Beethoven’s Gaelic music link

A BBC ALBA documentary reveals that Beethoven made classical arrangements of a number traditional Gaelic songs - although the often-tragic lyrics of the song were never revealed to him.

By John A. MacInnes
Friday, 11th December 2020, 5:36 pm
Researcher Dr Michael Klevenhaus.
Researcher Dr Michael Klevenhaus.

This new information comes to light as we mark the 250th anniversary of the acclaimed composer’s birth in 1770.

The celebrated German composer Ludwig van Beethoven created new versions of 47 Scottish melodies from 1809 to 1820 for the Edinburgh-based folklore collector and publisher George Thomson.

German musicologist and Gaelic scholar Dr Michael Klevenhaus has spent five years researching the Gaelic origins of Beethoven’s compositions.

He first became aware of the connection in 2015 while reading a scholarly work by piper Allan MacDonald who had written a footnote stating that the song Enchantress Farewell, arranged by Beethoven with words by Sir Walter Scott, was based on Mhnathan a’ Ghlinne Seo (Women of the Glen).

Dr Klevenhaus immediately suspected that there might be more Gaelic tunes lurking in the works of the maestro and he embarked on a journey of discovery to find the original Gaelic music.

In this film viewers join Dr Klevenhaus as he travels from Beethoven’s birthplace Bonn to Vienna, where Beethoven worked, and through the Scottish highlands, islands and lowlands to carry out his research and meet some of the finest Gaelic singers and musicians such as Màiri MacInnes and Allan MacDonald.

With their help he reveals the hidden Gaelic melodies that underlie the Beethoven compositions. He also uncovers that the melodies’ Gaelic origins were deliberately hidden from Beethoven, and the public, by Edinburgh publisher George Thomson, who commissioned the arrangements from the composer.

With the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion still within living memory, Thomson stripped the Gaelic songs of their titles, lyrics and any ‘taint’ of Jacobitism. Dr Klevenhaus believes there’s a link, for example, between Beethoven’s love song Erin o’ Erin and a song by Sìleas Na Ceapaich about the 1715 Jacobite Uprising.

Dr Klevenhaus said: “Gaelic songs are often highly political, but the meaning of these songs was hidden from Beethoven.

“Beethoven was strongly political, if he had been sent those words what a different song we would have today!

“What would a radical republican like Beethoven have made of a political song by Sìleas Na Ceapaich, about people rising united against the king?”

Òrain Ghàidhlig Beethoven airs on December 16 at 9pm. Followed by a concert of Gaelic songs and Beethoven’s arrangements of them – at 10.30pm, both on BBC ALBA.