The price of a job by Bill Kirton
This is just about a nice little job I had to do at the weekend, but one which had some surprising aspects. My daughter works for a film company in Glasgow and one of their current projects involves an exchange of letters between one George Thomson and a certain Louis (yes, Louis) van Beethoven.
Thomson was a civil servant in Edinburgh who collected folk songs. In fact, when he saw that some of them were incomplete or not to contemporary tastes, he asked a few writers (including Walter Scott and Rabbie Burns) to tart them up and, when they’d done so, he sent the verses to musicians (including Haydn and Beethoven) asking them to set them to music. In fact, Beethoven composed over 120 melodies for him between 1803 and 1819.
The job I had was to translate into English Beethoven’s reply to a letter from Thomson in 1809 asking if he’d provide accompaniments for 43 Welsh and Irish ballads. The reply, written in French, held a few surprises (one of which was that it was in French, another that he signed himself Louis. Unlike me, the more learned of you will either know why or, at least, be conscientious enough about sources to investigate further).
Anyway, the real revelations for me were that the genius Beethoven came across as a very normal artist. One of us, in fact. He starts the letter by saying (in terms I’ve popularised for effect):
‘OK, Squire, I’ll knock together your 43 tunes, but it’ll cost you. You’re offering 50 quid in cash but that’ll need to be upped to 60. The job’s not particularly attractive but I’ll do it anyway.’
He then moves to a request for some other pieces, implying once more that Thomson must be having a laugh.
‘As for the sonatas,’ he writes ‘you’re not offering nearly enough… 60 pounds sterling? I can’t do them for that! … Not at today’s prices. Things cost 3 times as much as they used to… I can’t do them for any less than 120 quid.’
Then, after more reassurances about publishing dates, he concludes: ‘Listen, mate. You’re dealing with an artist here. When it comes to getting paid, I expect to be treated with respect. And it’s not just about respecting me but respecting art itself.’
Finally, he signs off as the enigmatic LOUIS van Beethoven.
One final point: his French is almost as bad as his handwriting. The original had been transcribed (otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to decipher it) so some of the fault may lie with the transcriber, but all of these points are petty when set beside the fact that, while I’ve obviously given this an Only Fools and Horses spin for effect, the essence of the content is accurate and we have evidence of a true genius having to haggle to get the respect that he and his art deserve.