George Thomson (1757-1815), a public servant and passionate folk song collector living in Edinburgh strove to save the folk melodies of his home country from falling into oblivion. His suggestion directed to Beethoven to compose six sonatas about Scottish melodies marks the beginning of Beethoven's evident relationship to Britain.
Beethoven's reply letter dated October 5th, 1803 is the composer's first letter across the Channel. Although the project was never carried out because the parties involved were not able to come to an agreement, a vivid business contact developed until 1820. At the end of October Beethoven offered the piano variations on the English folk songs "God save the King" and "Rule Britannia" WoO 78 and 79 for printing. « Je vous envoie ci joint des Variations sur 2 thêmes anglais, qui sont bien faciles et qui, à ce que j'espère, auront un bons succès. » With his suggestion Thomson might even have initiated the composition of the variations on this melody that even people on the Continent knew and cherished. Both pieces were first published in Vienna. Half a year later Clementi published "God save the King" in London but it took two decades for "Rule Britannia" to be published by an English publishing house. Beethoven used both melodies again in 1813 for his "Grand Battle Symphony" op. 91.
As a result of Beethoven's letter dated November 23rd, 1809 George Thomson drew up the following calculation. Thomson had offered Beethoven 60 Pounds Sterling (equal to 120 gold ducats) for three quintets and three sonatas, but the composer demanded the double sum due to the weak exchange rate and the difficult war-induced situation. For each work category Thomson now earmarked a remuneration of 40 Pounds instead of the offered 30 Pounds (an envelope at the British Library addressed to him shows another calculation on the inside stating 50 Pounds). Thomson calculated that only with 410 and 440 copies sold the costs would be covered. As he considered the deal too risky, it was never closed.
On the back of the calculation Thomson briefly summarised Beethoven's letter in which the composer also wrote that he was working on the 43 songs Thomson had sent.
Thomson hoped to increase the folk melodies' popularity by means of a contemporary composition. By adapting the pieces for piano trio - then popular for making music at home - he wanted to give the British bourgeoisie an insight into "original" music. He ordered these adaptations from renowned composers such as Joseph Haydn, Leopold Kozeluch, Ignaz Pleyel and Beethoven. All in all 150 song adaptations by Beethoven of Irish, Welsh and Scottish songs have been preserved. In September 1809 Thomson had sent Beethoven 43 melodies and explicitly asked for an easy piano part. He would do so repeatedly in the future. In the mentioned letter dated November 23rd Beethoven pointed out that this was a less pleasant work for an artist but surely a good work for business. Initially he received three ducats for each adaptation, later on four and then five. He also asked to obtain the texts in the future, a request Thomson did and could not fulfil. The text is not identical with that of the original folk songs but Thomson had famous poets such as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott write new lines for the completed adaptations. In July 1810 Beethoven sent the final 53 adaptations each consisting of three copies (one by himself and two by copyists) to England by various means. Thomson, however, waited in vain. The present copy was a gift from Beethoven to his pupil Archduke Rudolph. In the summer of 1811 he borrowed it to make a new one for Thomson. The receipt of this copy was confirmed in early August 1812.
In 1814 the first of two volumes of the "Irish Songs" and in 1817 the third and last volume of the "Welsh Songs" with Beethoven's contribution were published. Thomson served as editor and the London music publishing house Preston printed and marketed the folk song adaptations. The book-friendly folio format editions feature elaborate copper engravings.
After agreeing on a remuneration of four ducats for each song adaptation in 1814 Beethoven requested a subsequent payment for three Scottish songs delivered later (Thomson regularly asked Beethoven to facilitate his compositions). In a letter from March 1818 Beethoven claimed he had only received three ducats instead of the determined remuneration. Thomson, however, replied that the bill issued by the Fries bank certainly stated 12 ducats. Either Beethoven was mistaking or Fries had written the bill only after Beethoven had asked him to do so.
Beethoven also mentioned that he had the English texts be translated, thus it can only be pieces that were already published in the "Irish Songs" or "Welsh Songs". Probably the translations were done for a planned publication by the Vienna publisher Steiner. Beethoven offered Thomson piano variations on these melodies at a price of nine ducats each.
The fifth and last volume of the "Scottish Songs" series published in 1818 contains apart from Beethoven's 25 Scottish songs op. 108 four songs by Joseph Haydn and the quite popular cantata "The Jolly Beggars" by Robert Burns with a melody by Henry Rowley Bishop. Beethoven had rejected the composition before. Thomson had asked both to compose the violin part in such a way that it could also be played with a flute. He hoped this would increase sales. The sales of Beethoven's song adaptations were far below the sales of the first editions featuring adaptations by Haydn and Kozeluch. The editor believed Beethoven's complex style was the reason for the decreased revenue. In his last letter to Thomson from May 1819 Beethoven, now angry at Thomson for his ongoing request for simplicity, explained that he could not regard this as a criterion and that he hardly found the courage to call the pieces his own.
As already mentioned Beethoven, who was quite an adept businessman in using his compositions several times, later tried to sell the compositions also on the Continent. He did so in Berlin in 1820. Publisher Adolph Martin Schlesinger showed an interest in the songs and arranged a German edition in 1822. One copy created by two different copyists, reviewed and corrected by Beethoven, was used for the engraving. Franz Oliva, a friend of Beethoven and his voluntary secretary, underlaid the English text of the songs. Schlesinger commissioned Samuel Heinrich Spiker, publisher and librarian of the Berlin Royal University, to translate the text into German for later addition.
To facilitate the marketing of the songs on the German market Schlesinger had the edition be printed bilingual in English and German. Originally, the songs were written in a Scottish dialect, something which did not make translating them an easy task. Thus, the German translation is not always the best. Beethoven recommended Schlesinger to commission Carl Friedrich Zelter, a close friend of Goethe, to correct the translation but the publisher decided in favour of the original translation.
During the adaptation of the folk songs Thomson had asked the composer to select a few European folk songs for adaptations. However, it proved impossible to underlay these with English poetry. In 1818 Thomson commissioned Beethoven to compose variation cycles for piano with flute on some of these and other subjects that had partially been published as song adaptations before (op. 105 and op. 107). Displayed are Russian subject "Beautiful Minka" and the first variation on the Welsh melody "Peggy's Daughter". Beethoven wrote: "for the subject the flute in 8va plays with the piano but only the melody" ("zum Thema die Flöte in 8va mit dem Klawier jedoch nur mit der Melodie"), wherever the flute is not mentioned it plays the piano's melody part. The side remark is from Beethoven's secretary Anton Schindler who dated the handwriting too early: "Side remark: This composition by Beethoven dates [crossed out: "either"] from 1816. [crossed out: "or 1819"] A. Schindler." ("Nb. Diese Komposition Beethovens fällt [crossed out: "entweder"] in das Jahr 1816. [crossed out: "oder 1819"] A. Schindler.")
In 1819 Thomson published nine of the delivered piano variations. According to the title 12 were planned originally. The collection was published in three booklets richly adorned with copper. It contains three Irish, three Welsh (among them as No. 8 the subject shown above), one Scottish, one Austrian and one Russian subject ("Beautiful Minka" as No. 7).