It is just after the 250th anniversary of the birth of the composer, Ludwig van Beethoven. Perhaps one of the lesser-known facts about the world-renowned German composer was his adapting of a number of Welsh folk airs. Twenty-six Welsh folk songs were arranged by him. The story also connects two of Scotland’s greatest writers and illustrates the intense efforts of sending compositions across Europe during the Napoleonic wars and the help given by smugglers to achieve this.
George Thomson the Clerk to the Board of Trustees to Encourage Literature and Production in Scotland – a post he held for 60 years – was responsible for commissioning the compositions. Thomson had to self publish and print his vision of publishing his own folk tunes. Thomson was energetic and enthusiastic about the folk airs of the Celtic nations. When Beethoven wrote to him once calling him a ‘music dealer,’ Thomson answered him furiously saying, ‘Don’t call me only a music seller, I’m selling national songs.’
Thomson collected songs and airs from Wales and at the time English folk tunes were given less importance compared to the Celtic countries. Thomson was determined to commission composers with international reputations to work on the arrangements. He first contacted the composers Pleyel, Kozeluch and Haydn. First, Thomson began to take an interest in the traditional Scottish songs of his homeland. In 1793 his Selected Scottish Airs was published and Robert Burns was commissioned to improve the traditional words. This was a period of the eighteenth century Renaissance when many of the country’s major figures took an interest in the romantic landscape and traditions of the Celtic nations.
Thomson undertook the task of collecting folk songs seriously and in his preface to Select Collection of Welsh Airs in 1809, he describes how he came to receive music from Wales. He read diaries and descriptions of travels throughout Wales by Thomas Pennant and the Reverend William Bingley. He asked harpists from Wales to provide unpublished tunes. He travelled to Wales to conduct research and was in possession of books by the harpist Edward Jones, Poet of the King and also possible according to M. Rycroft, a collection of tunes by John Parry, Ruabon, Blind Parry.
Thomson began writing to Beethoven in 1803 and his last letter to him was in 1820. About 1806, Thomson suggested that Beethoven set folk tunes for publication and that he would pay Beethoven for the work. Beethoven heard that Thomson had contacted Haydn; the composer in a letter in November 1806 stated that Haydn had received, ‘one British pound per tune.’ In 1809 Beethoven received the commission. He completed fifty-three Celtic tunes and sent it to Thomson in 1810. But sending the manuscripts to Thomson was not a simple task.
This was the period of the Napoleonic wars and, since the Berlin Ordinance of Napoleon in 1806, there had been a ban on British trade including mail and consequently, there was great difficulty in sending letters from Edinburgh to Vienna and back. A marine blockade was installed around Britain. Britain avoided the blockade by exporting and importing through Spain and Russia, countries invaded by Napoleon for this reason, planting the seeds of his overthrow.
To complete the commission, Beethoven sent three copies of his music and sent them along different routes and would then send copies a year later. One did not arrive until 1812 when it was sent via Malta. Beethoven noticed that the most effective way was to send his work and letters to Edinburgh via Paris. The biggest difficulty was sending letters across the sea. The only way to send the compositions was by using illegal means – smugglers. This was indeed a boom time for smugglers.
Beethoven arranged twenty-six Welsh folk tunes and in the Beethoven catalogue they are given the reference WoO 155 (a reference to Beethoven’s work without an Opus number). Twenty-three of them are for a soprano soloist with three for duets. The titles of the airs were translated into English except for one: ‘Merch Megan’ (daughter of Megan). Some of the tunes include the Vale of Clwyd and the Dream. Thomson contacted some of Scotland’s most famous writers to adapt the words: Walter Scott and Robbie Burns. Walter Scott wrote the words for ‘The Monks of Bangor March’ and ‘Waken Lords and Ladies’. Robert Burns created lyrics for Helpless Woman and Constancy. For many of the songs, the lyrics were not sent to Beethoven because they had not been written. According to musicologist Barry Cooper, the words were rewritten; especially the Scottish ones to avoid unacceptable and rough verses and sometimes to modernize the words. Beethoven frequently asked Thomson for the lyrics, arguing that he could not compose a suitable arrangement without them.
Beethoven took his work seriously, in a letter to Thomson he states, ‘I am not used to revising my compositions; I have never done so, certain of the fact that any partial change changes the character of the composition. I’m sorry that you are at a loss, but you cannot blame me, because you were responsible for making me more familiar with the flavour of your country and the rare ability of your performers.’
Songs from Wales was published in 1817 it included the twenty-six arrangements by Beethoven and four arrangements of Welsh songs by Joseph Haydn (among the last he composed). Songs from Wales did not sell well and Thomson continued to publish songs until the 1850s but had no commercial success. He died well past his ninetieth birthday.
Beethoven was so enthralled by folk songs from Wales that he undertook the task of adapting the airs and went to the considerable effort of getting his compositions to Scotland under difficult circumstances. His adaptation of airs from Wales can be heard today.
Aldrich, R. (1927) ‘Beethoven and George Thomson’, Music and Letters, VIII(2), pp. 234–242. doi: 10.1093/ml/VIII.2.234.
Cummings, R. (n.d.) Ludwig Van Beethoven Welsh Songs (26) for voice(s) & piano trio WoO 155. Available at: https://www.allmusic.com/composition/welsh-songs-26-for-voices-piano-trio-woo-155-mc0002364614.
Rycroft, M. (2008) Haydn’s Welsh songs: George Thomson’s musical and literary sources, Welsh Music History, 7, pp. 92–160.