Inventing Edward Lear


These musical pieces and others on this site are performed by the tenor Mark Wilde and soprano Amanda Pitt accompanied by David Owen Norris on piano. I helped to direct the performances. We recorded the songs on a nineteenth-century piano at Chawton House, Hampshire in 2016. Occasionally you can hear the piano pedal squeak, and a very tight schedule meant that we did not have time for re-takes, but these recordings give a lively sense of what an after-dinner performance in a nineteenth-century country house might have sounded like. A thousand thanks to the patient, sensitive musicians who gave their time so generously and to the Russell Trust and the University of St Andrews, which supported the recording project.
First song ↓

1. Isle of Beauty

Thomas Haynes Bayly’s nostalgic parlour song ‘Isle of Beauty, Fare Thee Well!’, also known as ‘Shades of Evening’, describes the experience of someone on a ship who is leaving their beloved island to travel overseas. The music is by Charles Shapland Whitmore. The singer sees the shore receding and bids ‘adieu’ to fondly remembered friends and places. It was a hugely popular number at a time of mass emigration when many could identify with its emotive assertion that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. Edward Lear grew up listening to and singing songs by Thomas Haynes Bayly: he recalled hearing ‘I’d Be a Butterfly’ at parties in his youth, he references ‘Teach, Oh Teach Me to Forget!’, and he would set comic words or illustrations to at least three of Haynes Bayly’s songs: ‘Isle of Beauty’, ‘Oh! No, We Never Mention Her’ and ‘The Mistletoe Bough’. Teenage Lear was already alert to the way in which sentimental drawing-room ballads could be played for tears or for laughs.

2. Turkey Discipline

In Lear’s comic words to the melody of ‘Isle of Beauty, Fare Thee Well!’, horrid turkeys have broken into the kitchen yard and are attacking other birds. The squalling is appalling – and funny. We can hear in ‘Turkey Discipline’, Lear’s early musical sense of the possibilities of counterpointing loud and ludicrous sounds and images with a melody whose recurring lyrical phrases imitate the psychological waves of memory, longing, and lamented loss.

3. Oh! No, We Never Mention Her/Him

This is Thomas Haynes Bayly’s ‘Oh! No, We Never Mention Her’, with music by Henry Rowley Bishop. It can be sung by a man or by a woman; here, Amanda Pitt plays the disappointed lover, accompanied by David Owen Norris on piano. The singer tells of never mentioning her former sweetheart or thinking about his betrayal. In fact, she mentions repeatedly that she never mentions him. The psychological point is obvious: she’s still obsessed with him. (Jazz fans may be reminded of the Hoagy Carmichael number ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’.) Lear learns from the musical methods by which such songs mimic obsessive thought. Musical reprise becomes a means of showing how repressed ideas return, even when one’s words are seemingly telling a different story.

4. Resignation or Baking Day

The young Edward Lear finds Haynes Bayly’s pop songs plum targets for humour. In Lear’s comic words to ‘Oh! No, We Never Mention Her/Him’, the hassle of Baking Day, with its unavoidable loaves, pies and crust, has driven the singer to distraction. It is fruit, rather than a faithless lover, that has given her the pip.

5. The Bride’s Farewell

Lear enjoyed singing or playing ‘The Bride’s Farewell’ sufficiently to copy it into an album of 1829, which he presented to Miss Fraser, one of his drawing pupils. The lyrics are by Miss M. L Beevor and the music by Thomas J. Williams. This song deals with a trembling bride who hesitates on the threshold, anxious that bidding farewell to her family members will deliver her to a bridegroom who might mistreat her. Drama prevails. One thinks of Lear’s later ‘Pelican Chorus’, where the pelican parents lament the loss of their daughter in marriage: ‘we probably never shall see her more’. Leaving and being left are the primal dramas for Lear. ‘Abscence’ (his customary spelling) smacks of people absconding; it is a painful abcess that needs to be lanced.

6 The Nervous Family

Lear sang several comic songs by Jacob Beuler. These performance pieces, which included ‘Tea in the Arbour’ and probably ‘Wery Pekooliar or The Lisping Lover’, would have brought the house down at country house parties, where it was common for guests to sing and play after dinner. Alfred Bagot still recalled Lear singing ‘Tea in the Arbour’ at Blithfield House, forty years after the event. Notably, Lear chooses songs that allow the singer to act. ‘The Nervous Family’, where the singer incorporates an anxious tremolando into his performance, tells of a household where even the cat has the shakes and is frightened at a mouse. The song’s depiction of jumpiness is quite literally hysterical. The tune is a traditional one: ‘Nid, nid, noddin’: Beuler specialised in writing comic and topical lyrics to traditional airs. Lear alters the words to ‘The Nervous Family’, departing from the original in several verses: notably one in which the shaky family goes to church and collapses, and a raucous finale in which, during thunderstorms, the family hides in a closet while each member turns a barrel-organ and Mother beats a drum. It’s a spectacular performance of domestic discord.

