Ludwig van Beethoven: The Elfin Fairies
To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some recordings from our archives, along with excerpts from program notes that accompanied them.
The Elfin Fairies
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven; poem by David Thomson
Sung by Joelle Harvey, soprano and Liza Forrester, mezzo-soprano
in Songs of the Irish Poets (2009)
From the Program Notes by Steven Blier:
The tremendous popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s novels also fed the revival of interest in the folk music of the British Isles. “Scott Fever” coincided with the era when the fortepiano became a ubiquitous piece of furniture in middle-class homes, and when playing the piano and singing were skills expected of every marriageable young person. The Edinburgh publisher George Thomson cleverly realized a way to capitalize on these two trends. He commissioned a number of prominent composers—among them Haydn, Weber, and Beethoven—to create arrangements of traditional Irish, Scottish, and Welsh melodies for home use. He then retrofitted their chamber versions of the tunes with new lyrics by contemporary writers, including Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. He must have offered very good fees, judging by the literary and musical superstars who signed on. Beethoven produced 126 songs scored for voice and piano (with ad libitum parts for violin and cello), each one framed by a characterful prelude and postlude. Musicologists have tended to look down on these settings, deeming them trifles in the great Beethoven canon. It is true that Thomson infuriated the composer by simplifying his piano writing to boost sales. And the arrangements did not find great favor with folk song purists either, who felt that the essential simplicity of the originals had gotten lost in translation. But I beg to differ with both camps. Beethoven took pride in his arrangements with good reason. He was a master of piano trio writing, and he was able to mine the magic of these alluring melodies. “The Elfin Fairies” has the charm of Mendelssohn and Sir Arthur Sullivan, while “The Return to Ulster” has some of the gravity of Fidelio. Beethoven crafted brilliant Hausmusik that continues to give pleasure as his songs approach their bicentennial.