Beethoven's relationship to Great Britain

Folk song collector George Thomson

George Thomson (1757-1815), a public servant and passionate folk song collector living in Edinburgh strove to save the folk melodies of his home country from falling into oblivion. His suggestion directed to Beethoven to compose six sonatas about Scottish melodies marks the beginning of Beethoven's evident relationship to Britain. Beethoven's reply letter dated October 5th, 1803 is the composer's first letter across the Channel. Although the project was never carried out because the parties involved were not able to come to an agreement, a vivid business contact developed until 1820. At the end of October Beethoven offered the piano variations on the English folk songs "God save the King" and "Rule Britannia" WoO 78 and 79 for printing. « Je vous envoie ci joint des Variations sur 2 thêmes anglais, qui sont bien faciles et qui, à ce que j'espère, auront un bons succès. » With his suggestion Thomson might even have initiated the composition of the variations on this melody that even people on the Continent knew and cherished. Both pieces were first published in Vienna. Half a year later Clementi published "God save the King" in London but it took two decades for "Rule Britannia" to be published by an English publishing house. Beethoven used both melodies again in 1813 for his "Grand Battle Symphony" op. 91.


Piano variations on "God save the king" (C Major) WoO 78



Piano variations on "Rule Britannia" (D Major) WoO 79


As a result of Beethoven's letter dated November 23rd, 1809 George Thomson drew up the following calculation. Thomson had offered Beethoven 60 Pounds Sterling (equal to 120 gold ducats) for three quintets and three sonatas, but the composer demanded the double sum due to the weak exchange rate and the difficult war-induced situation. For each work category Thomson now earmarked a remuneration of 40 Pounds instead of the offered 30 Pounds (an envelope at the British Library addressed to him shows another calculation on the inside stating 50 Pounds). Thomson calculated that only with 410 and 440 copies sold the costs would be covered. As he considered the deal too risky, it was never closed.
On the back of the calculation Thomson briefly summarised Beethoven's letter in which the composer also wrote that he was working on the 43 songs Thomson had sent.


Calculation, January 1810
The British Library


Thomson hoped to increase the folk melodies' popularity by means of a contemporary composition. By adapting the pieces for piano trio - then popular for making music at home - he wanted to give the British bourgeoisie an insight into "original" music. He ordered these adaptations from renowned composers such as Joseph Haydn, Leopold Kozeluch, Ignaz Pleyel and Beethoven. All in all 150 song adaptations by Beethoven of Irish, Welsh and Scottish songs have been preserved. In September 1809 Thomson had sent Beethoven 43 melodies and explicitly asked for an easy piano part. He would do so repeatedly in the future. In the mentioned letter dated November 23rd Beethoven pointed out that this was a less pleasant work for an artist but surely a good work for business. Initially he received three ducats for each adaptation, later on four and then five. He also asked to obtain the texts in the future, a request Thomson did and could not fulfil. The text is not identical with that of the original folk songs but Thomson had famous poets such as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott write new lines for the completed adaptations. In July 1810 Beethoven sent the final 53 adaptations each consisting of three copies (one by himself and two by copyists) to England by various means. Thomson, however, waited in vain. The present copy was a gift from Beethoven to his pupil Archduke Rudolph. In the summer of 1811 he borrowed it to make a new one for Thomson. The receipt of this copy was confirmed in early August 1812.


Corrected copy of the 53 folk song adaptations for singing voice, violin, violoncello and piano, 1810


In 1814 the first of two volumes of the "Irish Songs" and in 1817 the third and last volume of the "Welsh Songs" with Beethoven's contribution were published. Thomson served as editor and the London music publishing house Preston printed and marketed the folk song adaptations. The book-friendly folio format editions feature elaborate copper engravings.


Frontispiece "St. Cecilia" of the 1st volume of the "Irish Songs"



Original edition of the "Welsh Songs", 3rd volume, 1817