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Peter Tranchell's songs

With the 2024 Peter Tranchell Foundation Composition Prize adopting a theme of accompanied song, this page attempts to draw together some information about Peter Tranchell's own songs, not least to help composers research the competition brief.

Tranchell wrote hundreds of songs, most of which are listed in the Classified Handlist - we will not repeat that content here. Some of those songs are lost or missing, and we've used this in the competition brief. Fragments of melodies from these lost songs are preserved in the Thematic Catalogue - Tranchell's own list of his own early works (itself known to be incomplete).

Almost none of Tranchell's songs are commercially published, the exceptions being a few of the songs from the 1950s musical Zuleika, published by Chappell & Co in simple arrangements by Felton Rapley.

The earliest songs (1940s) were mostly either humorous or romantic in character, and by 1948 Tranchell was writing songs for the Cambridge Footlights. An important exception from the 1940s is the cycle of songs or burlesques called 'Cousin Cissie's Baby Book of Swans', which sets to a piano accompaniment 13 beautifully-crafted nonsense poems, attributed to a 'Helen Dray' but almost certainly by Tranchell himself.

In 1950-51 Tranchell wrote the opera The Mayor of Casterbridge, performed in Cambridge in 1951 to reviews that were generally excellent and even surprised that such a young composer could produce a work of such depth and maturity, while finding some faults in the production. The work contained several highly effective arias, and the final scene was recorded (with two pianos) in 2005 and can be heard on YouTube here

Tranchell then wrote a great many songs for the musical Zuleika (based on the novel Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm), subsets of which were variously used in the different productions, working with lyrics by James Ferman (lyrics that Tranchell found highly unsatisfactory). The fact that Tranchell himself made and sold a piano arrangement of some of the songs suggests he was pleased with his music, if not the words.

Much happier collaborations were achieved with Simon Phipps and Ted Cranshaw in the Footlights era, and later Maurice Holt and Harry Porter, but for the most part Peter wrote lyrics himself (or rewrote the lyrics others wrote for him!).

Students and friends from Gonville & Caius College and the Faculty of Music tend to remember Peter entertaining all-comers from the piano, effortlessly improvising to newspaper cuttings or playing well-known songs - either his own or from musical theatre ('Rhoda and her Pagoda' from San Toy was one of his favourites), singing in a sprechstimme style somewhat like Noel Coward. Many of his own songs were rather rude, and some exceedingly so; he would say "Are the windows closed? We wouldn't want the Dean to learn the words!".

There were more serious songs too, including settings of poems by Po Chü-i, Tao Ch’ien, and C.P. Cavafy, and a song cycle called 'In a Sunday Paper' that set (verbatim or almost so), articles from Sunday papers on 9th August 1953, written for Peter's friend, the baritone Norman Platt. 

Apart from playing lead roles in school Gilbert & Sullivan productions as a treble, Tranchell was not himself a singer, and played no instrument other than the piano (at which he was virtuosic). Some (but by no means all) of Tranchell's music can be very difficult to sing; while his gift for melody was always present, it sometimes seems he was lacking the singer’s experiential perspective on what would flow easily for a voice. But more often he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve, and wrote for voices operating at a level to match his piano accompaniments.

From the 1960s onwards there are fewer solo songs, and Tranchell's compositional efforts were dedicated to either the needs of the College Choir (Tranchell succeeded Patrick Hadley as Precentor in 1962) or towards the various 'entertainments' that he wrote for concert occasions in Gonville & Caius and sometimes other colleges. These concert entertainments or operettas, including 'Twice a Kiss', 'Aye, Aye, Lucian', 'Daisy Simpkins', 'His First Mayweek', 'The Robot Emperor' and 'Murder at the Towers', contained songs that people still hum several decades after performing them, such as 'Hadrian built a villa anyone'd envy' and 'Just a toothbrush and pyjamas'.

Tranchell's light or comic songs often tackled historical, political and social themes in unusual ways - pricking pomposity, and questioning received wisdom or official party lines. For example 'Someone's kept quiet about that' suggests what really went on at key moments of history, and 'Roundabout Phrase' highlights government hypocrisy and cover-ups in the 1980s - its final comic verse lighting on two young men who professed their "sheer disgust" at "unnatural lust", while acted very differently.

Homosexuality featured significantly in Tranchell's songs, both in the choices of material he set to music, and in his own lyrics. A moving example is his song 'David and John', for which the music has been lost, but which survives as a recording from around 1955-60 of Tranchell himself playing and singing.