7. Tears, Idle Tears

Lear’s friendship with Alfred and Emily Tennyson, whom he met through his companion Franklin Lushington, was formative. Lear published twelve settings of Tennyson’s poems, but we know that he improvised settings to many more of Tennyson’s works including ‘The Lady of Shalott’, ‘In the Garden at Swainston’, ‘The Lotos-Eaters’ and ‘O that ’twere possible’ (from Maud). ‘Tears, Idle Tears’, based on verses from Tennyson’s The Princess, is perhaps the most compelling of Lear’s song settings. Lear succeeds in dramatizing musically the onrush of memory, through rising arpeggios or ‘broken chords’, which were characteristic of Lear’s piano playing. The singer moves from reflecting sadly, in slowly-articulated phrases, on the ‘days that are no more’ to re-experiencing the tempestuous emotional force of images and feelings that he cannot repress. There are at least two kinds of musical tears here: the slow, measured drops that form quietly and the stormy sobs that break out wildly.

8. Turn, Fortune, Turn Thy Wheel!

Turn, Fortune, Turn Thy Wheel!’ is typical of Lear’s settings of Tennyson in that it contains a musical motto-theme or idée fixe: here the sound of the turning treadle of the spinning-wheel is reproduced in the music. Lear may well have borrowed this musical idea from Schubert, who uses it both in the Wiegenlied in Die Schöne Müllerin and, movingly, in ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’. Lear’s wheel of Fate, however, birls more cheerfully here than Schubert’s. This song would not be out of place in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas: compare ‘Braid the Raven Hair’ from The Mikado.

9. Sweet and Low

1. ‘Sweet and Low, Sweet and Low’, another of Lear’s song-settings of Tennyson’s poems, is a cradle song. We can hear the rocking of the cradle in the rhythm of the words and music. Although Lear’s melody is gentle and soothing, the rocking also suggests that of the boat in which the baby’s father has set sail and the possibility that he may not return safely. Loss and reassurance are partners in the plaintive refrain, which begs the wind of the western sea to: ‘blow him again to me’. Try singing the chorus of ‘The Jumblies’ – ‘Far and few, far and few’ – to the melody of this song and the similarity will be obvious. Probably this was the song Lear had in his head when he was writing ‘The Jumblies’, who also sail to the Western Sea. The similarity illuminates the sense in which ‘The Jumblies’ is both a lullaby for children and a lullaby for childhood, full of joyous wish-fulfilment, yet with an undertow of wistfulness: we cannot return to the magical state of infancy, in which nothing is impossible.

10. The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò

‘The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’ is one of only two nonsense songs for which we have Lear’s original music. Many of the others also had music, improvised by Lear at the piano, but his inability to write down his own music meant that the melodies have been lost to posterity. Lear’s familiarity with various musical traditions enables him here to fuse aspects of the sentimental ballad of lost love set in a Romantic landscape, with comic songs in which absurd protagonists lament the fact that they have lost their sweetheart to a tradesman. Lear loved the opera and some draft lines for this poem in which the married Mrs Jingly Jones ‘weeps and warbles lines from Handel’ (as well as the scene in which she ‘twirls her fingers madly’) also suggest the operatic qualities of her predicament. As a married woman, she cannot requite the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’s affections. He is tiny, anyway: more of a button than a beau. Lear’s male figures tend to be castrati innamorati, whose impotence is part of their charm. They can’t be mated. But they can duet. As ever in Lear, pathos and absurdity go hand in hand.

11. The Pelican Chorus

‘The Pelican Chorus’ was, like ‘The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo’ published with its music in Laughable Lyrics (1877), so that children and their families could sing and play it. The landscape is typical of Lear’s word-painting in verse: it contains a palette of nine colours: yellow, brown, purple, ivory, black, scarlet, blue, pea-green and white. It also plays on the aesthetic value of tonality, using ‘dark’, ‘dim’ and ‘twilight’ to evoke the shades of the banks of the Nile where the pelicans dance and sing. The birds are ‘flumpy’, physically awkward, but their ungainliness is touching, connected as it is with the emotional ungainliness of their song.

12. ‘How pleasant to know Mr Lear!’

Lear noted that his poem ‘“How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear!”’ (1879) could be sung to the tune of Thomas Arne’s ‘How Cheerful along the Gay Mead’, from his oratorio The Death of Abel: this melody became a popular hymn tune. Lear’s lines feel different when they are sung. The sense of performance is heightened; the rhymes are jauntier. Irony lurks in the implied contrast between Arne’s hymn of Eve in Eden and a ‘hymn of praise’ to an ageing man. We are invited both to laugh with Lear and to laugh at him. Lear’s personality becomes, like the song, something that can be presented with conscious ambivalence: the conflict between the lyrical and the ridiculous in the character has a specific analogue in the teasing relationship between the music and the words. When we learn that he ‘weeps by the side of the ocean’, the emotional ambush is sudden and striking.