Hearing Lear’s music can attune us to the lyricism inherent in all his work. It can also help us to understand the importance of musical influences on his techniques as a singer-songwriter. Lear was a life-long performer. His vocal performance of both comic songs and sentimental ballads informs his nonsense songs, which so often ply a subtle line between pathos and absurdity, revealing one in the other.
Lear was an accomplished pianist, a skill he learned from his sister Sarah. He also played the small guitar (taught him by sister Ann), the accordion, and the flute. His skill at singing meant that even as a boy he was sent to ‘artists’ parties’ to entertain the crowd. At one party he met the painter Turner, who himself was singing a tiddly song, rather out of tune. The young Lear heard Paganini play and went to the opera to hear Bellini sung by artistes such as the dramatic mezzo-soprano Maria Malibran. Later, he would enjoy recitals of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Chopin at friends’ houses and both hear and meet the famous soprano Jenny Lind.
Lear collected songs. He wrote down Welsh, Irish and Scots folk ballads that moved him. He sang the songs of Robert Burns and of Thomas Moore, which remained standards in his repertoire until his death: so well known that Lear usually misquotes – or, looked at another way, riffs on – Moore’s lyrics. His repertoire also contained several songs by Thomas Haynes Bayly, and many comic songs, by writers including Jacob Beuler and Thomas Hudson. Performing songs regularly for after-dinner entertainments at friends’ houses, in hotels, and even on board a ship to India, Lear knew how to play to an audience, soliciting emotional engagement, laughter, sympathy. His understanding of the musical dynamics of song is everywhere apparent in his nonsense verses, which he frequently sang, and which often suggest the possibility of a duet or chorus: their musicality is key to the social pleasure they evoke, even when that pleasure is evanescent or elusive.