Lear’s nonsense songs

lear Lear often refers to his poems as ‘nonsense songs’: he does not distinguish poetry from sung verse. For example, ‘The Quangle Wangle’s Hat’ is ‘an absurd poem or song’. In May 1870 his publisher sent proofs of the ‘Pussey Cat, Kangaroo, and Floppy Fly songs’. Lear refers in his diary to ‘The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò’ as a ‘fooly song’; a few days later it and ‘Mr and Mrs Discobbolos’ are jointly described as ‘ballads’. We know that Lear sang ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ to friends including John Addington Symonds, Franklin Lushington and his family, William Bevan, and Daisy Terry, though Lear’s ‘funny little crooning tune’ for it has sadly been lost. We have only ‘The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy- Bò’ and ‘The Pelican Chorus’ to show us what Lear’s own settings of his nonsense sounded like.

The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy- Bò’

The Pelican Chorus

Several composers set Lear’s work in his lifetime. He gave consent to Mostyn Price’s settings of his limericks, though these are rather weak. Lear was more enthusiastic about two female composers who set his poems to music. His friend Frances Catherine Chattock, a composer of hymns, sang his nonsense songs ‘wonderfully well’ in Lear’s opinion, and she self-published her setting of ‘The Two Old Bachelors’ in 1879. In the 1880s Emily Josephine Troup set ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’, ‘The Duck and the Kangaroo’ and ‘The Daddy Long-Legs and the Fly’; Lear heard them sung and played ‘very nicely’ by Mrs Hassall, the wife of his doctor in San Remo, and thought the latter ‘by no means a commonplace affair’. These musical settings give an idea of how Lear’s circle sang the works—and remind us that they were written with such performance in mind.