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.


Griselda Heppel said…
Well, I jolly well hope Beethoven got what he asked for. What a wonderful story. Just imagine living in the time and place Thomson did, deciding to collect folk songs (kudos to him) and then thinking, you know what, these need tweaking, I’ll just pop them in the post to the best Scottish writers of the day before engaging the services of one of the greatest composers in the world. I can’t wait for the film/documentary.

Thank you hugely for sharing this, I love your colloquial translation. Interesting that Beethoven wrote in French - presumably Thomson wrote to him in English? Beethoven may well have had good cause to assume more people in Great Britain spoke French than German, and if his own English was shaky, that French would be the safest language for him to communicate in. (French at that time being the international language of diplomacy.) And maybe people automatically translated their own names when signing off. There are doubtless innumerable musicologist who could enlighten us!
Jan Needle said…
Brilliant and lovely piece, Herr Kirton (or should I say Monsieur?) The implications though are terrifying. Is it possible that the finest love song in the whole wide world should actually start Ae fond fish and then we supper? Oh lordie, I hope not!
Susan Price said…
Loved this, Bill!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Griselda, you're obviously far more cultured than I am and you're right, of course, about French being the language of diplomacy. Wouldn't it have been great if he'd gone the whole (literal) hog, though, and signed himself Louis Camionette Betteravetaillée.

Incorrigible as ever, Jan, but, as Dick Emery used to say, I like you.

Thanks for your tolerance, Susan.
Umberto Tosi said…
Great story! I'm glad to discover the human, bargaining side of Ludwig - aka Louis - coming down off the ivory pedestal on which history has put him. I'd love to hear some of the Beethoven songs that George Thomson commissioned, Anything on You Tube? Thanks.
Bill Kirton said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Umberto. The deeper I got into this, the more interesting it became, especially the tirelessness of George Thomson. There are plenty of references to the published scores of the particular works, but actual recordings of performances seem rare (although I'm not the most dogged of researchers). The easiest to access is at but there must be others. This gives a taste, though.
Sandra Horn said…
Excellent! How delightful to see the necessities behind the genius. Good old Ludwig/Louis! And thanks for the smile.
Julia jones said…
Hope they're paying YOU, Messire de la Kirton. I think this is amazing. I am star struck (julia)
Bill Kirton said…
Beethoven does have that effect, Julia.

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