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Kirsteen McCue and Marjorie Rycroft
As noted elsewhere on our ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st century’ website, Burns’s second song editor was the Edinburgh civil servant and amateur musician George Thomson (1757-1851). Burns’s Songs for George Thomson (ed. Kirsteen McCue) is volume 4 of the new Oxford Works of Robert Burns (published in 2021). As the introduction to this new edition makes clear, Burns’s relationship with Thomson involved an intense epistolary collaboration between poet and editor, with Thomson’s invitation to Burns dating from September 1792 and their final exchange taking place just weeks before Burns’s death in July 1796. After James Currie’s first edition of the poet’s Life and Works in 1800, which featured the Burns-Thomson correspondence and many of the songs for the first time (in vol. 4), Thomson’s place in Burns’s afterlife is both central and controversial. The new edition of Burns’s Songs for George Thomson explores this creative collaboration in depth for the first time, presenting the 173 songs Burns produced for Thomson’s project with full scholarly apparatus.
As the ODNB entry on Thomson articulates, his project to produce collections of national songs from Scotland, Wales and Ireland, ran for over 50 years. Between 1793 and 1841 Thomson published six volumes of Scottish Airs, three volumes of Welsh Airs (1809, 1811 and 1817) and two volumes of Irish Airs (1814 and 1816) – a total of over 600 songs. His project was facilitated partly by Thomson’s love of his native poetry and music and his interest in amateur music-making, alongside his official role as Senior Clerk to the The Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures in Scotland, a post 1707 government body responsible for overseeing the export of Scottish produce. While Thomson commissioned the work of around 30 contemporary men and women writers – including Burns, Walter Scott, James Hogg, Joanna Baillie, Anne Hunter and William Smyth – to collect, edit, or, most often, to create new lyrics for songs, he was also keen to commission contemporary European composers to create new musical arrangements of the airs or melodies of each nation. These would later include major figures Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.
Thomson’s first composer was Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831), who arranged a total of 32 songs, 25 of which appeared in the First Set of Original Scotish Airs (1793 and reprinted 1794) and the remaining 7 in the Fourth Set (1799). Thomson continued to correspond with Pleyel in the hope that he would agree to compose more ‘Symphonies and Accompaniments’, but without success. Their correspondence became acrimonious with each claiming to have written letters that went unanswered. The resulting breakdown in communication delayed Thomson’s publication plans until he secured the services of Leopold Koželuch (1747-1818) a Bohemian composer based in Vienna. During his collaboration with Thomson, Koželuch would produce a set of ‘Six Sonatas’ for piano (with accompaniments for violin and ’cello) based on Scottish airs, and settings or arrangements of some 106 airs for Thomson’s Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs along with 27 Welsh airs and 10 Irish airs for their respective song collections. As can be seen with the settings presented here, Koželuch also made numerous revisions. Amongst his arrangements of Scottish airs, the majority were published by Thomson with texts by Robert Burns. The story of the correspondence between Thomson and Koželuch forms the remainder of this article and provides a more nuanced context for the Urtext edition of the Koželuch arrangements of Burns’s songs by Marjorie Rycroft, which we are now making available for the first time as part of our ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st century’ project.
Having moved to Vienna from Prague in 1778 Koželuch gained an enviable reputation as composer, pianist, teacher and music publisher, such that he was commissioned to compose a Cantata for the coronation in 1791 of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. The following year Koželuch succeeded Mozart as Hof-Kammer Kapellmeister (Director of the Court Orchestra) and Hofmusik Compositor (Court Composer), positions that he held until his death in 1818. His reputation extended far beyond the Habsburg Empire with publication of his works in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
On 6 February 1797 Thomson wrote to Alexander Straton, Secretary to the British Embassy in Vienna, requesting assistance in making contact with Koželuch. Straton agreed to take on the role of intermediary, meeting with the composer, negotiating financial terms with him and delivering packets of music sent to and from Vienna. Much of Thomson’s correspondence with his composers and poets has survived, along with many of the music manuscripts he received.
In his letter to Straton Thomson had taken the liberty of enclosing one ‘To Mr Leopoldo Kozeluch / Professor & Composer of Music / Vienna’, in which he wrote:
I likewise wish you to put little Symphonies and Accompaniments for the Piano-forte & Violin to 60 or 70 Scotish Songs which I will send you. Each of these Songs or Airs is very short, seldom exceeding 16 bars, cheifly [sic] of the Andante measure. You can easily judge therefore what you should charge for doing the Symphonies & accompaniments to the whole. The Symphonies need not exceed 6 or 8 bars each, one to introduce the Song, & the other at the conclusion of it.
