Scottish Ear Worms: The Folksong Collections of George Thomson, Edinburgh

by Dr. Bruce C. MacIntyre

“Scotch songs continued to be almost as habit-forming and intoxicating an indulgence as Scotch whiskey.”
Arthur Loesser, Men, Women and Pianos (1954)

Portrait of George Thomson

Portrait of George Thomson (1757-1851), Portrait by Henry Raeburn

Scottish songs have always had a timeless, nostalgic, and even haunting quality about both their melodies and texts. Most of the tunes are so charming and catchy that they quickly become “Ohrwürme” (ear-worms) that you cannot get out of your head -- perhaps even inspiring you to start adding your own verses to the melodies. Undoubtedly these allures of Scottish songs, together with the early Romantic period’s growing fascination and engagement with national histories led Edinburgh publisher George Thomson to hire many of the great composers of his time to arrange hundreds of songs from Scotland and elsewhere.

Thomson was born March 4, 1757, in Limkilns, Fife. He died in Leith at the advanced age of 93 on February 18, 1851. His youth was spent in Banff on the northeast coast of Scotland, before his family moved to Edinburgh in 1774. At first he worked as a lawyer’s copyist. In 1780 he became Junior Clerk of the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures in Scotland, an organization that promoted business and trade as well as art and culture in Scotland. Later, Thomson was in a leading position as this institution’s Senior Clerk, a position he held until his retirement in 1839.

Starting in the 1780s Thomson regularly attended the concerts of the Edinburgh Musical Society in St. Cecilia’s Hall, in whose ensemble he was engaged as violinist and choral singer. Here he became acquainted with orchestral and chamber music of the day, including including works by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), by then one of Europe’s most famous composers. The Society’s concerts included performances of arrangements of Scottish folksongs. The passionate and tasteful renditions of these songs by the castrato Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci especially impressed Thomson.

According to Thomson himself, these Musical Society concerts aroused his interest in the musical heritage of his homeland and inspired him to start his project of publishing “Scottish Airs” in tasteful arrangements. The collection of melodies and texts, as well as the commissioning and publishing of these arrangements engaged Thomson for nearly five decades, until the middle of the 1840s. With extraordinary dedication, Thomson committed much of his free time and his own money to this multifaceted project.

The high standards that Thomson set for his folksong publications are reflected, on the one hand, in the editions’ costly format (with detailed forewords, engraved images, etc.) and, on the other, in the original arrangements themselves. Along with the voice part, Thomson always presented a written-out accompaniment for keyboard, violin, and ‘cello, with commissioned “preludes” and “postludes” enclosing the songs. By no means was that the norm when he began his publication of the song collections. The volumes were at times published as keyboard scores (with the voice part in the right hand) along with separate parts for the strings. Thomson’s idea was that the string parts would be ad libitum -- written so that the songs could also be performed without them.

At first Thomson limited himself to the publication of songs from Scotland. From the start, he placed great value on a careful selection of texts and melody – ideally ones that, according to him, had not appeared in earlier collections. He accepted traditional texts in his collections, however he also commissioned several new poems – including, among others, those by the Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), with whom Thomson had a long friendship. (Burns contributed ca. 170 texts to Thomson’s collections.) Many of the melodies that Thomson selected had already become popular because of their publication in earlier collections. Thomson, however, was trying to make his song volumes fit for society throughout Great Britain. To that end, the texts needed to be free of coarse, clumsy vocabulary, as well as be understandable to non-Scots. Overall, among the volumes one finds only a few texts that are predominantly or totally in Scottish dialect. For the most part, the local coloring derives from a small quantity of specifically Scottish words and locutions sprinkled onto a text that is primarily in standard English. Nevertheless, for many of the songs, Thomson placed “English” alternative texts beside the “Scottish” texts. For the fourth volume of Scottish songs that appeared in 1805 Thomson even appended a comprehensive glossary of Scottish words – something done ever since in more recent editions, to help the modern performer better understand the texts.

