The other Beethoven ... the folkie

The great German composer’s Irish and Scottish ‘airs’ will be played at the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

MOST people know the outline of Ludwig van Beethoven’s story. He was one of the world’s greatest composer. He wrestled with deafness, and he had bad luck in love — he fell for unattainable, aristocratic women, and died a bachelor. What’s less known is that he had connections with Ireland, which will be celebrated by Beethoven Quest (see panel) at the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

Beethoven was born in 1770 in Bonn, a sleepy outpost of the former Holy Roman Empire, but settled in Vienna to pursue his career in music and died there in 1827. The American composer and author, Jan Swafford, who this month is publishing a biography of Beethoven, the product of 10 years’ work, says Beethoven was capricious.

“He could be quite funny, in a sort of quirky way. Everybody he knew had nicknames and they were often very cute, being full of puns and loveable, but he could change on a dime. As a person who knew him said, ‘When he was angry he was like a wild animal’.”

“I found, at one point in a period of about two days, he wrote an exalted letter to his pupil and patron, Archduke Rudolph, about art and art always calling us to go beyond ourselves, and then an absolute crazed letter to somebody else about his nephew, and then business letters that were absolutely straight-ahead and practical.

“His music reflects him, in that it just has the most remarkable contrasts — from extremes of violence to tenderness and exultation and spirituality, to really child-like and gruff and crude [passages]. “In his music, that’s all under control, but in his life you never knew what was going to come at you. That’s why he fought with his friends all the time. He was absurdly incompetent in every part of his life except music, and he knew it — he said so. He couldn’t even multiply,” Swafford says.

“He was in pain a lot. It was not only that he went deaf. His gut was a total mess all his life. He had episodes of violent vomiting and chronic diarrhoea. He may have had chronic lead poisoning. Being sick, when your body betrays you, and being deaf, does bad things to your personality.

“He was inclined to be suspicious and paranoid from the beginning. And to be a pianist and composer in Vienna, which was tremendously competitive, and with people trying to shoot him down all the time, he had a reason to be paranoid, but his illness and deafness just made him 10 times worse.”

But Beethoven had remarkable resilience. His output was prolific, and included what Beethoven called the “Scottish” airs, a collection of Irish, Scottish and Welsh folk songs. These will be performed in Kilkenny.

“They’re not worked-out symphonies and sonatas, they’re very elegant doodlings by a great composer,” says the pianist and conductor, Barry Douglas. “You can’t say it is music you’d want to sing to, and dance to. It’s not like Irish traditional music. It’s a relaxed way of composition.”

A Scottish publisher, George Thompson, commissioned Beethoven to arrange music for a series of folk songs.

Thompson also engaged Beethoven’s one-time mentor, Joseph Haydn. Beethoven, as a jobbing musician and composer, was game, and corresponded with Thompson from 1803 until 1820, although Beethoven never visited Ireland or the British Isles.

Communicating was a chore, given the vagaries of the postal system during the Napoleonic Wars. They wrote in French, and the letters had to wing their way to Russia en route from Vienna to Edinburgh.

“Beethoven wrote, in one letter,” says Beethoven expert, Gerry Murphy, ‘I won’t write for the flute. It’s an imperfect and not very nice instrument.’ He added at the end, ‘I know perfectly well that you paid Haydn four ducats for each song he did, and I’m only going to do them for three.’

“In 1812, there was more contact. He said, ‘I know that Haydn got four ducats last year for songs he did, and, of course, Kozeluch did them for two. Congratulations on that. I’m surprised you esteem him so much, because I’m better than that miserable swine.’

Swafford says there are surprisingly few gems among the Irish folk songs, given the volume he churned out. They did, however, have another consequence.

“Beethoven was not a natural melodist, in the way that Schubert and Mozart were. His music became much more melodic at the end of his life — and I think that had to do with him dealing with all these Irish and Scottish tunes... Collectively, all that dealing with melody enhanced his own sense of melody in the late music.”

-Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 5.

Highlights: Kilkenny Arts Festival (August 8-17) Highlights of the MARBLE CITY’S festival

Beethoven Quest: Beethoven’s complete string quartets performed during 10 lunchtime concerts by the Heath Quartet; a concert of his Irish folksongs in Kilkenny Castle’s Long Gallery; the complete piano concertos by Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland over two evenings in St Canice’s Cathedral; as well as a talk by Gerry Murphy on The Man Behind the Music.

Marble City Sessions: The fiddler Martin Hayes has gathered a Harlem Globetrotters of cross-genre musicians for a cocktail of Irish trad/jazz/bluegrass music, including The Gloaming, Bill Frisell a the renowned jazz guitarist, and some surprise guests.

Hugo Hamilton, Liz Nugent and Donal Ryan: Three of Ireland’s finest novelists are on a bill together to chat about their latest works, which includes Hugo Hamilton’s Every Single Minute, a novel about a terminally ill writer friend (loosely based on Nuala O’Faolain) and a final trip to Berlin.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company: After hugely popular productions in 2012 and 2013, the revered Shakespearean troupe return to Kilkenny Castle’s yard to perform Much Ado About Nothing.

Lear Project: The Bard is also in mind for the world premiere of the Irish Modern Dance Theatre’s interpretation of King Lear, which boasts New York postmodern dance icon Valda Setterfield in the title role. For more: www.kilkennyarts.ie.


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