You ditty rats!

The Brothers Grimm cited the date as 26 June 1284; Robert Browning gave 22 July 1376. Different dates, same event: the occasion when the Pied Piper, cheated of his promised reward for clearing Hamelin of its infestation of rats, led the children of the town away and into a mountainous cavern, never to be seen again. We’ll go with Browning’s anniversary, since it coincides with the post date for this week’s blog. It’s time to mark Ratcatcher’s Day, 2016!

Here’s how Browning’s famous poem begins:

robert-browning1Hamelin Town’s in Brunswick,
By famous Hanover city;
The river Weser, deep and wide,
Washes its wall on the southern side;
A pleasanter spot you never spied;
But, when begins my ditty,
Almost five hundred years ago,
To see the townsfolk suffer so
From vermin, was a pity.

pied-piper1In 1990, the American composer Robert Jager (b. 1939) set an adaptation of Browning’s poem to music in his The Pied Piper of Hamelin (9.70023). Using full orchestra and narrator, the result is an entertaining tone poem in the truest sense, depicting the plague of vermine, the mayor’s treachery and the Pied Piper’s revenge. The appearance of voices late in the work was intended to be performed falsetto by members of the orchestra, but on our recording it’s taken by an actual children’s chorus. Here’s the action surrounding the piper’s blow-up with the mayor and the children’s exodus from the town.

Armed with their bags of poison, ratcatchers in 17th-century England apparently specialised in the treatment of venereal disease as well as the extermination of rodents. A strange symbiosis of talents, maybe, but they must have been a jolly fraternity judging by this extract from The Famous Ratcatcher (8.557672), a catchy street song of the time:

There was a rare ratcatcher,
Did about the country wander;
The soundest blade of all his trade,
Or I should him deeply slander:
For still would he cry, a rat tat tat,
Tara rat rat ever:
To catch a mouse, or to carouse,
Such a ratter I saw never

rat-catcherUpon a pole he carried
Full forty fullsome vermin,
Whose cursed lives without any knives
To take he did determine
For still would he cry, a rat tat tat,
Tara rat rat ever:
To catch a mouse, or to carouse,
Such a ratter I saw never

His talk was all of India
The voyage and the Navy
What mice or rats or wild polecats
What stoats of weasels have ye
For still would he cry, a rat tat tat,
Tara rat rat ever:
To catch a mouse, or to carouse,
Such a ratter I saw never

ruth-crawford-seeger1Rat Riddles is the first of Three Songs (8.559197) written in 1930 and 1932 by the American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901–1953) and scored for two groups of performers: the first comprises voice, oboe, percussion and piano; the second, which is instructed to sit as far away from the first as possible, is made up of thirteen other instrumentalists and takes the role of an ostinato. The words, by Carl Sandburg, are obscurely intriguing. They are riddles, after all… Here’s the opening.

There was a gray rat looked at me
with green eyes out of a rathole.

“Hello, rat,” I said
“Is there any chance for me
to get on to the language of the rats?”

And the green eyes blinked at me, blinked from a gray rat’s rathole.

benjamin-britten3Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) wrote Our Hunting Fathers (8.557206) in 1936; it’s a 5-movement symphonic cycle for high voice and orchestra. Britten was 22 years old when he completed the work and confidently expressed in a diary entry that it was “my op. 1 alright”. His optimism about the work, however, didn’t gain traction with the general public and it has languished as one of the most neglected of his major works. On the surface, the piece is concerned with man’s relationship with animals, but the foment in Europe at the time of its composition might suggest a sub-text of man’s relationship with man. The second movement is titled Rats Away! The orchestration portrays the creatures’ frantic scurrying while the soprano exorcist utters her commands amid vocal pyrotechnics, as can be heard in the movement’s opening section.

I command all the rats that are hereabout
That none dwell in this place, within or without:
Through the virtue of Jesus that Mary bore, Whom all creatures must ever adore;
And through the virtue of
Mark, Matthew, Luke and John,
All four Archangels that are as one;
Through the virtue of Saint Gertrude,
that maid clean,
God grant in grace
That no rats dwell in the place
That these names were uttered in…

chiayu-hsu1We end with an example of where rats traditionally keep company with others. Other animals, that is. In the Chinese zodiac. That particular astrological system relates each year to an animal following a twelve-year cycle, not a specific portion of the calendar year. I was born in 1951, a Year of the Rabbit, for example; but my December birth date labels me a Sagittarian in the western zodiac. The advantage is that you can choose to believe the astrological forecast that augurs better for you! The twelve animals are grouped into trines—sets of three—unified by similar traits. The trine of the Rat, Dragon and Monkey, is described as extroverted, dynamic, and passionate. The Taiwanese composer Chiayu captured this essence in her 12 Signs for solo viola (8.559713) through fast tempos, energy and power. Here’s the first movement: Rat.

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