George Thomson, Savior of British Traditional Music

“The Maid of Llanwellyn” is a Welsh song of love in which the girl admits she has no care for whether her lover is rich or not. From Contemplator [You may listen to the music on this site.] we learn, “This [song] was published by George Thomson of Edinburgh (1757-1851). Thomson paid F. J. Haydn in Vienna 2 ducats each for 200 tunes. He also paid Beethoven for tunes, but he quit, disgusted with the pay.

“The lyrics are by Joanna Baillie [1762-1851]. In the tune she speaks of lakes in Wales. When Thomson remarked that Wales had no lakes, Miss Baillie replied that she would not alter the line and they would have to ‘hope their readers were just as ignorant as she had been when she wrote it.'”

800px-George_Thomson_(1757–1851)_by_Henry_Raeburn_(1756-1823)

George Thomson by Henry Raeburn ~ via Wikipedia ~ Public Domain

What do we know of George Thomson? First, Thomson was the original director of the famed Edinburgh Music Festival. He was also an avid collector to Britain’s national folk songs. Thomson came to Edinburgh at the age of 16, where he became a junior clerk to the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Arts and Manufactures in Scotland. When his boss passed, Thomson assumed the position. He was in his early 20s at the time and held the job for 59 years. 

Because of his love of music, and especially of the violin, Thomson chose to publish a collection of Scottish tunes accompanied by the traditional lyrics. However, in his research, Thomson found most of the published songs were flawed and not the original tunes. To suit them for concert use and to appeal to persons ‘of taste’, he decided to furnish the old tunes with new instrumental accompaniments.

Believing that no one in Edinburgh or London had sufficient talent to write the music, Thomson applied to several foreign composers. In 1799 he sent some Scottish melodies to Franz Joseph Haydn in Vienna, offering the eminent composer two ducats for each air. In June of 1800, Haydn forwarded to Edinburgh more than 30 airs he had arranged. Altogether Haydn worked on some 200 airs, including ‘The Blue Bells of Scotland.’

215px-Haydn.jpg “Haydn, however, was up in years, so Thomson applied to Ludwig van Beethoven, a much younger man. In 1810 Beethoven sent to Edinburgh a number of Scottish airs he had composed ‘con amore’ by way of doing homage to the national songs of Scotland and England. But Thomson and the composer constantly argued over money. In Beethoven’s last letter, dated 25th May, 1819, he exploded over the pay he had received for his work.

robert-burns-portrait-150x150.jpg “Thomson felt that a number of charming old songs suffered from lyrics that were ‘mere nonsense and doggerel’ while others had rhymes ‘too loose and indelicate’ to be sung in decent company. In 1792 Thomson applied to Robert Burns, the greatest of Scottish poets, to provide new words for 25 melodies that he, Thomson, would select. Burns agreed, provided his muse not be hurried. He also asked to include at least a sprinkling of Scottish dialect, but Thomson insisted that he avoid the vernacular as much as possible, since English was becoming increasingly the language of Scotland and young people were being taught to consider the Scots dialect vulgar. Burns contributed about 100 songs, both original and revised, before his death in 1796. These included ‘Scots, Wha Hae,’ ‘John Anderson, My Jo,’ and ‘Highland Mary’.

“In addition to Burns, who suggested expanding the collection to include Welsh and Irish airs, Thomson sought the help of various English writers. He wished to provide a number of Gaelic airs with alternative English lyrics that Southrons would understand. He rounded up a number of both Scottish and English writers to assist him, including Byron, Thomas Campbell, Walter Scott, James Hogg, John Gibson Lockhart, Joanna Bailllie, and Mrs. Anne Grant of Laggan.

If the songs failed in their intentions, the writers were not always to blame. Thomson delighted in presenting local colour, and if he could introduce Snowdon or Llangollen into a song, it might at once pass for Welsh.” 

“Thomson edited three separate editions of national songs–Scottish, Welsh, and Irish. The Scottish songs were published in six volumes under the general title of A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice, with Introductory and Concluding Symphonies for the Pianoforte, Violin, and Violincello.

Thomson died in 1851, leaving two sons and six daughters. One daughter, Georgina, married George Hogarth, the Edinburgh music critic, historian, and Writer to the Signet. In 1836 the Hogarths’ daughter Catherine married Charles Dickens. So Dickens’ ten offspring were the great-grandchildren of George Thomson, the ‘clean-brushed’ old gentleman whose collections of traditional national songs are still sung around the world.”

 JW Pepper tells us, “In this folksong-style original, the guys are smitten when The Maid of Llanwellyn smiles on them! The robust choral parts are just right for young male voices, and a few optional three-part chords add to the bravado.” (British Heritage Travel)

Kate Rusby’s version of the song on You Tube

The Maid of Llanwellyn

I’ve no sheep on the mountains, nor boat on the lake,
Nor coin in my coffer to keep me awake.
Nor corn in my garner, nor fruit on my tree,
Yet the maid of Llanwellyn smiles sweetly on me.

Rich Owen will tell you, with eyes full of scorn,
Threadbare is my coat, and my hosen are torn.
Scoff on, my rich Owen, for faint is thy glee
When the maid of Llanwellyn smiles sweetly on me.

The farmer rides proudly to market and fair,
And the clerk at the ale house still claims the great chair.
But of all our proud fellows, the proudest I’ll be
While the maid of Llanwellyn smiles sweetly on me.

Peter, Paul and Mary have a song that sounds very similar. It is called “Pretty Mary.” You can hear it HERE

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in ballads, British history, Georgian Era, music, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to George Thomson, Savior of British Traditional Music

  1. Jacey Bedford says:

    Joanna Baillie was right, of course. There are lakes in Wales. I’m just heading off there for the Milfrd Writers week which is in a village about 9 miles south of Caernarfon called Nantlle. Our venue has it’s own lakeside frontage on Llyn (lake) Nantlle. Just a little further up towards Mount Snowdon is Llyn Gwynant. Not very big lakes, maybe, but definitely lakes. Scroll down this page – http://www.milfordsf.co.uk/attend.htm – for a photo of one of our writers threatening to jump into Llyn Nantlle after a crit session. (PS she actually got good crits!)

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