I should like to have the whole Sonatas, & these Symphonies for the Airs as soon as you can do them; and I would be glad that in whatever agreement is made, the time of delivering them shall be particularly specified, that I may know when I can depend upon them, and when I must send the money. If I am informed that my friend & you have agreed about this business, I shall immediately transmit the Airs, out of which you can chuse those which appear to you best suited for the Sonata subjects, or you can take any other Scotish Airs for these subjects that please you, […]
Straton replied on 4 March 1797:
Thomson noted on the back of Straton’s letter: ‘Vienna 4 March 1797 / Mr Stratton [sic] / Inclosing Mr Kozeluch’s answer to my proposals respecting Sonatas & Scotch Songs’.
A month later, on 15 April 1797, Thomson wrote directly to Koželuch:
As I have the Poetry & Embellishments for the songs all ready, I wish very much to get the symphonies & Accompaniments from you by the time mentioned in the Agreement, or rather by the beginning of September, if possible. I must go to London to superintend the engraving and printing of the songs, cheifly [sic] on account of the poetry attached to the airs, and I cannot well leave Edin.h at any other time of the year. The elegant fancy & delicate taste which your works in general discover, leave me no room to doubt that you will do the Symphonies & Accomp.ts in a charming manner, […]
The ensuing correspondence, most of it in French, is concerned with contractual and financial matters. Thomson, having (in his own words) been ‘juggled, disapointed [sic] & grossly deceived’ by Pleyel,  was anxious to secure a signed declaration from Koželuch that the songs would become Thomson’s sole property, and that Koželuch would not publish them in Europe.
On 16 August 1797 Straton reported on Koželuch’s progress:
One of Koželuch’s ‘annexed notes’ contained the following request:
[I beg that you will have the goodness to have the errors in these Scottish airs corrected and sent to me immediately, for as they are extremely inaccurate, I would not be able to render you the service you desire, and I myself cannot correct them for fear of misunderstanding the national taste.]
A month later, on 18 September 1797, Thomson sent Straton a duplicate batch of melodies to be passed on to Koželuch:
Mr K will no doubt glance at the remarks I annexed to the former copy of the airs, before writing his own manuscript. […]
I am vexed – it really gives me pain that you have had the trouble of so many letters &c about this business; but I hope there cannot possibly be any farther delay or trouble to you on the part of Mr Kozeluch. I have a high opinion of his musical powers, and I persuade myself that his creative fancy in the Ritornelles, & his delicate taste in the accompanyments will add greatly to the beauty of these airs, & render them charming little things; otherways [sic] I could not have put myself or you to such prodigious inconvenience. 
Straton replied on 28 October 1797:
Thomson noted on the back: ‘Vienna 28th Oct 1797 / A. Stratton Esq / With a Specimen of Kozeluch’s Symph.s & Accomp.ts to two Scotch Airs’.
The term ‘une musique barbare’ suggests that Koželuch considered the melodies unsophisticated, rough-hewn and uncouth. He must have found the modal inflection of some Airs rather strange and very different from the harmonic idiom of the day. By his own admission he found them fiendishly difficult to harmonise. Despite his strongly held views, Koželuch did compose ‘Ritornelles’ to the 64 Airs (see Critical Commentary, Fascicle 2), which Straton sent Thomson on 25 March 1798. Straton sent a further 6 Airs (see Critical Commentary, Fascicle 3) on 5 May 1798 with a letter from Koželuch:
[You are hereby served, and Monsieur Straton has received the last six Airs; I can only say that this work was fiendish. I had to do my utmost to render them natural and tuneful; there are some for which there ought to be a prize for those composers capable of adding the correct harmony. I have arranged them in a manner such that they can be played on the harpsichord alone without having to sing, the harmony is always complete. I hope that your venture will succeed, but I also hope that you will be reasonable towards me, for I have undertaken work about which I knew nothing and it was solely due to the earnest request of Mr Straton that I completed it, for I was extremely nonplussed, and that has cost me, despite my talent in composition, extreme difficulty, so if you would have the goodness, given that you have earned well from this work, to add a further 50 ducats to the 100 ducats that I have received. Mr Haydn has told me himself how much he has been paid for Airs that he arranged in a similar way as mine, and I have surely arranged them just as well as he has.]
Thomson drafted a reply on 29 May 1798:
And in his draft letter to Koželuch dated 20 October 1798 Thomson wrote:
Of the above 70 Airs all but two [see Edition, 60. Young Jockey was the blythest lad and 61. The lovely lass of Inverness] were published in Thomson’s Second, Third and Fourth Sets (SCOSA (A, B, and C)) of 1798-99.
The Third Set was entered at Stationers’ Hall on 1 May 1799. And shortly thereafter, on 17 May, Thomson drafted a letter to Koželuch:
I have published separately the Violin Accompaniment only with the Airs, because I have no Violoncello part for the first book – I shall hereafter get that part for the first book, & then publish the whole at once – but with the Piano Forte & Violin, the Songs seem very complete, for they do not bear very full Accompaniments, and Violoncello players in this Country at least, frequently make a devilish noise. We have taken the liberty in a very few instances to simplify your Piano Forte Accomp: a little, as you will see, but without altering your harmony in the least.
