Ludwig and Rabbie: A partnership that ended in tears

When an Edinburgh publisher tried to unite one of the world's great composers with an internationally acclaimed poet, he hoped to make his fortune. But the failure of the resulting Beethoven manuscript to sell at auction yesterday is a reminder of how badly things went wrong... By Paul Kelbie

Friday 02 December 2005 01:00

When, in the first years of the 19th century, the Scottish publisher George Thomson decided to unite the talents of Robert Burns and Ludwig van Beethoven, two of the greatest, most glamorous names in musical and literary history, he realised that there could be problems along the way.

Beethoven was recognised as one of the best composers who ever lived; an icon of his time. The Fifth Symphony, the Ninth Symphony, the Moonlight Sonata have inspired generations of composers, musicians and audiences around the world. But he was known to be volatile.

Nevertheless, imagine the wondrous results, thought Thomson, if his musical brilliance could be harnessed to the soulful words of a Celtic poet-genius such as Robert Burns. The ploughman-poet and the celebrated, passionate German composer. It would be an artistic partnership for the ages.

Unfortunately, it didn't work out like that. Yesterday, the ill-fated collaboration was on display at Christie's. But a 22-page manuscript containing a song with music by Beethoven and words by Burns - "Highland Harry" - was withdrawn from auction when it failed to receive the expected £450,000 bid. For the duo who might have been an early Lennon and McCartney, and for Thomson, their would-be impresario, it was a final, posthumous setback.

Thomson's idea was to create a new form of popular music for 19th-century audiences and turn traditional folk songs into classic drawing room pieces, bowdlerising their rustic crudities and polishing their primitive modal harmonies into something suitable for polite society.

The project had been hatched in 1792 when Thomson, the son of a schoolmaster from Limekilns, on the river Forth near Dunfermline, decided to indulge his passion for music by marrying traditional songs to arrangements by the leading musicians of the day. In theory, it was a good idea. Thomson realised that among the salons and drawing rooms of Britain's fashionable houses and stately homes, there was a market for romantic verse and simple, plaintive folk melodies. Many of the verses and melodies to Britain's traditional songs, however, were unsuitable for cultured appetites.

Thomson enlisted the help of a partner, Andrew Erskine, but within months of starting out, the project took a tragic turn when Erskine, who turned out to be heavily saddled with gambling debts, killed himself by jumping into the Forth.

At this point, Thomson made contact with Burns, who had been collecting and arranging songs for the Edinburgh engraver and music-seller James Johnson since 1787, including "Auld Lang Syne," "My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose," "John Anderson My Jo," "My Heart's in the Highlands," and "A Man's a Man for A' That." He was happy to help and submitted 114 songs to Thomson's A Select Collection Of Scottish Airs.

Thomson set about remodelling the songs. "On examining with great attention the various collections on which I could by any means lay my hands, I found them all more or less exceptionable; a sad mixture of good and evil, the pure and the impure," he wrote of his early finds. Above all, an improved musical arrangement was required.

"The melodies in general were without any symphonies to introduce and conclude them; and the accompaniments (for the piano only) meagre and common-place; while the verses united with the melodies were, in a great many instances, coarse and vulgar, the productions of a rude age, and such as could not be tolerated or sung in good society."

Thomson set about commissioning new arrangements, at first going to composers such as Pleyel, Haydn, Weber and Hummel, considered at that time to be the most distinguished in Europe. Much of the work was carried out despite the constraints imposed by the Napoleonic wars, which meant much of the correspondence between Thomson and his composers had to be smuggled through diplomatic channels or sent in duplicate on circuitous routes via Malta or Germany to ensure that at least one survived the journey.

Overall, he commissioned more than 200 settings from Haydn while also commissioning words from Burns, Sir Walter Scott and others. But in 1803, seven years after the death of Burns, Haydn became too ill to work. Thomson approached Beethoven with the idea of creating an unbeatable partnership.

Among the verses by Burns that Thomson asked Beethoven to set to music was "Highland Harry", the chorus of which Burns had "picked up" from an old woman in Dunblane. Relations quickly became prickly. Almost everything Beethoven wrote, said Thomson, was too complicated for amateur musicians. Correspondence in the British Library between the two men clearly shows that their relationship was not an easy one, although Thomson seems to have adopted a diplomatic approach. On one occasion he tells Beethoven that an arrangement is "very brilliant and truly excellent, but the piano part is too difficult and contains too many roulades ..."

Beethoven, who frequently quarrelled, often bitterly, with his own relatives let alone anyone else, did not take kindly to being asked to keep his arrangements simple. He also complained that Thomson did not send him the lyrics to the song, only an outline of the story.

The two men also argued about money. The German composer drove a hard bargain with Thomson - eventually beating him up to a fee of four gold ducats rather than three. In return, he wrote the settings for 126 songs, about a third of them Scottish.

Eventually, Thomson gave up. "The problem was that Beethoven didn't like to water down his talent or ambition and so his scores were were often incredibly difficult," said Matthew Paton of Christie's.

