Beethoven’s Irish Songs

Numerically, what did Beethoven write most of?

Settings of Irish songs, for voice (or voices), violin, cello, and piano is the surprising answer: seventy-two of them. They were commissioned by the Scottish publisher George Thomson, at the instigation of Robert Burns who promised to provide the lyrics. Burns had already sent Thomson lyrics for Scottish airs, to be arranged by Haydn and the Czech composer Kozeluch for the same forces, and indeed these were to provide some of Kozeluch’s greatest hits.

Burns’s death in 1796, at the age of thirty-seven, scotched his Beethoven plan, and Thomson tried to replace him with the young Thomas Moore as lyricist. Moore hesitated for two years and then decided to do his own publication; his enormously successful Irish Melodies and Popular National Airs came out in London between 1808 and 1834.

Beethoven’s settings, made in the first decade of the nineteenth century, were (not all, but most of them) published in London and Edinburgh in 1814/16, but they never approached the popularity of Moore’s. One likely reason for their obscurity is the fact that Thomson had to make do with second- and third-rate poets to come up with the words. You seldom hear them performed; I have only heard of one performance of any of them. They obviously fired Ludwig’s imagination, though; they are lively and full of character, both Irish and Beethovenian, and a few contain snatches that reappear in the Seventh Symphony (written 1811/12).

In the late 1960s as a college student I first heard Brian Boydell’s Dowland Consort, an excellent unaccompanied madrigal group. One member of that group, the tenor Tomás Ó Súilleabháin, now in his nineties, has for years nursed a project to re-publish Beethoven’s Irish song settings using lyrics by better poets—the ones Thomson couldn’t get, including both Moore and Burns. Some poems, particularly Moore’s, were already associated with the tunes Beethoven set, and the rest are chosen to fit the metre and mood of the other melodies. They are all by now well out of copyright, so Tomás had free rein to reassign them.

The publication is coming close to completion; I have been employed (in my persona as Smoot Scoring) to set up the scores, collaborating with Tomás’s daughter, my teaching colleague Margaret O’Sullivan Farrell, who is incidentally also the mother of my star viola da gamba pupil Catherine Farrell. Small world.

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8 Responses to “Beethoven’s Irish Songs”

  1. samwell Says:

    it says that i can be the first to like this post. seeing as i´ve only just got around to reading it i guess i´m not really the first but i do like it. i very like it!

  2. John Elwes Says:

    Very interesting little article. I have recorded Thomas Moore’s settings of Irish Melodies a few years ago with a Japanese company. The older Japanese know many of Moore’s Irish melodies. It is also in Japan that I have a sung a number of Beethoven’s arrangements. I think it an excellent idea to adapt some of Moore’s poetry to Beethoven’s music. Of course, Moore’s songs , requiring just a keyboard instrument (usually a square piano ), were more popular being accessible to amateur music lovers. Interestingly, the piano that accompanied my Moore’s cd was an original Nanette Streicher from the early 1800s. She also made pianos specifically for Beethoven !!

    • recumbentman Says:

      Thanks for that John! Haydn and Kozeluch had had great success with the violin/cello/piano format, which is what prompted Burns and Thomson to push it out one more time, but Moore stole their thunder with his more accessible piano arrangements.

  3. Beethoven by the numbers | Jack Fishman on Classical Music | a mySA.com blog Says:

    I’m continuing my series of blogs about Beethoven, in anticipation of the Symphony’s Beethoven Festival in January/February 2012.

    Yesterday, I wrote about how Beethoven didn’t know how old he was because of his father’s attempts to pass him off as the next Mozart when he was young. Today’s blog is a one-question trivia quiz. The question is: Considering all the different forms of music, in what form did Beethoven write the greatest number of works?

    Here are a few hints; none of these are the correct answer. Beethoven wrote:
    32 piano sonatas
    10 sonatas for violin and piano
    9 symphonies
    7 trios for violin, cello and piano
    5 sonatas for cello and piano
    4 trios for violin, viola and cello

    Give up? The answer is: Beethoven wrote 72 Irish songs for voice (or voices), violin, cello, and piano!

  4. Jane O'Leary Says:

    Just found this interesting note on the Irish songs-is it you, Andrew? We are including 10 of them, for sop/ten and trio, in a Beethoven Festival January 25-27 (2013) in Galway (see musicforgalway.ie). Might use your statistics in our programme notes, if that’s okay? Robin Tritschler and Charlotte Riedijk are the singers. Jane

    • recumbentman Says:

      Yes, Jane, that’s me all right! The project has been slowed down due to Tomás’s death in August, but it is nearing completion. The DIT has become involved in the publication on paper, and at their request we are preparing inserts giving the violin and cello parts, to go into the covers of the complete vocal/piano score. The full scores along with large-format violin and cello parts will be available to buy singly online. As will the vocal/piano scores.

      Feel free to use whatever you can from this blog, or email me for more fascinating details!

  5. Fidleir (@fidleir) Says:

    Hello Andrew. I enjoyed reading this post discovered while searching for the details of the fee Beethoven received for the settings. @Beethoven_Bust via twitter points out that the composer received a lot more for these songs than he did for the 9th symphony heard at last night’s Proms. I enjoyed hearing the settings at the Galway concert earlier this year and posted a report on my blog.

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