MUSICO-FOLK-LORISTIC SPECULATION, Tranchell, The Caian, mid 1960s

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from The Caian (mid 1960s)

Speculation by PAT in characteristic manner on the origins of the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ nursery rhymes leads him to consideration of composers being unconsciously influenced by half-remembered tunes – their own or others’ – in a process of ‘seepage’. Very much in the style of similar articles written for the Cambridge Review in the 1950s, and covering in part the same ground as ‘The Truth About Tunes’ published there on 4 June 1955, this is the sole example of the genre to be published in the Caian and perhaps the last that he wrote.

‘On Thursday, 9 September, King William “The Conqueror”, while successfully effecting the reduction of the city of Mantes, died of injuries sustained when his horse fell beneath him during a tour of inspection.’

Such might have been the bare burden of an official bulletin (had there been one) in 1087. But the more colourful details eventually garnered by some subsequent chronicler would at the time have percolated by report and rumour throughout the realm.

Everyone would know that William was grown bald and fat, so fat indeed, that when bedridden at Rouen shortly before his fatal fall, he was twitted by the King of France as a case not of illness but of advanced pregnancy. William should never have been allowed on a horse. Most people would know that the knights and doctors in attendance hastened home, as soon as William died, to secure their estates against trouble; and that the royal servants deserted, taking what loot they could. Some people would know that the king’s funeral was miserably conducted by but a faithful few; that the interment was interrupted midway while a rival claimant to the plot of burial-ground was bought off; and that the corpse first proved too large for the grave and then, while the grave was being widened, burst open, repelling onlookers with its obnoxious effluvia. Thus the more or less common knowledge, later to become history.

But in the meantime, the minstrels would be at work, for in the absence of newspapers music deputized for journalism, important events were celebrated in song; very sensible for versification may often make a thing easier to memorize. Given a proclamation beginning ‘Guillaume, Le Dompteur, qui domptait a Mantes ... assis a cheval ... ’, a minstrel might render the sad affair in Norman French verse. But some Saxon wit, hearing this ballad, might transfer it into his own tongue, retaining the first line in French (a practice we still sometimes employ with the ‘catch-line’ when foreign songs are adapted into English, cf. ‘Amor, amor, amor’, ‘Besame mucho’, ‘Auf Wiedersehen’, ‘Lili Marlene’, ‘Funiculi Funicula!’) and introducing any discreditable item of rumour within his ken. For his compatriots would relish the ridiculous picture of their fat odious foreign monarch on horseback, the irony of the fall of a ‘Dompteur’, and the ‘typical’ defection of the Norman royal entourage:

Guillaume qui domptait, assis a cheval,
Guillaume qui domptait had a great fall.
All the King’s Horse and all the King’s Men
Left when they saw he breathed not again.

Some further balladeer, apprised of the story of the king’s burial, might alter the ending to run:

Could not put him together again.

A sly dig! They were not even there to try! And in any case—oh what a stink!

Time passes, and the obscurer points are corrupted. ‘Guillaume qui domptait’ might become ‘Yom qui dompti’ which, aspirated by the commonalty, is ‘Hom qui dompti’, or alternatively, for those with more French than history, ‘Homme qui domptait’ would seem sensible. With the pronunciation of ‘o’ as ‘ u’ (witness the frequent ‘Gunvil’ for Gonville, ‘Crumwell’ for Cromwell in later times) the opening would in due course become ‘Humki dumpti’. The ‘cheval’ would be quickly emended to ‘the wall’, and the reference to cavalry and infantry, ‘Horse and Men’, would be lost in the less technical phrase ‘Horses and men’.

It is an irony of fate that a king’s shape, humpy and dumpy, should so correspond to the corrupt version of his name and activity. By another irony of fate, in 1562, Huguenots desecrated William’s tomb and scattered his bones, thus giving (though nobody knew it) more truth than ever to the last line of what by now must have become a mere jingle of a ballad.

