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Thackeray Ditties

Peter Tranchell composed the Thackeray Ditties for the Cambridge University Madrigal Society’s May Week Concert in June 1962, which was conducted by Raymond Leppard. The concert traditionally took place on the Backs with the choir in punts on the Cam while the audience sat on the riverbank. The programme for the occasion lists only two of the settings as being performed, while a letter from Tranchell to his parents says that three of his madrigals were performed to an appreciative crowd of about 5000 and that he “scarcely could have taken a curtain-call or bow, save by walking on the water!”.

There is some evidence the Ditties were performed in subsequent years. For example, Mark Kemball remembers that 'A Credo' was an encore piece in the Cambridge University Chamber Choir's U.S. east coast tour in 1981, and their U.S. west coast tour in 1983, under the direction of Dr Richard Marlow.

1. A Tragic Story (S.A.T.B.)
2. The King on the Tower (S.M-S.A.T.Br.B) 
3. The Chaplet (S.S.A.A.T.T.B.B.) 
4. To a Very Old Woman (S.S.A.A.T.T.T.B.B.B.) 
5. A Credo (S.S.A.A.T.T.B.B.)

The Ditties were performed, and recorded live in concert, in 2005 by the Gonville & Caius College Chapel Choir under Geoffrey Webber for the Commemoration Weekend. The recording features on the commemoration CD and is also available in YouTube.

More recently, the Gonville & Caius College Consort under Matthew Martin performed 'The Chaplet' and 'A Credo' at the Centenary Concert on 26th November 2022.

Click here or on the preview image below to access the full score. Please see our guidance on the use of this score.

Tranchell Five Thackeray Ditties Score Preview


1. A Tragic Story

There liv'd a sage in days of yore
And he a handsome pigtail wore
But wonder'd much and sorrow'd more,
Because it hung behind him.

He mus'd upon this curious case,
And swore he'd change the pigtail's place,
And have it hanging at his face
Not dangling there behind him.

Says he, "The mystery I've found, --
I'll turn me round," --
He turn'd round,
But still it hung behind him.

Then round and round, and out and in,
All day the puzzled sage did spin;
In vain -- it matter'd not a pin --
The pigtail hung behind him.

And right and left, and round about,
And up and down, and in and out,
He turn'd, but still the pigtail stout
Hung steadily behind him.

And though his efforts never slack,
And though he twist, and twirl, and take,
Alas, still faithful to his back,
The pigtail hangs behind him.

2. The King on the Tower

The cold gray hills they bind me around,
The darksome valleys lie sleeping below,
But the winds as they pass o'er all this ground,
Bring me never a sound of woe!

Oh! for all I have suffered and striven,
Care has embittered my cup and my feast;
But here is the night and the dark blue heaven,
And my soul shall be at rest.

O golden legends writ in the skies!
I turn towards you with longing soul,
And list to the awful harmonies
Of the Spheres as on they roll.

My hair is gray and my sight nigh gone;
My sword it rusteth upon the wall;
Right have I spoken, and right have I done:
When shall I rest me once for all?

O blessed rest! O royal night!
Wherefore seemeth the time so long
Till I see you stars in their fullest light,
And list to their loudest song?

3. The Chaplet

A little girl through field and wood
Went plucking flowerets here and there,
When suddenly beside her stood
A lady wondrous fair!

The lovely lady smiled, and laid
A wreath upon the maiden's brow;
"Wear it, 'twill blossom soon," she said,
"Although 'tis leafless now."

The little maiden older grew
And wandered forth of moonlight eves,
And sighed and loved as maids will do;
When, lo! her wreath bore leaves.

Then was our maid a wife, and hung
Upon a joyful bridegroom's bosom;
When from the garland's leaves there sprung
Fair store of blossom.

And presently a baby fair
Upon her gentle breast she reared;
When midst the wreath that bound her hair
Rich golden fruit appeared.

But when her love lay cold in death,
Sunk in the black and silent tomb,
All sere and withered was the wreath
That wont so bright to bloom.

Yet still the withered wreath she wore;
She wore it at her dying hour;
When, to the wondrous garland bore
Both leaf, and fruit, and flower!

4. To a Very Old Woman

And thou wert once a maiden fair,
A blushing virgin warm and young:
With myrtles wreathed in golden hair,
And glossy brow that knew no care --
Upon a bridegroom's arm you hung.

The golden locks are silvered now,
The blushing cheek is pale and wan;
The spring may bloom, the autumn glow,
All's one--in chimney corner thou Sitt'st shivering on. --

A moment -- and thou sink'st to rest!
To wake perhaps an angel blest,
In the bright presence of thy Lord.
Oh, weary is life's path to all!
Hard is the strife, and light the fall,
But wondrous the reward!

5. A Credo

For the sole edification
Of this decent congregation,
Goodly people, by your grant
I will sing a holy chant--
I will sing a holy chant.
If the ditty sound but oddly,
'Twas a father, wise and godly,
Sang it so long ago--
Then sing as Martin Luther sang,
As Doctor Martin Luther sang:
"Who loves not wine, woman and song,
He is a fool his whole life long!"

He, by custom patriarchal,
Loved to see the beaker sparkle;
And he thought the wine improved,
Tasted by the lips he loved--
By the kindly lips he loved.
Friends, I wish this custom pious
Duly were observed by us,
To combine love, song, wine,
And sing as Martin Luther sang,
As Doctor Martin Luther sang:
"Who loves not wine, woman and song,
He is a fool his whole life long!"

Who refuses this our Credo,
And who will not sing as we do,
Were he holy as John Knox,
I'd pronounce him heterodox!
I'd pronounce him heterodox,
And from out this congregation,
With a solemn commination,
Banish quick the heretic,
Who will not sing as Luther sang,
As Doctor Martin Luther sang:
"Who loves not wine, woman and song,
He is a fool his whole life long!"