Great Expectations: Beethoven's Twenty-Five Scottish Songs

By Waltz, Sarah Clemmens | The Beethoven Journal, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Great Expectations: Beethoven's Twenty-Five Scottish Songs


Waltz, Sarah Clemmens, The Beethoven Journal


I. Introduction

Beethovens Tweñty-Five Scottish Songs, Opus 108, met with a strong reception: six positive reviews in as many years following its 1822 publication by Schlesinger in Berlin.1 Yet that reception is also notoriously confused. In general, contemporary reviewers seemed unaware that Beethoven had been commissioned to set pre-existing melodies. This confusion was due in part to an ambiguous title page - one that claims that the Scottish songs contained therein were componirt (composed) by Beethoven, rather than set or arranged.2 Critics thus believed that Beethoven had created new melodies to Scots song texts in the manner of Volkslied composers JAR Schulz or J.F. Reichardt.3 As a result, the remarks on Beethoven's "original" turns of phrase, or the compliment that the songs "all more or less bear a Scottish character," now strike us as embarrassingly i11 informed.4 Yet despite the misleading title page, such ignorance seems surprising given that Scots song (i.e. Lowland Scots tunes or Scottish folksong) is supposed to have been very much in vogue all over the continent. Were Beethoven's reviewers simply unusually ignorant in their failure to recognize these Scottish songs? Or were these particularly uniamiliar tunes that Beethoven set? Would it not have been comparatively easy, over six years, for some German critic to dig up the original tunes and notice Beethoven's use of them?

In a word, no. Although most of the tunes Beethoven arranged are not particularly familiar ones, the truth is that Beethovens compatriots probably had very little knowledge of any actual Scottish tunes before tiie late 1 820s; certainly very few sources were circulating in Germany that could have been used to comparero Beethovens settings. In that case, ignorance was only to be expected from the critics of Opus 108, and the conjecture that these were actual Scots songs now appears as exceptionally well informed. The confusion has little to do with the laziness of critics - although they evidently missed reviews of Beethoven's instrumental variations, Opus 107, which included four of the tunes from Opus 1 08 and thus would have suggested their authenticity as folksongs.5

Rather, it has to do with widespread misconceptions of what Scots song sounded like, arising in the absence of any actual Scottish music circulating in Germany. The general lack of familiarity with Scots melodies is not very difficult to establish; it is only surprising, especially given that most prior research in the area has tended to assume that the German vogue for Scotland was modeled on the English one (which began with rampant interest in Scots song).61 explored some of the diverse and perplexing reasons for the differences in German reception in my 2007 dissertation, The Highland Muse in Romantic German Music, which looks at German interest in Scotland from 1765 through the 1870s.7 Ln essence, a preoccupation with Celtic antiquity - thought to be preserved in the Scottish Highlands in the works of Ossian - interfered with the reception of the Lowland Scots tune. Whereas Scots song is very familiar to us, and central to our image of Scodand, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Germans did not have this familiarity. Ideas of Celtic bards, not bagpipes, formed their images of Scotland, and the general reader was often encouraged by unclear writings to associate both Highland and Lowland music indiscriminafely - and even English, Welsh, and Irish song - with the ancient bards. It can be difficult for Anglo-Americans to unlearn all that they know about Scots song, but the attempt to do so will cast the reactions to Beethovens settings in a different light. This article will examine some of the ways ?? which intense German interest in Scottish music and Celtic antiquity, paradoxically, confused the reception of Beethoven's Twenty-Five Scottish Songs, Opus 1 08. In particular, it will address the remarks of Gottfried Wilhelm Fink, a critic with a comparatively high degree of knowledge about Scottish music, and posit him as the critic who first intuited the true origin of Beethovens songs. …

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