These arrangements were begun in 2009 as a result of my growing interest in the song form and in vernacular music, and my desire to work with the guitar in mixed ensembles. The marvelous boxed CD sets that are available now make it possible, usually for less than the cost an opera ticket, to listen to huge repertoires of music, not only once but as often as you like. I can't afford to go to concerts much, but I listen to as much music as I like. I feel the boxed sets are a much better investment than the - increasingly! - dreary programs that one has to select from.
While going through the complete works of Beethoven, I discovered for myself the huge number of arrangments he had made for a British publisher during the Napoleonic years. There are well over 200 such songs, almost all in English. They seem to have provided him with his bread and butter for some while. I find them much more interesting than just about any other vocal music of Beethoven's than I had previously heard, and I am surprised at how few singers or musicologists know them, since they are very well-written for the voice, completely contradicting the usual negative verdict about Beethovens' vocal music; they are very large repertoire of many dozens of compositions; and they bountifully anticipate the Romantic era, especially the dramatic music of the Nineteenth Century, better than one might expect. They deserve to be better known, and I nelieve that if you do not know these songs you do not fully know Beethoven. Later, when I finally listened to all of Bela Bartok's music, the folk element, and Beethoven generally, seemed all the more natural. And here is an important point about Beethoven's use of "folk" material: it was not conservative, it was an advance in his idim. I think Bartok had Beethoven's example for using a "folk" component to advance the modernity, NOT the "accessibility," of his idiom. In my own work, this advancement is not in these folksongs, which are indeed arrangements, but in my CELESTIAL SIXTIES, A Symphony of Men's Voices. I had this use of "vernacular" influences to a non-"vernacular" end in mind from 1990, when I wrote the first part of CELESTIAL SIXTIES, long before I had heard any of the Beethoven folksongs. So my own example was Bartok.
The Beethoven pieces he calls "folksongs" are not actually folksongs; a few are familiar, but many, or most, are original compositions. For example, "The Return to Ulster," to a poem by Sir Walter Scott, is certainly one of the very finest compositions for voice, a small masterpiece, and comes from the same expressive domain as the first of the Opus 59 String Quartets. Most of the time, these "folksongs" are more, not less complicated than the lieder of his or most any other tonal day, before Hugo Wolf's. It is astonishing to hear this level of expression and invention in vocal music in English from this time in music history. I think his folksongs open Beethoven up to the English speaking world like no other of his music.
Beethoven used the piano trio to accompany his Folksongs, so they explore quite wider possibilities than the usual lieder accompanied by only voice and piano. I have recast some of these songs, usually into the grouping of Flute (doubling piccolo), Oboe, Violin, Cello, and Guitar; while many of them cannot be altered without being changed beyond recognition, especially those that use the piano too fully, this ensemble seems to add to, rather than detract from, certain of Beethoven's original songs. To date the following arrangments exist:
1. The Return to Ulster (two versions)
2. Faithfu' Johnie
3. Oh How Can I Be Blythe and Glad
First posted 1/11/2010. Updated 12/29/2012.