no less that 179 folksong arrangements for Thomson, and there is ample evidence that the composer enjoyed carrying out this work. The melodies sent by Thomson included songs of Scottish, Irish, Welsh and English origin, such as this Welsh song, The Cottage Maid, which was among the earliest of Beethoven’s settings. It dates from July 1810. [listen]

It’s important to remember as you listen to these songs that the violin and cello parts were designed by Beethoven to be optional; the songs should work just as well with piano alone. This is a very difficult thing to do. It would be boring in the extreme to have all the violin and cello music reproduced in the piano; this would mean that when used, the violin and cello parts would seem completely unnecessary and in the way. Yet their parts can’t be too important or they would be missed when omitted. Beethoven again and again strikes the perfect balance, giving the two stringed instruments music which is interesting, and at times quite independent of the piano. It adds when it is used, but doesn’t subtract when omitted.

In this Scottish song from 1817, Jeannie’s Distress, the violin and cello have playful parts which dovetail delicately with the piano, but the piano has enough of interest to provide a perfectly substantial accompaniment if the strings were to be omitted. [listen]

In the Scottish songs, in particular, Beethoven occasionally indulges in some drone bass lines. This clearly is an imitation of the bagpipes, but it’s always carried out subtly, never in a grotesque way. This song from 1816, O how can I be blithe and glad, is a good example. [listen]

Allan: Highland Wedding (1780)

In the previous year, Beethoven penned this arrangement, Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie. It too indulges in a drone bass once the voice enters but it also shows how Beethoven often used elements of the song in the preludes and postludes. A fragment of the song’s melody is used as the basis of the prelude and postlude, and the interludes indulge in some rhythmic displacement which keeps the attention focussed despite the fact that this - like a large number of the songs Beethoven set - is a strophic song with multiple verses set to identical music. [listen]

Playford's Original Scotch Tunes for Violin (London, 1700)

In the first few batches of songs Beethoven arranged for Thomson, he did not have the words of the traditional melodies, only the music. Beethoven soon complained to Thomson about this, saying that it was necessary for him to have the words “as it is very necessary for giving the true expression”. The problem was that while he was seeking to preserve traditional melodies and present them to the public in a form then highly fashionable, Thomson often had poets write new words for the songs once Beethoven had finished his arrangements. Beethoven wrote to Thomson in 1812:

I beg you always to add instantly the text for the Scottish songs. I cannot understand how you who are a connoisseur cannot realize that I would produce completely different compositions if I had the text to hand, and the songs can never become perfect products if you do not send me the text; and you will ultimately compel me to refuse further orders.

Thomson replied that was simply not possible as many of the texts were as yet not written, but undertook to provide some texts in future where possible. It certainly seems that in the later batches of songs Beethoven on many occasions must have had the texts to hand, as the settings show he knew the content of the song in detail.

In many other cases, Thomson provided Italian expression markings with the melodies to give Beethoven the sense of the mood required. These included words like amoroso (lovingly), maestoso (majestically), scherzando (playfully), semplice (simply), teneramente (tenderly) and vivace (lively).

An Irish song, called The Deserter, was sent by Thomson with the marking affannato e agitato (breathless and agitated). The prelude and the verse of the song contains figurations which suggest agitation and breathlessness. Then at the refrain, the mood of the text becomes more decisive, something reflected by the words animato e risoluto marked against the melody. Beethoven’s setting changes appropriately at this point. Thus, to quote Barry Cooper, “even without any text to guide him, Beethoven could sometimes provide a setting rich in character”. This setting dates from February 1812. [listen]

Later on, Thomson provided the melodies to Beethoven with little summaries in French, to give a better idea of the content of the song. This song, for example, was sent to Beethoven in 1818 with the description: “A meeting of friends after several years of separation, recalling with delight the innocent pastimes of their youth.” You’ll probably recognise it. [listen]

Mähler: Ludwig van Beethoven (1815)

One of the interesting features of a lot of the folk material which Beethoven had to work with was the fact that it often was based in scale systems which were outside the classical major and minor system. He seems to have relished the exotic modal harmonies of some of these melodies and his harmonisations - seeking to make these melodies fit into the classical context - are often very beautiful and unpredictable. The classical feeling of a strong relationship between tonic and dominant is largely missing from such songs, allowing Beethoven to move into somewhat uncharted territory for the period. Thomson frequently praised Beethoven’s settings for their beauty and ingenuity but some of them proved “too bizarre” even for him. His setting of Sunset in 1818 is an excellent example. He wrote to Thomson:

There are some songs which cannot proceed without some trouble, although one does not hear this when playing or looking at them.

Speaking specifically of Sunset he said:

...some harmonies can be found very quickly for harmonizing such songs, but with the simplicity, character, and nature of the tune, to do so successfully is not always as easy for me as you perhaps believe; an infinite number of harmonies can be found, but only one is suited to the genre and character of the melody. [listen]

Earlier I mentioned Beethoven’s use of a drone bass to create a bagpipe sound in some of the Scottish songs. Attention to “local” details such as this characterise so many of the songs. For example, in Could this ill world have been contriv’d, a Scottish setting from 1816, Beethoven takes the so-called “Scottish snap” which occurs in the melody he was sent by Thomson and makes it a feature of the accompaniment from the very start. This rhythm - a short note on the beat followed by a longer note - is first heard in the song at the end of the second line (on the word “woman”). Beethoven has it in the piano part from the start of the piece, and the violin and cello have some delicious snaps in their musical comments as well. It’s amazing how this captures the irony of the song, the words of a man who laments the wiles of women, and laments his own inability to live without them. [listen]

Despite the light-hearted nature of much of the songs, some of them drew from Beethoven settings of great depth. One of the Irish songs, Return to Ulster, is among the earliest of Beethoven’s settings for Thomson. It’s almost impossible to believe that Beethoven didn’t have the text for this song in front of him when he wrote this; the setting is dark and evocative, and so appropriate for the Walter Scott text put to it by Thomson for publication. Here again Beethoven is confronted with a melody which doesn’t fit easily into classical harmony, and the result is a song which transcends mere folksong. This is in the realm of Lieder; it could almost have been written by Schubert or Schumann. [listen]

While the vast majority of Beethoven’s folksong settings are of British melodies (and this term in Beethoven’s day included Ireland), there are around 25 songs which are arrangements of melodies from the Continent, and some of these melodies were sourced by Beethoven himself. These display his uncanny ability to capture a national “feel” in an instant, across a wide range of moods and styles. For example, this Spanish Bolero dating from 1816. [listen]

It was probably inevitable that in setting this Spanish song with a Portuguese melody that Beethoven should invoke the sound of the guitar. [listen]

At the gentler end of the spectrum is this exquisite Swedish lullaby, Lilla Carl. [listen]

Beethoven’s Continental songs include arrangements of Danish, Polish, Tyrolese, Swiss, Austrian, Cossack, Venetian, Russian and Hungarian songs as well, all as clearly individual as these. The Tyrolese songs are especially fun, full of knee-slapping alpine Gemütlichkeit. [listen]

As you can imagine, given the fact that Beethoven wrote 179 folksong settings, I’ve only scratched the surface here, but I hope it’s helped you to discover a new facet to Beethoven’s character, and his skill as a composer. To finish, I thought I’d let you hear Beethoven’s 1817 take on an English song which possibly needs no introduction. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2005.

137 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page