Sunday, 24 June 2012

Beethoven in Our Alley

Sir Henry Raeburn, Mrs. Robert Scott Moncrieff
A neglected aspect of Beethoven's output is his setting of foreign folk songs, the bulk being from the British Isles. I've just spent a very pleasant hour or so listening to his Schottische Lieder, Op.108, twenty five settings of Scottish folk songs set for solo singer, mixed chorus and piano trio. 
(Wikipedia has a full list of the songs & details of their origins here). 

They came about from a commission from George Thomson, Secretary to the Board for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures in Scotland (who also commissioned Haydn). Mr. Thompson was trying to sell Scotland to the world, with a little help, and sent the tunes across to the composer. 

There are a few things to say about them. The first thing is that, collectively, they are a delight. There are some very catchy tunes and the way Beethoven sets them for different combinations of voices (solos, duets, trios and choruses) as well as their varied moods (from the wistful and romantic to the heroic and playful) makes the experience of listening to them as set a purely pleasurable experience. The violin and the cello add extra layers of colour, even though the piano could easily manage the job of accompanying the singers by itself. They are set in the Classical style and with harmonies to match. Today, after a hundred or more years of hearing folk songs arranged with modal harmonies to match the modal melodies of the originals, it is an initially disconcerting thing - and probably a disappointing one (even for those of us who aren't folk song purists) - to hear them set to conventional tonic-dominant Classical/Romantic harmonies. The ear soon grows accustomed though to this 'unauthentic' treatment and begins to appreciate the tonal harmonies on their old terms. 

Hope you enjoy them. 

As a little bonus, here's one of my favourites, Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie, as played by the Pipes and Drums of the London Scottish Regiment.  

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