Air (2)

A couple of music-loving friends have already responded to last night’s little posting with messages which reveal that they hadn’t noticed what I expected them to notice — a circumstance that makes me now wonder if I’d actually imagined what I thought I heard…

So let me proceed slowly and in careful stages.

Here’s the song again, just so that it can be fresh in everyone’s mind before we go any further…

*     *     *

Next, partly in order that we can keep close to that chamber-music sound-world (violin, cello, piano, and three voices), I’m following that song with a solo piano arrangement of another work, originally written for orchestra…

(This will play from the start of the movement until the end; but I don’t think it will take all that time for readers to spot what I’m hoping they’ll spot…)

*     *     *

Okay, let’s see where we’ve got to…

My basic point is this: it really does seem that, in his arrangement of an ostensible ‘Irish Folk Song’ made in 1812 or 1813, Beethoven employed a highly distinctive phrase of ‘whirling’ shapes that he had previously used — in a somewhat more active and energetic version! — in the finale of his Seventh Symphony, written between 1811 and 1812.

As for how it sounds in the orchestral original, here is a performance of the entire movement in that form. Actually, once it gets going, you’ll hear the other reason that I decided to interpolate a piano arrangement: Beethoven’s orchestration of this passage — with only the first violins carrying the whirling theme, and quite a few other instruments getting in the way of it — guarantees that it is usually impossible to hear all the notes properly. For my money, it’s one of the worst-played movements in all Beethoven: if, faced with an ‘average’ performance, a listener doesn’t already know what pitches the shape is meant to comprise, there’s a bad chance that most of their experience of this theme will be of an endlessly recurring smudge with a bang in the middle…

*     *     *

And at this point I want to make a few observations about what we have — I hope! — all now heard and recognised.

First, since the symphony was written several months before the song arrangment, Beethoven was re-using one of his symphonic ideas in the song — rather than ‘doing a Mahler’, as it were, and referring to the song in his symphony.

Secondly, the status of the ‘Irish folk song’ that he arranged is a bit problematic. If you’ve read the text as shown in the previous posting, it may have occurred to you that lines like ‘vainly would I tax my spirit’ and words such as ‘jocund’ tend to place it some way from anything you would spontaneously consider a likely Irish ‘folk lyric’ of the early nineteenth century. And you’d be right: this heavily — even oppressively — ‘smart’ text was actually written (or maybe heavily re-written?) by one William Smyth who, besides being a poetaster, was a Professor of Modern History at Cambridge.

Thirdly, it appears that Beethoven himself (whose grasp of English was in no way impressive) was not actually shown the words that were to be sung in his setting: though we gather that he asked more than once for the texts of the innumerable ‘folk songs’ that he was — over many years! — commissioned to arrange for Edinburgh publisher George Thomson, these were never sent. As a result, we have to be cautious in regard to the possibility that the verbal content of ‘Save Me from the Grave and Wise’ reveals something of the detailed expressive intention of the symphony’s finale: it’s more than likely that the only thing Beethoven knew about the song in advance of making his arrangement was whatever sense he could extract from its title.

Fourthly, there is the tune itself. Whether it is a genuine and undistorted folk melody or not, I don’t currently know (though that high note — a mixolydian flat seventh — has definite ‘folk flavour’); but it does seem that, like all the others that Thomson published, this tune was provided by him for Beethoven to arrange. And what makes this thought of interest here is that, if you whistle your way slowly through the entire song, you will forcefully realise that the motif of Beethoven’s finale theme is actually present in various places within the tune he had to set.

Life mask of Beethoven from the year 1812. Smile not included.

In other words, the ‘Beethoven’s Seventh’ shape that is found in the song’s composed introduction, and in the link between the Chorus and the Verse following, show the composer first picking up a tiny feature of the original tune — and then amplifying it very much in the direction of something he had done within one of the greatest and most astounding symphonies in our history.

You can, if you wish, concentrate on how this motivic coincidence might have enabled Beethoven to dash off a supposed ‘hack-work’ arrangement rapidy and with minimal thought and effort; myself, I prefer to imagine that — having declared the Seventh “one of my best works” — he loved the connection he’d noticed between something great and something small … and that he smiled while he was writing…


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2 thoughts on “Air (2)

  1. Others have trodden this path before you…
    (I haven’t, as yet, had time to read the 1935 Musical Quarterly article referenced.)

    And George Grove – alerted to it by Charles Villiers Stanford, no less – picks up the reference (or whatever) in his book on the symphonies..

    Even more interestingly, here’s Stanford’s own note on the relationship, on p. 81 (at foot of page) of his collection of Moore’s Irish Melodies (Boosey, 1895; plate no: 2):

    Now, my copy of that collection doesn’t have that note. So CVS must have asked his publishers to add it to a later reprint. Or to remove it from a later printing (less likely). Or something.


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