Week 42 – Bob’s Beethoven Blog

Posted on August, 14th 2021

Opus 108: Twenty-Five Scottish Songs by Elizabeth Morrison

Wait, twenty-five what?

Bob’s Beethoven Blog has now taken us deep into the period we know as “late Beethoven.” Last week, Foley Schuler showed us Beethoven staring into the Abyss. Two weeks ago, Bob described the monumental Hammerklavier Sonata, opus 106, as one that “has long beguiled, challenged, and perplexed pianists and listeners alike.” Now we are looking at a set of folk song settings for voice, piano, violin and cello, that has not so much beguiled or challenged as whizzed right by the heads of Beethoven lovers everywhere. Are we plunging from the sublime to the ridiculous?

No, but we are plunging from the famous to the obscure. Back in Week 35, discussing the songs of Beethoven’s Opus 98, 99, and 100, Bob confessed to being unfamiliar with many of Beethoven’s songs. That goes double for Opus 108. Who would guess that the folk-song arrangement was the single genre where Beethoven was most prolific? Between the years 1809 and 1820, he made an astounding 179 folk-song settings. Granted, it takes a good bit less time to dash off an arrangement of Auld Lang Syne, say, than a symphony or a string quartet. But still.

Even more surprising, these songs are in English, a language Beethoven barely spoke. It all came about through a Scotsman named George Thompson, a resident of Edinburgh, who had jumped belatedly on a craze for folk song collecting. Rather than enlisting local musicians, Thompson hoped to out-do other collectors by soliciting arrangements from the great composers of the day, most notably Haydn. When they ran out of steam, Thompson approached Beethoven himself.

There was much back and forth about bread and butter issues; one of Beethoven’s letters makes clear he knows Haydn had received a payment of one pound per song. But at length a deal was struck, and Thompson began sending Beethoven songs to arrange. One of the odd parts of the arrangement was that he gave Beethoven many tunes without a text attached. Beethoven complained, asking how he was expected to produce an arrangement when he didn’t know what the song was even about. It turned out Thompson was also soliciting poets of the day for new versions of the words, whether to ward off Scottish dialect or to clean up vulgarities in the original is unclear.

If you look through Beethoven’s work by opus number, this set of 25 is the only set of folk songs you will see. What happened to the other 154? They are listed as “WoO,” which stands for “werke ohne Opuszahl,” or works without opus number. Apparently, receiving an opus number from a composer confers a kind of status on a work; it is part of your official oeuvre, not something you wrote for a pound. The complete list of Beethoven’s arrangements includes more Scottish songs, many Welch and Irish songs, six English popular songs, and a few of “diverse nationalities.”

Since they have an opus number, the Opus 108 songs are presumably the ones Beethoven liked best. You can listen to them in many versions on Youtube, and I recommend you do so. A link is below. I hope you find them as delightful as I do. Beethoven took them seriously and called them “compositions.” However, sales were disappointing and Thompson seems to have found them a bit Beethoven-y. “He composes for posterity,” he groused, and asked that they be toned down a little. Beethoven predictably replied, “I am not accustomed to retouching my compositions; I have never done so, certain of the truth that any partial change alters the character of the composition.”

I’m glad he didn’t. For a taste, try this one, Music, Love and Wine. It is the first of the set, and takes up the age-old question of which of these is more vital for our happiness. Here are the words:

O let me Music hear
Night and Day!
Let the voice and let the Lyre
Dissolve my heart, my spirit’s fire;
Music and I ask no more,
Night or Day!
Hence with colder world,
Hence, Adieu!
Give me. Give me but the while,
The brighter heav’n of Ellen’s smile,
Love and then I ask no more,
Oh, would you?
Hence with this world of care
I say too;
Give me but the blissful dream,
That mingles in the goblet’s gleam,
Wine and then I ask no more,
What say you?
Music may gladden Wine,
What say you?
Tendrils of the laughing Vine
Around the Myrtle well may twine,
Both may grace the Lyre divine,
What say you?
What if we all agree,
What say you?
I will list the Lyre with thee,
And he shall dream of Love like me,
Brighter than the wine shall be,
What say you?
Love, Music, wine agree,
True, true, true!
Round then round the glass, the glee,
And Ellen in our toast shall be!
Music, wine and Love agree,
True, true, true!

This charming rendition is from an album called Beethoven Folksong Settings. It really is wonderful. Of course you will hear the piano, but if you listen closely you can also hear the violin and cello adding their tones. Beethoven made the arrangements so that they worked without the string instruments, in case they were not available, but were much enhanced if they were.

There is yet another benefit to Opus 108: this is Beethoven we can partake in directly. We may not be able to play his string quartets, or have had the good fortune, like Bob, to have performed the Eroica Symphony 100 times; but we can print these Beethoven songs and try them ourselves. How about Auld Lang Syne? The link is to a website called IMSLP, which stands for the International Music Score Library Project, an incredible resource where you can find almost every piece of music ever written that is in the public domain. Open the link, print out the music, and you can sing Beethoven’s very arrangement (remotely) with your friends on New Year’s Eve! I certainly plan to.


Beethoven’s 25 Scottish Songs (many choices)  YouTube

Music, Love and Wine

Auld Lang Syne (sheet music) IMSLP

Elizabeth Morrison and Bob Swan are old friends, having met at Norwalk Youth Symphony, in Norwalk, CT, when they were teenagers. While Bob went on to a distinguished career in the Chicago Symphony, Elizabeth became a professional writer. She is the author of four books on health and nutrition, including the New York Times Bestseller Body Type Diet, two books on Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and a book on telepathic animal communication, Wisdom of the Animals. She has never forgotten her love of cello playing, and has written over 60 articles on music, focusing on chamber music and music by women composers. She is honored to be a guest contributor to Bob’s Beethoven Blog.