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George Thomson

Scottish folksong editor and publisher. For 59 years he worked for the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Art and Manufactures in Scotland. Joined the Edinburgh Musical Society, played the violin in the orchestra and sang in the choir.

He developed an interest in Scottish folksongs set to classical arrangements and about 1791 he decided to publish a comprehensive collection for voice and piano trio, by the most renowned European composers. This cost a great deal of his private money and was not complete until 1841. Haydn was engaged to arrange folksongs and these were published in 1792 and 1795. Pleyel arranged other tunes and the first part of the “Select Collection of Scottish Airs” was published in 1793.

From the Preface:


“The Symphonies and Accompaniments next engaged his solicitude. For the composition of these, he entered into terms with Mr Pleyel, who fulfilled part of his engagement satisfactorily; but having then stopt short, the Editor found it necessary to turn his eyes elsewhere. He was so fortunate, however, as to engage Mr Kozeluch, and afterwards Dr Haydn, to proceed with the Work, which they have finished in such a manner as to leave him nothing to regret on Mr Pleyel’s breach of engagement…”

Beethoven, Weber, Hummel and Bishop were also involved, Beethoven writing 126 settings and Haydn 187.

As mentioned above, this was not a cheap undertaking and, sadly, cannot be deemed a musical success, the Scottish folksong being largely of an alien nature to the arrangers, and if, as claimed in the Preface, Haydyn tackled the work con amore, Beethoven was angered by the simplification of his piano accompaniments to suit the demands and abilities of the drawing-room market. Indeed, he later refused George Thomson’s approaches to write chamber music, incorporating Scottish folktunes, pricing himself out of the publisher’s means.

As to the words of the songs, Thomson engaged Burns, Scott, James Hogg and others to rewrite songs to remove anything that might shock, presumably again pandering to the tastes of the lucrative drawing-room, polite society market, and the result is, not unexpectedly, rather unsatisfactory.

There are about 300 songs in six folio volumes, published between 1793 and 1841.

Now see where Caledonia’s Genius mourns,
And plants the holly round the tomb of Burns.

Other noteworthy publications, most of them also to be found in the Wighton Collection, are collections of Welsh and Irish Airs and a cantata by Sir Henry Bishop, based on “The Jolly Beggars” by Burns.

Of passing interest, George Thomson’s grand-daughter married Charles Dickens in 1836.

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