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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

13. Beethoven's English Folk-Song Arrangements


Following the public acclaim for his Scottish Folk-Song arrangements, Beethoven was approached by Revd. John Broadwood to do something similar for the neglected English folk-song. Broadwood had spent considerable time and energy collecting folk songs in the vicinity of his parish of Lyne in Sussex, taking down words and tunes sung to him by the 'smocked labourers'. Some of the texts were rather 'earthy' - often plain rude - but he felt that, with some tasteful bowdlerisation, acceptable versions could be made for domestic use, and thus help preserve these beautiful examples of peasant art for posterity. It was in these terms that he wrote to Beethoven, offering a fee of three ducats for each song. Beethoven, who was short of money, accepted straightaway, though he insisted on four ducats, arguing that Haydn had received that much for much simpler tunes. His attitude to the transaction was, alas!, entirely mercenary. He didn't care a fig for the preservation of peasant songs in this far-flung outcrop of Europe: four ducats a song, however, he could not refuse.

At first, Beethoven found it difficult to make a selection. He was not happy with the strange inflections of the melodies, with their flattened 7ths and sharpened 6ths, and he was even more perplexed by the words: he had little English to begin with and the rustic archaisms only added to the problem. In the end, however, he did manage to find six that he thought he could dress up. The results, though not perhaps reaching the sublimity of the Choral Symphony or the Diabelli Variations, are of great historical interest, and shed an entirely new light on this illustrious composer. Indeed, some of them seem to anticipate the work of later folk song arrangers, as well as referring back to the composer's own earlier compositions.

  1. 'The cuckoo'. The accompaniment is permeated by a 'cuckoo' motive which is joined in the extended coda by the calls of nightingale and quail.
  2. 'The Old Molecatcher'. Beethoven was clearly puzzled by the dialect words (as Broadwood himself had been); nevertheless, the 'I 'ad 'er, I 'ad 'er' refrain is particularly effective.
  3. 'Baa, Baa Blacksheep'. Beethoven seems to have been fascinated by this 'cobbler's patch' of a tune, so much so that he concludes the setting with a set of 33 variations.
  4. 'The Maiden and the Fishmonger'. If Broadwood had missed the smutty implications of this song, Beethoven certainly had. He sets the lively tune as an Andante Sostenuto, with accompanimental figurations strangely reminiscent of the 'Moonlight' Sonata.
  5. 'Barbara Allen'. Beethoven takes this tragic ballad at a great lick - hardly appropriate to the text, but a delightful romp nonetheless. The canonic working of the tune in the accompaniment is most ingenious.
  6. 'Dance Jim Crow'. Broadwood has made a mistake here. This is not, of course, an English folk song, but a Black-and-White Minstrel ditty, probably picked up by one of his parishioners at the local fair. Beethoven uncannily matches it with some authentic 'Ethiopian' music, even managing to include a few jazzy syncopations.

The arrangements were never published. Broadwood is said to have expressed disappointment with the settings. A more likely reason was that he had, rather belatedly, begun to realise the scatological innuendoes of some of the texts and, in a fit of embarrassment, had hidden them away amongst some family papers. Their recent discovery is therefore a delightful surprise.


Copyright © 17 February 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


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