More time passes, and vague memories about the Conqueror’s obesity and baldness transform the subject. By the end of the seventeenth century the song seems to concern the fragility of an egg, despite the oddity of finding an egg seated on a wall or of expecting horses to be of any remedy when an egg is broken. The verse had become a riddle. What else could it be? And what is more fun than asking a riddle, especially when a forfeit is extracted for a failure to answer? The Sphinx got along very nicely; the payer of the forfeit providing the dinner. British servicemen campaigning on the Continent doubtless tried it on (slyly) with the local lasses, for the riddle appears as a nursery-rhyme in many languages. But then jokes and riddles travel fast and wide, settling easily in a new tongue, even a poor specimen like this. On the Continent the words ‘Humpty Dumpty’ are weakly replaced by ones indicating either roundness or precariousness. Clearly the rhyme was exported from England, its source, after it had lost its original meaning. That the corrupt version could ever be accepted as a fair description of an egg, makes one despair of any foreigner’s sense of humour, while deploring British cynicism in exporting it.

Still, beneath the ovoid connotation lurks in English a tradition of an arrogant and self-willed tyrant—Le Dompteur ; and this comes once more to the surface in Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking-glass, where the egg-shaped Humpty Dumpty is a task-master of words—though he does claim that he pays them for the extra duties he imposes.

Thus we see the process of corruption. The words we now have as a meaningless nursery-rhyme undoubtedly derive from an actual news-ballad or lampoon originally composed or devised by an actual author or series of authors to record a definite event. A tune was probably associated with the words from the start, either made by the first author, or (more likely) taken by him for his purpose from the current repertoire, itself the original work of an actual composer. This, much changed, may be the tune that now goes with the rhyme, for in spite of its overall late seventeenth-century flavour, it is not impossible to detect in the rhythm and melodic outline an earlier origin.

‘Lauda Sion’ written by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, to a sacred plainsong tune already in existence, became the Sequence for Corpus Christi day. It is still sung in the Roman Church. Corpus Christi day was a feast particularly celebrated by the Guilds. At one such feast at Windsor in the reign of Edward II, the guild of bakers apparently excelled themselves by preparing a pageant (or waggon decorated much as we nowadays decorate the ‘floats’ at a Chelsea Arts Ball or on Rag Days) of which the set-piece was an enormous pie. The pie had a hinged lid, opening to reveal a group of singers within.

But suppose the bakers knew the king would be that day in Windsor in the course of the usual royal peregrinations; suppose they said ‘We will make a musical pie for the king’. For the pastry they would require a sackful (pochette) of rye as a basis, and for the music they would hire the twenty four singers of the Chapel Royal, who accompanied the king everywhere, paying them each a fee of sixpence—silver pennies in those days; not a bad fee. These singers, who were in orders and would be dressed in their usual black cassocks, would be hidden in the pie. When the pie was opened before the king, they might with a somewhat wry appropriateness sing ‘Lauda Sion’. A recherché entertainment very suitable to Edward’s love of such things and justly dismissed as ‘dainty’!

The occasion would as usual be recorded by some balladeer or the king’s minstrel or a courtly literateur, whose tune might be a parody of the ‘Lauda Sion’. Once it achieved popularity, Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye...’, would, if it survived, come down to us as a mere nursery-rhyme. We should expect its tune to retain a pale remembrance of the ‘Lauda Sion’. It does. Pale, but not past recognition.

But what of the second verse of the rhyme? What original, corrupted by time, lies fossilized there?

Most English kings have been in need of funds and hence could legitimately be pictured as in a counting-house, for you usually count your money when you’re short of it and are having to pay it out. But ‘bread and honey’? Could this line be but a balancing one dragged in for the sake of the rhyme? If Queen Isabella was eating bread and honey, it must have been early in her married life, or else we have a sarcastic reference to her subsequent marital misery. And are we to believe that one of the black-clothed singers invaded a garden and assaulted a laundress? Who would care? This is not the historical stuff of ballads.