Koželuch, in his letter of 2 November 1799, complained that he had not received the promised 12 copies of the Airs. Thomson replied on 15 November 1799:
On 24 November 1799 Straton wrote to Thomson:
Koželuch completed the 28 Airs as promised (see Critical Commentary, Fascicle 4) and Straton informed Thomson in a letter dated 9 February 1800:
Koželuch’s receipt, dated 6 February 1800, acknowledges payment of 56 Ducats ‘pour la Composition d’accompagnements a vingt-huit airs Ecossois pour le Sieur George Thomson d’Edinbourg’
The Four Sets of Original Scotish Airs published in 1793, 1798 and 1799 respectively, proved so popular that Thomson decided to issue a new edition in 1801 of the 100 songs (Pleyel’s 32 and Koželuch’s 68) – in two volumes each containing 50 songs. Thomson took the opportunity to ask Koželuch to revise and simplify some of his more difficult accompaniments and to provide cello parts for Pleyel’s 32 songs. It is clear from the correspondence that Thomson preferred simple piano parts in which the right hand plays two notes and the left hand one. Accompaniments with extended passages of 3-note chords or parallel octaves were not to his taste, nor were accompaniments with continuous semiquavers in either hand. He explained this to Koželuch in a letter dated 1 July 1800:
[Almost none of our singers can provide an accompaniment for herself such as that of No. 10 [see Edition, 70a. Oonagh]. […] That is because the work would have been infinitely more appreciated in this country, had you written in general three parts for the Piano Forte; that is to say, if the accompaniment for this instrument had been more in the style of No. 9 [see Edition, 69. The happy trio / The happy topers], and less in the style of No. 10, […]]
Thomson praised ‘The happy trio’ as a model of good taste owing to its charm and simplicity. The harmony is straight-forward, with parallel thirds in the right hand and a prominent tonic pedal in the left. There are no difficult semiquaver passages and no extended passages of three-note chords in either hand.
Koželuch complied with Thomson’s request, sending revisions for 8 of the 9 airs on 20 August 1800 (see Critical Commentary, Fascicle 5). However, he refused to revise the ninth [There’s nae luck] saying ‘Je ne pas trouvais rien qui puissoit rendre plus aise’ [‘I found nothing that can be made easier’].
On 15 October 1800 Thomson again wrote to Koželuch with a request for revisions to arrangements already published in his Second, Third and Fourth Sets. On the back of his draft letter Thomson lists each arrangement by folio number and title:
46 Bonnie Dundee
51 John Anderson
36 The Posie
74 Lewie Gordon
94 Whistle & I’ll come to you
Those which he is requested to retouch are as follows
53 Wat ye wha’s in yon town
55 For a’ that & a that
60 Kind Robin loes me
68 Auld lang syne
88 On a bank of flowers
Les cinq lesquels je prierois M.r Kozeluch de retoucher sont N.res 53, 55, 60, 68 & 88 dans la Copie imprimée. Et j’espere qu’il aura la bonté de se preter de bon cour a ce qu’on judge si essentiel a cet ouvrage.
[The five which I would beg Mr Kozeluch to retouch are Nos. 53, 55, 60, 68 & 88 in the printed copy. And I hope he will consent to do that which is judged so essential to this work.]
Koželuch obliged and on 13 December 1800 he sent his revisions to the 10 songs along with cello parts for the 100 songs (see Critical Commentary, Fascicle 6).
Thomson’s request of 26 December 1800 for yet more revisions was ignored and Koželuch could not be persuaded by Straton to complete the task, as Straton reported in his letter of 2 April 1801:
By this time Straton was negotiating with Joseph Haydn, who was to supply Thomson with a total of 214 arrangements of Scottish, Welsh and Irish Airs between June 1800 and October 1804. Haydn’s first batch of 32 Airs had been despatched on 18 June 1800, which may explain why Thomson decided not to pursue Koželuch for the revisions.
Koželuch’s correspondence with Thomson drew to a close and the songs he had refused to revise remained unpublished. Nonetheless Thomson approached him again in 1807 with a commission to compose Symphonies and Accompaniments for his proposed Collections of Welsh and Irish Airs. Koželuch agreed and sent Thomson 22 Welsh Airs on 11 September 1807 (see Critical Commentary, Fascicle 7). A further 5 Welsh Airs were sent on 16 September 1808 along with revisions to some of the previous 22 Airs (see Critical Commentary, Fascicle 8). These settings of Welsh airs are found spliced with those by Haydn in the three Welsh volumes. 10 Irish Airs were sent on 6 January 1809. Further work remains to be done, but we believe that these Irish Airs were not published by Thomson in his Irish volumes of 1814 and 1816 where only Beethoven’s name appears.
New scholarly editions by Marjorie Rycroft of all of Koželuch’s settings of Burns’s songs for Thomson’s collections are now available to view and download on our ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century: Prose and Songs’ website.
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