In 1809, Beethoven began doing arrangements of folk songs for the Edinburgh-based publisher George Thomson. In all he would do some 180 of them, though some were ultimately not used by Thomson and some appear to have been done on Beethoven's own initiative. Thomson published 125 of the composer's settings, having rejected about 25. The arrangements were mainly of Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folk songs, though Beethoven also set texts of German, Polish, Russian and other national origins. Beethoven spoke little or no English (and certainly was unfamiliar with the various British dialects), but worked from metrical analyses of the texts and summaries of their contents and moods.
The present set was actually assembled in 1860, long after the composer's death, by publisher C. F. Peters. Beethoven arranged the music to these folk songs in the period 1814 - 1820. The first setting here, the famous "God Save the King" (for which Beethoven also wrote a set of piano variations in 1802 and 1803), was published by Thomson in 1839. Nos. 2 ("The Soldier"), 6 ("A Health to The Brave"), 8 ("By the Side of the Shannon") and 11 ("The Wandering Minstrel"), all Irish in origin, were published by him in 1816, with No. 5 ("The Miller of Dee") coming in 1825. The other arrangements are: No. 3, "O Charlie is my Darling" (Scottish); No. 4, "O Sanctissima" (Sicilian); No. 7, "Robin Adair" (Irish); 9, "Highlander's Lament" (Scottish); 10, "Sir Johnie Cope" (Scottish); and 12, "La Gondoletta" (Venetian).
Most of the arrangements here are for more than one vocalist, and some involve a chorus. No. 1 features a soprano soloist and three-part chorus, for example, while Nos. 3, 4, 5, and 7 are vocal trios. No. 6 is a duet, and Nos. 2 and 12 are for solo vocalists. The remainder are vocal/choral settings like No. 1. Beethoven's arrangements are, on the whole, splendidly conceived and often challenging. Indeed, Thomson would not publish nine of the composer's original 62 arrangements of folk songs owing to their difficult accompaniments.
This set of 12 songs will offer rewards to those with an interest in folk music -- mainly in that originating from the British Isles -- as well as to those Beethoven mavens who find his every mature effort worthwhile. Most listeners of a classical bent, however, will find Beethoven's contribution hidden in the background here, leaving little to appeal to them. It must be said, though, that these arrangements do divulge the composer's chameleonic ability to adapt to various ethnic styles, even if they, by their very nature, prevent him from expressing his own unique musical voice. In the end, because of their craftsmanship, they are of immense value in the study of the complex musical persona of one of music's great geniuses.