Friday 11 December 2020

Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven - on the trail of the Scottish Gaelic origins of Beethoven's folk-song arrangements

Mairi MacInnes and Michael Klevenhaus performing at Celtic Connections
Mairi MacInnes and Michael Klevenhaus performing at Celtic Connections

Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven
; BBC ALBA (16 December 2020)

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 December 2020
Tracing the Scottish Gaelic links of songs arranged by Beethoven, looking at why these links were overlooked and the politics which lay behind it.

That Beethoven wrote quite a number (47 of them in fact) of arrangements of Scottish folk-songs is well known, but less attention has been paid to the tunes themselves, what were they, where did they come from? A new documentary, Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven, on BBC ALBA (the Scottish Gaelic-language television channel) looks at the fascinating background to these songs with their interweaving of music and politics.

The film, Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven, follows the German musicologist and Gaelic scholar Dr Michael Klevenhaus in his research to uncover the origins of the songs that Beethoven arranged.

Dr Klevenhaus is a fascinating character in his own right. As a young man he became entranced by the language and culture of Gaelic Scotland, learned the language and how to sing the ancient songs and founded the German Center for Gaelic Language and Culture - a Gaelic teaching institute, in Bonn. The programme is presented by Dr Klevenhaus in Gaelic, and he seemingly effortlessly switches between Gaelic, English and German depending on who he is talking to.

George Thomson (1757–1851) by Henry Raeburn
George Thomson (1757–1851) by Henry Raeburn
The background to the songs is relatively simple, the Edinburgh-based publisher George Thomson was publishing a series of volumes in a sort of national songbook, with Scottish songs arranged by major composers. Haydn and Pleyel had created arrangements, and between 1809 and 1818 Thomson would send batches of melodies to Beethoven who would send back arrangements for Thomson's publications. His A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice came out in five volumes between 1799 and 1818. This was part of a wider movement which started in the 18th century of bringing folk-culture into the drawing room, but tidying it up in the process. Thomson bowdlerised the words, or even commissioned new words altogether.

Dr Klevenhaus' interest was piqued in 2015 when he was reading a scholarly work by piper Allan MacDonald who had written a footnote stating that the song Enchantress Farewell, arranged by Beethoven with words by Sir Walter Scott, was based on Mhnathan a’ Ghlinne Seo (Women of the Glen). So Dr Klevenhaus set off on a journey to find out more.

His explorations take him to Bonn (Beethoven's birthplace) and Vienna (where the majority of the composer's musical career took place) as well as to various places in Scotland. There are three strands to his explorations. The first is the Beethovenian background, as he talks to other musicologists and historians in Germany and Austria about Beethoven and what else the composer was doing. He also eaves drops on a project to record all of Beethoven's arrangements [now available on Amazon]. There was also the complexities of Beethoven's relations with Thomson, at one point in a letter Beethoven complains to Thomson about being sent melodies without texts, not to mention the problems of getting correspondence between Edinburgh to Vienna during the Napoleonic Wars.

The second strand is the identifying of the melodies, Dr Klevenhaus talks to scholars and performers such as Allan MacDonald and Mairi MacInnes, and we can understand that the process is somewhat complex as Thomson would smooth out and simplify melodies. But by the end of the programme, Dr Klevenhaus has a group of songs arranged by Beethoven which seem to have distinct links to Gaelic songs.

The third strand involves the complexities of Scottish politics of the period. Dr Klevenhaus is endeavouring to find out why the songs were de-Gaelicised in the first place. In an interesting aside we discover that Thomson also issued a set of national songs of Wales, and these were printed with English and Welsh titles. Nothing like that happened with the Scots melodies, which had English title only. Why?

The answer of course is the Jacobites. The Jacobite Rebellion was in 1745 and the repercussions, including the concomitant Highland clearances, resonated onwards into the 19th century. Whilst polite Edinburgh drawing rooms were interested in the idea of Scottish songs, they would shy away from any hint of Jacobite culture. And one song, which Beethoven set as a love song, Erin o’ Erin, seems to have links to a song by the Scottish poet Sìleas Na Ceapaich (c1660-1729) about the 1715 Jacobite Uprising. This leads Dr Klevenhaus onto a further exploration, into issues of ownership, and he talks to contemporary musicians including Greg Lawson, a traditional/contemporary musician, arranger and conductor of the Grit Orchestra, but of course this is a subject that it is hard to get a firm grasp on.

The question at the end of the quest is what should Dr Klevenhaus do with this knowledge? The answer, of course, is a concert, and he arranges a concert at the Celtic Connections Festival which puts the original Gaelic songs and Beethoven's arrangements side by side. When the programme is broadcast on BBC ALBA on 16 December 2020 it will be followed by a similar concert with Mairi MacInnes, Michael Klevenhaus. Allan MacDonald and German piper Thomas Zöllner, classical singers Lorna Anderson (soprano) and Jamie MacDougall (tenor), with classical instrumentalists Verena Stourzh, Franz Ortner, Clemens Zeilinger of the Trio Van Beethoven.

For all the programme's emphasis on Beethoven there were other illuminating side-lights. One was a glimpse of the way Gaelic musical culture exists today as a developing and living performance culture, the other of course is the terrible treatment inflicted on Gaelic culture by the English-speaking world.

Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven is broadcast on BBC ALBA on 16 December 2020, see the TV schedule for details.

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