It may seem that the folk song and dance traffic is only one way, with ‘classical’ composers using (mostly) popular dance rhythms and (sometimes) folk tunes as elements in their works. But there are cases where composers have decided – either out of sheer, altruistic fondness or, more grubbily, for pecuniary advantage (or, of course, an element of both!) – to write straightforward settings of folk melodies. Beethoven is a case in point: when approached by the Scot, George Thomson to set some British traditional melodies, the composer revealed that he knew that, for a similar task, Thomson had paid Haydn ‘an English pound’ per song — one can almost hear the composer rubbing his hands with mammonesque glee! And yet the evidence of the final total of 179 (maybe) songs is that, while Beethoven didn’t dignify them with an opus number, the composer really did care about the quality of a job he could all too easily have dismissed as hack work.

Some of the problems to beset these early collections of folk songs is the slightly wobbly scholarship of the proto-ethnomusicologists who went around gathering the material, closely followed by the many potentially weak links that the music then had to pass through before it achieved its final published form. Here is a case in point, from the Beethoven collection of Welsh folk tunes (John Bull would be spinning in his grave!):

But not all folk song arrangements are quite as serious-minded as the famous ‘Welsh’ tune above. Take this, for example…


… now that’s serious audience participation!

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1 thought on “Contraflow

  1. To be fair to LvB and/or his publisher WoO157 (1815) is not entitled “Wesh songs” — that is WoO155 (1810) — but “12 songs of various nationalities”. The mistake is YouTube’s.

    Besides, Ludwig had earlier published a superior setting of God Save the King in 1802 (WoO78), and used the theme again in op. 91 Wellingtons Sieg in 1813.

    As an illustration of how much the character of an air can be changed by its setting, though, listen to this crashingly military version of what is essentially, rhythm-wise, an English (or as some people — mostly French — would say, French) galliarde:

    Here’s another version — a bit long, but worth watching for the sight of Kaiser Willy in a kilt:

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