Thomson sought a broader audience for the volumes through his direct commissioning of arrangements by several of the most famous composers of his time. The first volumes of his Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs (1793-) contained arrangements by Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1834) and Leopold Koželuch (1747-1818). The commissioning of Pleyel who was celebrated for his own part in England was probably Thomson’s reaction to the fact that in 1792 William Napier had succeeded in publishing 100 arrangements of Scottish songs by Haydn. Haydn himself is represented as arranger in volumes 3 (1802) and 4 (1805) of Thomson’s Select Collection. In a new edition of earlier volumes that came out in 1803, Thomson replaced a number of arrangements by Pleyel and Koželuch with those by Haydn. In addition, songs arranged by Haydn also appear in the fifth volume of the Select Collection (1818). The largest portion of the arrangements in this volume, however, are by Ludwig van Beethoven, who, as we shall see below, provided almost fifteen dozen arrangements in one decade for Thomson. Other previously unpublished Haydn song arrangements appeared after 1818, among others in a supplemental volume to the Select Collection published in 1839, as well as in later editions of the earlier volumes. It was mainly the first four volumes of Thomson’s collection that were repeatedly republished, sometimes as many as seven times. In these later editions Thomson exchanged entire songs, provided others with new texts, and undertook very general alterations and corrections in the text and music. In 1841 the sixth and final volume of Thomson’s collection of Scottish songs appeared, which contained no new arrangements by Haydn. In the mean time, the then famous composers Johan Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) and Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) had joined the ranks of arrangers hired by Thomson. Later Thomson also used arrangements by H. R. Bishop (1841) and his fellow Scotsman G. F. Graham (1838-41).

After the first four volumes of Scottish songs had been published, Thomson took on the publication of Welsh and Irish songs, a very unusual project for its day. Here there was no tradition of printed song collections comparable to that of the Scottish songs. For the melodies of the Welsh songs, Thomson referred back to instrumental music, for the most part to the manuscript and printed collections of available repertoire of the traditional folk harp players. He collected many melodies on site in a trip to Wales; on the other hand, others he even seems to have composed himself. He commissioned new texts from multiple authors, among them Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). Besides Haydn, who made over 40 arrangements, one finds only Koželuch and Beethovenas arrangers in Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Welsh Airs, which includes 90 songs in toto and which appeared in three volumes (1809, 1811, 1817). In the two volumes Select Collection of Original Irish Airs, published in 1814 and 1816, Haydn is represented with only one arrangement; the rest were from Beethoven. Starting in 1822 Thomson published selected songs from all three of his collections in The Select Melodies of Scotland, interspersed with those of Ireland and Wales, a six-volume edition that appeared in a smaller format without string parts.

Between 1809 and 1818 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed 179 arrangements of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, and assorted Continental folksongs, most at the request of George Thomson. By November of 1809 Beethoven had begun arranging a set of forty-three melodies supplied him by the publisher. By July 1810 Beethoven had finished his forty-three songs plus an additional ten – making 53. (Thomson inserted the texts to these 53 first settings later, after Beethoven delivered the arrangements. After 1812, Beethoven complained that he needed the texts in order to make good settings. He even threatened to stop making the arrangements!) Thomas claimed he commissioned new poetry to add to old tunes after the settings were delivered; this was not always the case, however. Sometimes Thomson apparently changed the text after receiving Beethoven’s arrangement.

Beethoven sent nine more songs to Thomson in February 1812. Thomson noted that all 62 settings by Beethoven were “marked with the stamp of genius, science and taste.” However, he complained to Beethoven that nine of the accompaniments were too hard and asked Beethoven to simplify them. The composer became upset and initially refused to change them. By 1818, some 118 melodies had been sent to Beethoven, with a few more added in the following two years. Altogether Thomson published 125 of Beethoven’s British settings, but he omitted twenty-five others. Thomson paid Beethoven ca. 3 ducats per setting up to 1814; 4 ducats thereafter. With accompaniments for piano, violin, and cello, Beethoven’s songs were for one or more voices. In one of his diaries Beethoven wrote: “The Scottish songs show how unconstrainedly the most unstructured melody can be treated by harmonic means.”

As musicologist Barry Cooper has noted, “Beethoven’s folksong settings are among his least appreciated works.” He set at least 169 different folksong melodies (with two settings of at least ten of them). Almost every setting is for solo voice in the treble clef, with accompaniment, introduction and conclusion for piano, violin, and cello. (The string parts were designed to be optional – ad libitum parts.) A few songs have the single voice joined by a second or third voice or a chorus. The music in Beethoven’s settings is noteworthy for its use of pentaonicism, (confusing) double tonics, modality, and non-tonal endings. Cooper also observes: “In all his settings Beethoven took considerable trouble to avoid the obvious and create something unexpected yet effective.” On the flyleaf of one Beethoven volume, Thomson noted: “Original and beautiful are these arrangements by this inimitable genius Beethoven.”

Probably the best known set of Beethoven’s arrangements was the Twenty-Five Scottish Songs published as Opus 108 by Thomson in 1818. This set includes four song texts by Robert Burns: “The Lovely Lass of Inverness,” “Behold My Love How Green the Groves,” “O How Can I Be Blithe and Glad,” and “O Mary at Thy Window Be.” The opus also includes settings of Lord Byron (“Oh Had My Fate Been Join’d with Thine”), Sir Walter Scott (“Sunset,” “The Maid of Isle,” “Enchantress, Farewell”), Joanna Baillie (“O Swiftly Glides the Bonny Boat” and “The Shepherd’s Song”), and Anne Grant (“Faithfu’ Johnie”). Nine of the song texts are by the poet William Smyth (1765-1849): “Music, Love and Wine,” “Oh Sweet Were the Hours,” “The Sweetest Lad Was Jamie,” “Dim, Dim Is My Eye,” “Sympathy,” “Oh Thou Art the Lad,” “Come Fill, Fill My Good Fellow,” “Jeanie’s Distress,” and “Again My Lyre.”

It is clear, then, that George Thomson and his steadfast publishing project provided a yeoman’s service to the cause of folksong dissemination in the British Isles and beyond during the first half of the nineteenth century. And now in the twenty-first century, thanks to the Internet and its browsers, all of us may readily find online the moving lyrics and haunting, catchy tunes to most of these great Scottish songs that moved Thomson to commence his extraordinary publishing project after hearing samples sung in St. Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh some 230 years ago.

As an end note, it is interesting to note that Thomson’s daughter Georgina married a music critic, George Hogarth, in 1814, and that their daughter married a young author named Charles Dickens in 1836. How fitting that the granddaughter of such an eccentric and prodigious publisher as George Thomson, one who commissioned the best composers and poets of his day for his Original Collections, married one of the century’s most renowned novelists.

Selected Literature:

Barry Cooper, Beethoven’s Folksong Settings: Chronology, Sources, Style. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Andreas Friesenhagen, “Thomson, George,” pp. 781-83, in: Das Haydn-Lexikon, ed. Armin Raab, Christine Siegert, and Wolfgang Steinbeck. Köthen: Laaber Verlag, 2010.

David Johnson and Kirsteen C. McCue, “Thomson, George” in: Oxford Music Online .


Text by Robert Burns, tune arranged by Beethoven as Op. 108, no. 9 (1818)

Behold, my love, how green the groves, The primrose banks how fair; The balmy gales awake the flowers, And wave thy flowing hair. The lav'rock shuns the palace gay, And o'er the cottage sings: For Nature smiles as sweet, I ween, To Shepherds as to Kings. Let minstrels sweep the skilfu' string, In lordly lighted ha': The Shepherd stops his simple reed, Blythe in the birken shaw. The Princely revel may survey Our rustic dance wi' scorn; But are their hearts as light as ours, Beneath the milk-white thorn! The shepherd, in the flowery glen; In shepherd's phrase, will woo: The courtier tells a finer tale, But is his heart as true! These wild-wood flowers I've pu'd, to deck That spotless breast o' thine: The courtiers' gems may witness love, But, 'tis na love like mine.



Clan President awarded honorary degree

PRESIDENT of the international Clan Currie Society, Robert Currie has received an honorary degree from Edinburgh Napier University.

Recognized for his efforts to promote Scottish heritage around the world, Mr. Currie was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts at a ceremony held in the Scottish Capital on Thursday 24th October.

The Society has more than 2000 members worldwide and is behind a number of annual events including The Pipes of Christmas concert in New York and Tartan Day on Ellis Island. It also runs an extensive scholarship programme, providing bursaries for Scottish musicians and Gaelic history students to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the National Piping Centre, Glasgow and to Scotland’s Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig.

Mr. Currie, who joined close to 1000 students at the University’s autumn graduation ceremony, said: “I am honoured and delighted to be conferred this Honorary Degree from Edinburgh Napier University. It underscores the University’s steadfast commitment to the arts and demonstrates their support for the significant contributions made by cultural arts and heritage organizations across the entire Scottish Diaspora.”

Scottish Formula 1 racing star Sir Jackie Stewart was also honoured by the University, receiving an Honorary Doctorate of the University in recognition of his work with Dyslexia Scotland to raise awareness of the condition.

Robert Currie