But let us move from Windsor at Corpus Christi to the year 1326. Edward II had certainly been raising money for the war against France. Isabella, by now named ‘the She Wolf’ was being entertained (eating bread) at the Court of France allegedly for negotiations, hence parleying, in the ‘ parlour’. But with her was her paramour, Mortimer. Notice the portmanteau of meanings: She was not a honeyed character, but she had her ‘honey’! She invades England, and catching Hugh le Despenser the younger, Edward’s boy-friend and minister, consigns him to execution. Can we not acidly style the far-from-masculine and far-from-virgin Hugh as a ‘maid’ ? A doubly telling innuendo! ‘The maid was in the garden’, i.e. in a part of England called ‘garden’. The west of England? So he was, for not only had he for some time attempted to gain for himself the earldom of Gloucester, but he was now in those parts to raise troops against Isabella,—showing the colours, ‘hanging out the clothes’. Captured, he is taken to Hereford, where the executioner (‘black-bird ‘) submits him to the indignity of public castration (‘pecks off his nose’) before hanging, drawing, and quartering the rest of him.

The king was in his counting house,
                   counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
                   eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden,
                   hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
                   and pecked off her nose.

But this second verse may not apply to Edward II’s reign at all. The ‘limerick’ tune and stanza have done duty for countless other limericks since the first. The same thing may have happened here. And what accretion of yet further historical verses is lost to us? Only two survive.

Well, in the spring of 1361 Edward the Black Prince, aged 31, fell in love with Joan, Countess of Kent, aged 33, called ‘The Fair Maid of Kent’, who had been a ‘maid of honour’ at court. He wooed her without the knowledge of his father King Edward III. But the latter on being apprised gave his consent and the pair were happily married. Now Kent is another ‘garden’ of England. Perhaps the first two lines of our verse describe how oblivious were the king and Queen Philippa (till a certain date) of the first stages of the affair, and the ‘counting-house’ may give that date: the beginning of the fiscal year, Midsummer Day. The third line would refer to Joan, who was widowed on 28 December 1360 and hence in ‘weeds’ (possibly taking the opportunity of laundering her other clothes); and the last line to the princely suitor, whose armour was black, whose crest was of osprey feathers (black plus bird), and whose passionate osculations were probably in danger of disfiguring the maid’s fair face. At a time when the nobility were espoused before leaving their teens, it would be a notable thing for two middle-aged lovers to conduct a ‘runaway match’, and very likely to be celebrated in minstrelsy.

Such much for the corruption of words and items of history. Most of our nursery-rhymes are doubtless derived from one-time news-ballads or lampoons concerning actual events; but notice how in time mediocre minds have drained from the originals all the bite and satire.

Let us now consider some musical examples of this process, remembering that we are concerned not with a conscious phenomenon in the mind of a composer; for we know what a wealth of music can be composed by letting the muse play with a single theme, and we use the words ‘development’, ‘working out’ and ‘variations’ for this deliberate product; but rather we are dealing with an unconscious transformation which we may call ‘seepage’, for so often the transformation seems to have occurred through a series of men in the course of time, unbeknownst to any of them.

If you make the following comparisons: ‘Everything’s up to date in Kansas City’ from Richard Rogers’ Oklahoma with ‘We said we’d never look back’ from Julian Slade’s Salad Days; ‘Donna e mobile’ from Verdi’s Rigoletto with the second subject of the first movement of Mozart’s pianoforte sonata in F, K. 332; Liszt’s ‘Festklänge’ with Wagner’s overture to The Mastersingers; or the opening of Clementi’s pianoforte sonata in B flat, Op. 47, no. 2, with the first theme of Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute;—and many other comparisons —in each case you will find more than a family resemblance. This is the direct sort of ‘seepage’, which if too obvious, we may call ‘plagiarism’.

Liszt himself provides an example of ‘self-seepage’ in the similarity of the main theme of his pianoforte sonata in B minor to the main themes of his tone-poems Tasso and Orpheus.

I have had this experience myself. On three occasions in the last few years I have found myself contemplating the use of a theme, each time presented by the brain as fresh and fine, but on closer inspection discovering it to be but another variant of a tune I composed when I was fifteen.

G. B. Shaw wrote in his caustic review (1888) of Parry’s oratorio Judith, that one melody (which we now use as a hymn-tune, ‘Repton’) consisted of the first line of the ‘Minstrel Boy’, followed by the second line of ‘Tom Bowling’, connected by an augmentation’ of a passage from the finale of the second act of Lucrezia Borgia, with an ingenious blend of ‘The Girl I left behind me’ and ‘We be Three Poor Mariners’. The intervals, Shaw said, were altered, except in the Lucrezia Borgia case, and the source of Mr Parry’s unconscious inspiration was betrayed by accent and measure only. Here was a fine example of ‘seepage’; but Parry’s tune is, despite its sources, a poor one, and the borrowed goods have all depreciated in the borrowing.

