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.