Beethoven “folk songs”

Beethoven - Folk Songs_smTo quote an opera by a rather different composer; “it is a curious story”.  It’s the 1810s and in Edinburgh one George Thomson (not the one who became a European commissioner!) had a cunning plan to get various composers to do settings of Welsh, Scottish and Irish folksongs for the domestic amateur music making market.  One of the composers he engaged was Beethoven (Haydn and Weber were also involved at various times)  and a selection of the songs he produced are recorded on a recently issued Naxos disk.

They aren’t what any reasonable person would recognise as “folk songs”.  Some of the texts are by the likes of Robbie Burns and Walter Scott (though I wasn’t aware that either was Irish!).  There are some (dreadful) translations into English of Dafydd ap Gwilym and a bunch are by an academic called William Smyth.  Tom Lehrer said that the trouble with folk songs were that they were written by the people.  He may have a point but the people have the edge on 19th century Scots academia by a considerable distance.  One feels that Smyth’s texts represent what respectable 19th century bourgeois Edinburgh wished folk songs were like.

The settings; for various combinations of tenor, baritone and soprano supported by piano, violin and cello, are rather better than the texts.  They aren’t by any means vintage Beethoven; even where he’s clearly ignoring Thomson’s instructions to make them simple enough for amateur performance, but some of them have an almost Schubertian quality and are not without interest.

The performers are a collection of young German and Austrian musicians; Paula Sophie Bonnet (soprano), Daniel Johannsen (tenor), Georg Klimbacher (baritone), Josef Herzer (violin), Bertin Christelbauer (cello) and Bernadette Bartos (piano).  They are really pretty good and the singers’ English diction is excellent even when it sounds oddly German; more a problem on the dialect pieces than the ones in poetic English.

The recording, made in Vienna last year, is clear and well balanced and the disk comes with full texts; well almost full… oddly the occasional verse is omitted.  So, a bit of an oddity but interesting to dip into as an example of what Beethoven got up to when he ad bills to pay.

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