Since the onset of the pandemic, online platforms like Facebook and YouTube have become indispensable hubs of musical collaboration. Simply scroll down your Facebook feed to encounter collaborative virtual performances of everything from “Over the Rainbow” to Mahler’s Third Symphony, each one painstakingly assembled from individual recordings of sequestered singers and isolated instrumentalists.
While physically distant musical collaborations might seem shockingly new, they actually have a long history. Beethoven, who turns 250 this year, participated in a variety of such collaborations, sometimes across vast geographical expanses. His dozens of arrangements of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, English, and continental European folksongs, produced for the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson, offer a particularly compelling example of early nineteenth-century virtual collaboration.
The arrangement process, unusual for the time, was a bit like creating a TikTok duet chain: Thomson, in Edinburgh, dispatched the folksong melodies via post to Beethoven, in Vienna, who arranged them in elaborate fashion for voice (or voices) and piano, often with optional string accompaniments. Beethoven then mailed his arrangements back to Edinburgh, where Thomson added a final link to the chain, outfitting Beethoven’s musical settings with freshly commissioned texts by British poets such as Lord Byron, James Hogg, and Sir Walter Scott.
As with TikTok duets, these virtual collaborations often resulted in striking reinterpretations of the original. Take Beethoven’s setting of “The Monks of Bangor’s March,” commissioned for Thomson’s A Select Collection of Welsh Airs (1817). The folksong was first printed in John Playford’s 1665 Dancing Master as “The L. Monck’s March,” probably a reference to the English general Lord George Monck. By the time Thomson discovered it, however, it had become associated with the medieval monks of Bangor, famous for having been slaughtered during a prayerful procession in the year 613. Thomson may have sent a brief note about this context to Beethoven, who devised a macabre, funeral march-like accompaniment and transposed the song from D minor to the darker key of C minor.
With these changes, Beethoven transformed a spritely 1660s folk tune into an unequivocally nineteenth-century work, a work whose trajectory Walter Scott then completed with his chilling poetic meditation on the doomed procession: “When the heathen trumpet’s clang round beleaguered Chester rang, veiled nun and friar grey marched from Bangor’s fair abbaye.” The complete arrangement, a little-known gem, is impressively imaginative and remarkably cohesive, especially given that its co-creators Beethoven and Scott—two giants of the early Romantic period—never met or even corresponded with each other.
Around 1806, Beethoven took part in a different kind of virtual collaboration, one with an extraordinary origin. It began with a piano improvisation at a salon in Baden, Austria, some 25 kilometers away from Vienna. The improviser was not Beethoven but a Polish dilettante named Countess Rzewuski. Rzewuski improvised a short aria on the piano, to which Giuseppe Carpani—a celebrated poet and early biographer of Haydn—extemporized some gothic verse. The subject concerned an embittered spirit chastising his former lover from the grave:
In questa tomba oscura
Quando vivevo, ingrata,
Dovevi a me pensar.
Lascia che l’ombre ignude
Godansi pace almen,
E non bagnar mie ceneri
In this dark tomb
Let me rest.
When I was alive, ungrateful woman,
You should have thought of me.
At least let the naked spirits
Enjoy their peace,
And no, do not bathe my ashes
With useless venom.
Carpani’s little poem, stimulated by Rzewuski’s piano playing, was an instant hit. From the salon in Baden, the verse went viral, spreading first to Vienna and then further afield, and inspiring numerous composers, amateur and professional alike, to try their own hand at setting it to music. Eager to see “how many different colors and styles of music could animate the same subject,” Carpani soon invited other composers to musicalize his poem and arranged for all of the settings to be collected in a single volume. By the time of its publication in 1808, the volume comprised 64 arrangements by 46 composers from across Europe. Among the most recognizable of Carpani’s virtual collaborators: Antonio Salieri, Carl Czerny, Vincenzo Righini, Carl Zelter, Franz Xaver Mozart (Wolfgang’s youngest son), and, of course, Beethoven.
In contrast with many of the other settings, which prefer the minor mode and tease out the text’s gothic import, Beethoven sets Carpani’s poem as a poignant operatic scena in A-flat major. He repeats the first four lines of text, creating an ABA structure in which the middle section provides a striking contrast by plunging down a major third into the remote key of E major. This highly expressive move (in a different key) is also used to great effect in another work of 1806, the Fourth Piano Concerto (first movement, bar 105). Beethoven’s contribution to Carpani’s project is, of course, on a different scale from the grand instrumental works of this remarkable year, but it is highly effective in its own right. The only setting of “In questa tomba oscura” still performed today, it has been recorded by superstars from Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to Luciano Pavarotti to Cecilia Bartoli.
Beethoven is often thought of as a solitary genius whose music transcends the context in which it was composed. “What do I care about your wretched fiddle,” he supposedly asked violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh, “when the spirit seizes me?” But the reality is that his art was rooted in collaborative relationships, with performers, publishers, patrons, poets, instrument-makers, critics, and the concertgoing public. These relationships, physical as well as virtual, not only energized his creative process but also mediated the very design of his artworks.
Feature image by Spencer Imbrock via Unsplash