Night and delusion, and darkling confusion

The eldest son of James Boswell of Auchinleck, biographer of Samuel Johnson, grew to be Sir Alexander Boswell, 1st Baronet. At the age of forty six, he was challenged to a duel by James Stuart of Dunearn. They met for the purpose on 26th March, 1822. Boswell deliberately fired wide, but Stuart, who had never before handled a gun, shot Boswell in the collarbone; it shattered, and Boswell died the following day.

Boswell, a poet and bibliophile who counted Walter Scott among his friends, wrote some popular Scottish songs, including “Jenny’s Bawbee” and “Jenny dang the Weaver”. In Leipzig, while making the tour of Europe, he wrote “Taste Life’s Glad Moments”.

Today is St Patrick’s Day, and the title of this post is taken from Boswell’s lines, “The Pulse of an Irishman”, one of the songs he contributed to George Thomson’s “Select Collection of Original Irish Airs”, published in Edinburgh in 1814.

George Thomson was a noted collector of the music of Scotland, and a friend of Robert Burns. He published folk song arrangements by Haydn and Hummel, and many by Ludwig van Beethoven. Thomson commissioned Beethoven to arrange some songs as sets of variations for flute or violin and piano, emphasising that they needed to be easy.

The “Unheard Beethoven” blog recounts how there was a problem with the third variation of what would become op 107 nr 4, on the song “St Patrick’s Day” or “The Pulse of an Irishman”. Thomson wrote to Beethoven in January 1819:

“The effect that this variation produces does not satisfy me; it is, so to speak, too meager, and would not be appreciated by the public. I therefore request that you give me another one, in a more singing manner and in a style more brilliant, or flowing; and since the theme is a very favourite air, that you give me the pleasure of adding another variation, since the piece is a bit short.”

“Unheard Beethoven” comments (with accompanying midi file):

“Regrettably, nothing appears to remain of the replaced variation other than a brief segment….The loss is particularly sad because it’s clear Beethoven was trying out some rhythmic innovations….while sending the bright F major melody into a grim F minor key….It very well might have sounded somewhat meager to the ears of amateur Scottish ladies (sic), but even this tiny glimpse at a lost piece demonstrates Beethoven’s creativity when turning out these potboiler compositions.”

However, a guest review in the 12/2001 edition of “Gramophone”, of the album “Beethoven Irish, Welsh and Scottish Songs”, finds The Pulse of an Irishman “both rumbustious and delicate in its fun”.

The reviewer enthuses:

“….”work” is exactly what it does not sound like. It sounds as though (Beethoven) met these tunes…..took to them like magic, found something in each that warmed his heart or set him dancing round the room, and eventually, sorry when the verses had run out, made him add a ritornello or coda like a pat on the back to send each on its way.”.

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