Arrangements of Polish Folk Songs by Ludwig van Beethoven

  • Zofia Lissa


At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries the middle classes of western Europe became aware of a need for many kinds of music which, in previous centuries – in a different social order – had not played any really important role in musical life. Although they do not belong to the history of so-called »great music«, the arrangements of folk songs of various European nations represent one of these kinds. Such arranging was undertaken by J.Haydn, J. A. Koželuch, J.N.Hummel, I. Pleyel and not least by Ludwig van Beethoven, mostly from the year 1810 on. His arrangements of Scottish, Irish and Welsh songs are well known. However, until recently it was not known that in 1816–1818 Beethoven also wrote arrangements for 24 songs of various European nations, in the collection »Chants des diverses nations«, which includes several Slavonic songs: 2 Polish, 4 Russian and 1 Ukrainian. On one hand the arrangements of the two Polish songs reflect the interest in »goût polonais«, which was especially strong in Germany in the 18th century, while on the other they bear witness to Beethoven's great interest in folklore. For many years the authoress was faced with the apparently insoluble problem of where did Beethoven find the source for the Polish melodies: there were no printed collections of Polish folklore before 1816, while Beethoven's contact with Polish musicians living in Vienna was slight; besides this the composer had never been to Poland. His contact with the salons of Polish aristocrats living in Vienna in the years before the Vienna congress (1815), during the congress and after it would not have helped Beethoven to obtain the two Polish songs either, as the circles of Polish aristocracy could not possibly have provided him with such coarse texts. So there remained only the possibility that Beethoven must have heard them (and written them down) from one of the members of the court orchestras which the Polish dignitaries had brought with them to Vienna. The trail led on to the Polish pianist and composer Franciszek Mirecki, who lived in Vienna from 1814–1816 and studied piano under J.N.Hummel. Mirecki was also the librarian and secretary to the Polish Count J. Ossolihski and in 1816 Beethoven, who had continual troubles with living accomodation, moved into the palace at the invitation of the count. The hypothesis is confirmed by a letter from F. Mirecki to A. Grabowski, dated 22.4.1816. The two Polish songs that are the object of this article represent the most characteristic dance tunes of Polish folklore: one is a typical krakowiak, the other a not less typical oberek, i.e. a fast version of a mazurka. Both melodies belong to the few foreign written versions of Polish folklore which are unknown in Poland in the form presented by the composer. They are not even in the biggest collection of Polish folk songs (1865–1890) by O. Kolberg. Only variations (especially textual) are to be found in numerous later versions. It is interesting to note how Beethoven's arrangements reflect all the typical styles characteristic of the playing of Polish folk music and folk dances. Beethoven's arrangements of these two songs also differ in their texture and harmonic characteristics from the more stereotyped and similar arrangements of folk songs of other nations, to be found in the same collection. Even further: the composer showed more sensitivity towards style here than in the other five Slavonic songs in the collection.


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How to Cite
LissaZ. (1973). Arrangements of Polish Folk Songs by Ludwig van Beethoven. Musicological Annual, 9(1), 50-67.