During the war, I spent some weeks in a Military Hospital, in a ward controlled by a Sister who had several young orderlies to help her. One of the orderlies, a rather simple son of the soil, seeing me at work with some music manuscript-paper as I lay propped-up in bed, became curious, and eventually confessed that he too was a composer, but much hampered by being unable to write his music down. Could I perhaps help him? So one day when he had no chores, he sat by the bed and hummed at me. After some time I got down a complete song allegedly of his own composition, which was not at all a bad one, together with a surprisingly sophisticated lyric. There had been some difficulty with the dictation en route, because he would sing a phrase more than a little different each time; the rhythm kept changing in his mind, and some notes evidently had no definite pitch; but we eventually arrived at a final version. The Sister had been passing to and fro meanwhile, and just as I completed the fair copy (with a simple piano accompaniment) which the orderly was agog to take forthwith to a publisher to make a fortune, she approached and said, ‘Don’t let him pester you. He could easily buy himself a sheet- music copy of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” if he wants.’ A crimson blush of abject shame and distress spread across the face of the poor youth as it dawned on him that what he had innocently dictated to me was an already popular number perfectly well-known to him (by Cole Porter) of which he had temporarily persuaded himself he was the author. The Sister shrugged and departed. The orderly never came to dictate again. This was another sort of seepage. But note: The Seeper could not properly remember the rhythms and syncopation of the original; his version was only an approximation. Unluckily, I had never heard the tune at the time, or else I could have avoided my drudgery and his embarrassment.

A similar case is that of W. S. Gilbert, who said he always had an existing tune in mind when he wrote his lyrics; just as did Gay for The Beggar’s Opera and Polly. It was an act of supererogation for Sullivan to set Gilbert’s verse in the D’Oyly Carte operas to yet other music. Or was it?

Take an instance. We know that Gilbert used as a basis for ‘I have a song to sing, oh’ (in The Yeoman of the Guard) the tune ‘Green grow the rushes, oh’. A comparison of Gilbert’s lyric with this tune shows clearly that Gilbert did not properly know the tune. He doubtless thought he knew it; and had heard it often enough, but he must have had only the vaguest conception of it. Assuming he knew the first line of the music, with its initial strong single note, we are surprised to find him fitting three rather colourless syllables, ‘I have a’, to this one note. What insensitivity, what second-rate-ness so to abnegate the essential vitality of the musical phrase! Anyone attempting to reconcile the rest of Gilbert’s garrulous verse to the tune will thank heaven for the existence of Sullivan.

Several times in army messes I have heard the Humoreske in G flat by Dvořák sung to a variety of ad hoc lyrics, but never did anyone get the music of the final phrases correct. The tune is a pretty obvious and straightforward one on the whole: the first phrase goes pat, the second starts the same but ends in a bit of a tangle; then there’s a contrasting middle section of two phrases; after which the opening theme is resumed, its first phrase as before, but the second phrase ending with a really knotty tangle. Very nice! If you sing it through to yourself, the betting is you’ll go astray at the two ‘tangles’, and you will have forgotten how each of the middle-section phrases ends—in spite of it being a hackneyed piece! Precisely, in fact, at those spots where Dvořák has been unexpected, artistic, original and inventive— at those very points the ordinary mind is baffled. My military songsters ruthlessly levelled these places out with some ineptly banale alternative. Were Dvořák relying solely on such singers for the transmission of his music to posterity, his piece would end up as a jejune folk-song; for this to my mind is how folksongs are made, by the worst sort of seepage: the corruption and unbeautification of art through the incompetence of inartistic men. Consequently let us be warned: Folk-music may be of interest to study, as an object-lesson regarding a thing’s decadence or malversion, just as neurosis to a psychologist, or sewer-blockage to a sanitary engineer; but let us realize that what many praise as its simplicity is but bankruptcy, its supposed clarity but vacuity. The uncommon achievement of some past higher mind is distilled by foolish folk to the lowest common factor.