Don’t talk nonsense. Sing it!

With so many world events defying logic right now, I thought we might escape briefly into a space where words make no attempt to stack up, but merely divert for a while and lighten the spirit. Welcome to the literary worlds of Lewis Carroll, William Brighty Rands, Hilaire Belloc and someone called Mr Traditional.

György Ligeti
Photo: Marcel Antonisse (Anefo) / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL via Wikimedia Commons

We open with an extract from a work completed in 1993 for the British a cappella vocal group The King’s Singers. I’m referring to György Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals, the second of which is titled Cuckoo in the Pear-Tree. Ligeti’s highly complex style, with its rhythmic and tonal demands, forms an ironic contrast to the simple, humorous text and produces a deceptive lightness. According to a former member of the King’s Singers, Simon Carrington, these are amongst the most complicated pieces in the ensemble’s repertoire. Ligeti himself remarked quite laconically:

“I like pushing things to the limit of the possible. Performers have often said, ‘you cannot play this piece‘ or ‘it is impossible to sing it‘. My answer always was: it is almost impossible, but just try and you’ll almost make it.”

Judge for yourself if Singer Pur, the vocal group on our recording, hit the mark.

The Cuckoo sat in the old pear-tree,
Raining or snowing, nought cared he.
Cuckoo, Cuckoo, nought cared he.

The Cuckoo flew over a housetop high.
“Dear, are you at home, for here am I?
Cuckoo, cuckoo, here am I.”

“I dare not open the door to you.
Perhaps you are not the right cuckoo?
Cuckoo, cuckoo, the right cuckoo!”

“I am the right Cuckoo, the proper one.
For I am my father’s only son,
Cuckoo, cuckoo, his only son.”

“If you are your father’s only son —
The bobbin pull tightly,
Come through the door lightly —

If you are your father’s only son —
It must be you, the only one —
Cuckoo, cuckoo, my own Cuckoo!

William Brighty Rands (1823–1882)

Cuckoo in the Pear-Tree (OC1853)


Liza Lehmann
Source: W. and D. Downey (Life time: 1829-1915) / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born in London, Liza Lehmann (1862-1918) was the eldest daughter of the painter Rudolf Lehmann. For a time, the family lived in Rome, where Rudolf was a distinguished member of the city’s community of artists. His friends included Franz Liszt, who always demanded bacon and eggs when he visited the Lehmanns. Liza also spent time in Rome, dining with her family on one occasion with Verdi, whose portrait her father was drawing. Other notable musical personalities with whom she came into contact early in her life included Clara Schumann, with whom she stayed for three weeks in Frankfurt, studying Schumann’s songs. There she also met Brahms, whose bluff and coarse manners certainly failed to impress her, particularly when he ate a whole tin of sardines at breakfast and then drank the oil from the tin in one draught, as she recounts in her colourful autobiography.

Such dotty details serve as an appropriate introduction to Liza Lehmann’s Nonsense Songs that set to music words by Lewis Carroll from his novel Alice in Wonderland. I’ve selected Will you walk a little faster?

Source: Charles Robinson / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

‘Will you walk a little faster?’ said a whiting to a
‘There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s
            treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all
They are waiting on the shingle – will you come
            and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you
            join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you
            join the dance?

‘You can really have no notion how delightful it
            will be,
When they take us up and throw us, with the
            lobsters, out to sea!’
But the snail replied ‘Too far! Too far!’ and gave a
            look askance
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would
            not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would
            not join the dance,
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would
            not join the dance.

‘What matters it how far you go?’ his scaly friend
‘There is another shore, you know, upon the other
The further off from England the nearer is to
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and
            join the dance.
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t  you, will you
            join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t  you, won’t you
            join the dance.’

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)

Will you walk a little faster? (8.557118)


Perttu Haapanen
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

If you think that Carroll’s text couldn’t be any more off kilter, then consider this piece by the Finnish composer Perttu Haapanen, who selected and combined words, sentences and fragments from Alice in Wonderland for his Talescapes. Written in 2008 for unaccompanied male voice choir, it produces a veritable garden of sound with an undergrowth of rather surprising colours and shapes. Here’s the first section of the piece performed by the YL Male Voice Choir, for whom it was written.

What are your shoes done with?
What makes them so shiny?
And what are they made of?
I wonder… (oh dear! my dear! oh dear!)
is… then… (oh dear! oh dear!)
…who will put on your shoes…
else…but… (oh dear!)….
I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dear!
(just in time!)
I wonder what I should be like then?
I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night?
Was I the same when I got up this morning?
(who are you?)
What will become of me?
(who are you?)

Talescapes (ODE1155-2)


Norman Luboff
Source: Norman Luboff Choir / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From that somewhat obtuse take on Lewis Carroll we move to the more familiar ambience of folksong in a work titled Stuff’n Nonsense by the American arranger/publisher/choral director Norman Luboff (1917–1987). In the mid-1940s he moved to New York City and enjoyed a period of enormous artistic accomplishment, writing scores for television programmes and more than eighty motion pictures, while also recording with some of the United States’ most noted artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, and Doris Day. Stuff’n Nonsense sets three traditional songs — Kemo Kimo, Wee Croodin’ Doo and There Was a Frog Lived in a Well. The latter title is sometimes used as a phrase to describe a person who shields themselves from accepting truths in life, but here it’s the traditional nonsense song that rings out:

There was a frog lived in a well
There was a mouse lived in a mill
This frog he would a-wooing ride
With sword and buckler by his side
With a harem-scarem-diddle-um-dare-um

He rode ‘til he came to Mouse’s hall
Where he most tenderly did call
“Oh, mistress Mouse, are you at home?
And if you are oh pray come down”

“My Uncle Rat is not at home.”
“I dare not for my life come down.”
Then Uncle Rat he soon comes home
“And who’s been here since I’ve been gone?”

“Here’s been a fine young gentleman.”
“Who swears he’ll have me if he can.“
Then Uncle Rat gave his consent
And made a handsome settlement

Four partridge pies with season made
Two potted larks and marmalade
Four woodcocks and a venison pie
I would there at that feast were I


There Was a Frog Lived in a Well (ODE884-2)


Hilaire Belloc
Photo: Emil Otto Hoppé / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, we return to music by Liza Lehmann; this time, however, not for a nonsense rhyme but for a setting of one of Hilaire Belloc’s celebrated Cautionary Tales. Lehmann’s Four Cautionary Tales and a Moral were first sung by Clara Butt and her baritone husband Kennerley Rumford at an Albert Hall concert, and I doubt that the fourth song, titled Henry King, was delivered with any more idiosyncrasy and dramatic fate than in our recording, which features Neal Davies accompanied by Steuart Bedford.

Henry King
(Who chewed little bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies)

The chief defect of Henry King,
Was chewing little bits of string.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly knots inside.
Physicians of the utmost fame
Were called at once: but when they came,
They answered, as they took their fees,
‘There is no cure for this disease,
Henry will very soon be dead.’
His parents stood about his bed
Lamenting his untimely death,
When Henry, with his latest breath,
Cried ‘Oh, my friends, be warned by me
That breakfast, dinner, lunch and tea,
Are all the human frame requires…’
With that, the wretched child expires.

(Hilaire Belloc 1870–1953)

Henry King (8.557118)


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