"There is plenty of correspondence around showing that Thomson pleaded with him to tone done the music a little because they were so difficult to play. Beethoven would get furious and rant off in German, telling him not to try and suppress his talent."

The extremely rare manuscript was expected to fetch between £350,000 and £450,000 at Christie's yesterday but was withdrawn from sale when the bidding reached only £300,000.

Thomas Venning, manuscript expert at Christie's, remains a staunch defender of the Beethoven-Burns partnership. The composer, he said, had clearly taken the arrangement very seriously, writing in his diary: "The Scotch songs show how unconstrained irregular melodies can be treated with the help of harmony" and over the years he was involved with Thomson he even grappled with settings of "God Save the King" and "Auld Lang Syne", which are still played at recitals today.

Mr Venning said: "The manuscript, which is in pristine condition and is still held together by the threads that Beethoven used to bind it, is a rare example of Beethoven being creatively sparked off by Scottish culture. It is as it left Beethoven's desk."

Said to have been the most complete score in Beethoven's hand to come on the market for 15 years, the manuscript has been owned by a private collector for more than 40 years since being acquired in 1959. The songs never became the great hits that Thomson hoped. Dating from 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo, Beethoven's arrangements of such old standards "The last rose of summer", by Thomas Moore; "O Mary ye's be clad in Silk"; "The Parting Kiss": and "Again my Lyre" remained largely ignored.

Sadly, the folksong settings that Beethoven laboured over so conscientiously have often been dismissed by both classical purists and folk enthusiasts as neither one thing nor the other. Classical critics find the works less than groundbreaking, while folk purists complain that the diatonic arrangements obliterate the original modal harmonies.

"Disappointed is a bit strong but we do feel it was a shame the manuscript did not find a new buyer," said Mr Paton.

"It did generate a fantastic level of interest but it unfortunately didn't appeal enough to the people who were bidding."

Meanwhile, at the rival auction house Sotheby's yesterday, there was also a sad coda to the story of Beethoven's folksong experiments. As if to illustrate what happens when a great composer leaves the amateurs behind, a lost manuscript of one of Beethoven's most revolutionary works sold for more than £1m.

The working manuscript of the Grosse Fuge in B flat major Op 134, in a version arranged for four hands, was snapped up by an anonymous buyer for £1,128,000. Discovered in the basement of a US library by an employee conducting an inventory four months ago, the 80-page manuscript is the composer's only piano version of this major work and one of his few compositions for piano duet.

"The manuscript was only known from a brief description in a catalogue in 1890 and it has never before been seen or described by Beethoven scholars," said Dr Stephen Roe, head of Sotheby's manuscript department. "Its rediscovery will allow a complete reassessment of this extraordinary music.

"The fugue, like most of Beethoven's other works, was considered notoriously difficult for performers and listeners alike when it was first played in 1826."

Difficult, but a masterpiece. Perhaps that was where Thomson went wrong. You can't impose limits on genius - even if you are paying four ducats for the privilege.

Robert Burns, 1759-1796

Scotland's most famous poet was born in Alloway, in Ayrshire, the son of a struggling farmer. The family's poverty meant that Burns was educated mainly at home. He began writing poetry in his native Lallans (lowlands) dialect in his early twenties while struggling to keep on the family farm after his father's death. He eventually admitted defeat at farming and, at his brother's suggestion, published his first collection of poems in 1786.

The work was critically acclaimed and Burns began to become a fixture in the literary circles of Edinburgh, where a young Walter Scott described him as of "manners rustic, not clownish ... the eye alone indicated poetical character and temperament".

Burns went on to become a prolific writer of folk and love songs, contributing some 300 works on themes that ranged from mice to republicanism to the benefits of whisky. By the time of his death he was lauded throughout Scotland and across Europe. The anniversary of his birth - 25 January - is now celebrated throughout the world with poetry readings and performances of his songs, accompanied by a meal of haggis, neeps (turnips) and potatoes.

Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827

Hailed by one admirer as "humanity's greatest mind altogether", Beethoven, like Burns, was the product of a disadvantaged childhood. He overcame handicaps that included a violent, alcoholic father and deafness to achieve the status of one of history's foremost composers.

As a child, he failed to live up to the efforts of his father, Johann, a musician in Bonn, to portray him as a child prodigy equal to Mozart. But after moving to Vienna at the age of 22, Beethoven rapidly flourished into a virtuoso performer and composer".

Unlike many of his predecessors, such as Haydn, Bach and Mozart, he was not dependent on court patronage, preferring instead to survive on performances, sales of his works and stipends from appreciative patrons.

Reportedly plagued by ill-temper and obsessive habits (including wearing unwashed clothes), Beethoven never married. By the time of his death, he had changed the form of Western music, redefining the symphony and the sonata. Among his many areas of activity was an interest in folk song, and his output in this area was huge - a total of 179 arrangements. Today, however, they are among his least-known works.

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