Monday, May 4, 2009

The Irrepressible Mister Thomson

I had my first serious exposure to the work of George Thomson a little over a year ago when the Musicians from Marlboro touring group included four arrangements by Ludwig van Beethoven of Scottish and Irish folksongs in the program they presented in San Francisco. By way of context, I would like to reproduce what I wrote at that time about these pieces:

First there were four arrangements by Ludwig van Beethoven of folksongs, two of which were Scottish (one with a text by Robert Burns) and the other two Irish. These are rather odd "rough beasts," to invoke the metaphor of that later Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. They were the product of a commission from Scottish publisher George Thomson, who had collected the texts and melodies of the folk material and wanted Beethoven to arrange them for voice accompanied by piano trio. According to Eric Bromberger, who prepared the program notes, Beethoven never saw the texts, only the titles and melodies; so these works are hardly major models of art song. For that matter, as I have previously suggested, most of Beethoven's writing for the human voice is far from his best effort. (As far as I am concerned, he hit the top of his game with the first act quartet in Fidelio, "Mir is so wunderbar;" and the down-slope on either side of that stunning moment is pretty steep!) So these folksong settings are best appreciated for their novelty.

When I later encountered these songs (along with companions too numerous to mention) while working through the Brilliant Classics Gesamtwerk collection of Ludwig van Beethoven, I referred to the experience as "The Most Difficult Base Camp on Mount Beethoven." All told this involved listening to five CDs, and that included only selections from the Irish songs collected in WoO 152 and WoO 153! Imagine my surprise when I then encountered ten CDs in my recently acquired Haydn Edition (which I now know is not complete), also based on Thomson's collection. Since I am more partial to Joseph Haydn's vocal writing than I am to Beethoven's these CDs feel like less of an ordeal; but they have left me wondering just who Thomson was and how he had so much influence.

It turns out that he has his own entry in Grove Music Online, prepared by David Johnson and Kirsteen C. McCue. This site is limited to subscribers, and it is to my good fortune that the San Francisco Public Library subscribes on behalf of its members. However, I think I can get away with reproducing the two operating paragraphs from this entry:

During the 1780s Thomson decided to publish a prestigious collection of Scottish folksongs arranged for voice and piano trio by the greatest living European composers. This collection was to occupy him until the mid-1840s and to cost him a great deal of his own money, though initial funding was secured from an Edinburgh businessman. Haydn and Pleyel visited London in 1791 and the publisher William Napier signed on Haydn to arrange folksongs (published in 1792 and 1795): Thomson then engaged Pleyel for the same purpose and issued the first part of his Select Collection of Scottish Airs in Edinburgh (1793).

In 1797 Pleyel stopped arranging for Thomson, who then turned to Kozeluch (1797–1809), Haydn himself (1799–1804), Beethoven (1803–c1820), Weber (briefly in 1825), Hummel (1826–c1835), H.R. Bishop (1841) and his fellow Scotsman G.F. Graham (1838–41). Because of the complexity of Thomson’s publications it is almost impossible to state exactly how many settings composers wrote, but Beethoven and Haydn produced well over 100 settings each (see the thematic catalogue given in Hopkinson and Oldman, 1940). Thomson’s collections received much criticism for the unusual combinations of traditional Scottish, Welsh and Irish tunes with modern, mostly Viennese, compositional style. There was a particularly stormy relationship with Beethoven, as Thomson insisted that he simplify his settings for the drawing-room market. The folktunes were largely culled from earlier printed collections, only a few being personally collected by Thomson and his correspondents.

If Haydn "produced well over 100 settings," then there is a good chance that this particular portion of the Haydn Edition is complete; but, as the television commercials say, "that's not all!" His arrangements for Napier take up another five CDs, in addition to which there are another three CDs of Scottish songs set for William Whyte. H. C. Robbins Landon further observes that Haydn got into all of this as a favor to Napier, who was facing bankruptcy. He also notes that, unlike Beethoven, Haydn not only saw the texts but also tried to understand them well enough to do justice to them. Why the folks at Brilliant Classics decided to deep-end on all of this material at the (apparent) expense of neglecting many of Haydn's keyboard concertos and operas is beyond me; but it certainly strikes me as an odd way to set priorities in preparing a "representative" edition of Haydn's catalog!

No comments: