Beethoven’s Irish Songs

August 12, 2014

Beethoven's little-known Irish songs performed at Kilkenny Castle's Long Gallery

Photograph by Ross Costigan

Irish airs end up in all sorts of places. Dropping into Cleere’s pub for a late bite on Monday night, I arrive mid trad-session. The young woman working behind the bar comes around to the perch by the door where the musicians are gathered and starts into Red is the Rose, a pretty ballad which shares its tune with The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond. That same air pops up unexpectedly and rather discreetly in a section of American indie band Vampire Weekend’s 2013 single Unbelievers.  Earlier that evening I had sat in the grandiose Long Gallery of Kilkenny Castle for The Irish Songbook – a performance of Beethoven’s arrangements of traditional Irish airs set to lyrics by the likes of Robert Burns, Thomas Moore and Oliver Goldsmith.

As the programme notes inform us, Beethoven composed more folksong settings than works of any other genre, and of these he arranged more traditional airs from Ireland than any other country. The account of how, as leading composer of the day, he was commissioned by Scottish collector and publisher George Thomson, who then commissioned other popular poets of the time to write the lyrics, reads like some sort of early 19th century hit factory.  Unfortunately these songs weren’t to achieve the same popularity as Thomas Moore’s contemporary Irish Melodies, perhaps as the appropriateness and quality of the lyrics were deemed ill-fitting for the music. The late Irish baritone Tomás Ó Súilleabháin (1919-2012) sought to make amends to this situation and shortly before his death completed a new edition, replacing the original lyrics with texts by Thomas Moore and Robert Burns. It is this edition which is performed tonight by mezzo-soprano Alison Browner, tenor Eamonn Mulhall, soprano Aoife O’ Sullivan, baritone David Howes and accompanied by The Fidelio Trio.

The opening song When I Was a Maid, with lyrics by James Kenney and performed by Alison Browner, warns of male deception of young maidens and how a mother’s advice to heed same is eternally destined to fall on deaf ears:

"When the honeymoon’s past,
The lovers forsake us, the husbands remain."

It’s set to an old air known alternately as Kitty Tyrrel or Caitlín Triall, the very same air used for the popular heartbreak ballad about losing a love to another - The Lambs on the Green Hill.

The concert is brought together with The Fidelio Trio’s impassioned performance of a Beethoven Piano Trio in D major, Op. 70 No. 1 (Ghost). The resumption of songs in the up-beat second half is less impassioned, though still accomplished, as the singers wear the lyrics lightly, sharing an occasional smile with the audience during some of the more humorous lines.

The evening proceedings are watched over by a cast of Ormonde family members from centuries past, whose faces adorn the walls of this 19th century picture gallery. Like the portraits of Hogwarts Castle in Harry Potter, it only takes a squint to imagine them nodding along in approval.

-Dylan Haskins