The final (?) post in my exploration of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa.
As a classically-trained musician I have been, as you might expect, intrigued by author Joan Aiken’s rhymes and allusions to tunes and other music in her fiction, particularly her short stories (one collection is called A Harp of Fishbones and a novella even has the title The Song of Mat and Ben). I’m often tempted to set the lyrics that are quoted to music of my own.
In Dido and Pa we have a plethora of song titles and compositions mentioned, all the work of Desmond Twite, Dido’s father: he first appeared in Black Hearts in Battersea as hoboy- or oboe-player Abednego, and when he wasn’t trying to teach Dido the instrument he turns out to also be a prolific composer.
Some of these tunes have been mentioned in earlier instalments of the Wolves Chronicles, others appear here for the first time. What follows is a list of those I have noted in Dido and Pa, with short discussions after.
(This begins with words by Dido, As I went dancing down Calico Alley…)
“Three Herrings for a Ha’penny”
“Raining, Raining all the Day”
“Black Cat Coming Down Stairs”
“Oh, how I’d like to be queen, Pa”
(This last tune had new words put to it by Simon:
Oh, how I’d like to be queen, Pa,
And ride in a kerridge to Kew,
Wearing a gold crinoline, Pa,
And sucking an orange or two
Oh how I’d like to be queen, Pa,
Watching my troops at review
Sucking a ripe tangerine, Pa,
And sporting a sparkler or two
or alternately ending “With slippers of crimson shagreen, Pa, | And all of my underclose [sic] new!” Dido’s father remembered the words as “Oh, how I long to be queen, Pa, | And float in a golden canoe, | Playing a pink mandoline, Pa, | All up the river to Kew!”).
Later on Dido’s sister Penny and her half-sister Is begin singing a couple of songs which may have been composed by their father:
Rum and rhubarb and raisins
Is good when you’re under the weather,
Rum and rhubarb and raisins,
Taken singly or all together …
and then even later
I love little Pussy his coat is so warm
And if I annoy him he’ll chew off my arm …
which you may recall as a rather more gentle nursery rhyme, now parodied.
Desmond Twite is constantly humming tunes to himself, initially inspired by other popular tunes (for example “Tooral-aye-ooral-aye-ingle” and “Simple, simple Simon | Met an apple pieman …”) but they just as often trail off.
Oh, tooral eye ooral eye agony,
Oh pickle a pocket of rye,
If a man can’t find cheer in a flagon, he
Might as well lie down and die.
He takes his inspiration from anywhere — from the Margrave’s physician, for example, with lyrics adapted from the nursery rhyme “Doctor Foster went to Gloucester”:
Dr Finster met a monster,
In the merry month of May —
First he rinsed her, then he minced her
All for half a guinea pay —
The Bluebells o’ Battersea
The Day Before the Day Before May Day
The Last Slipper
attributed to Boris van Bredalbane
A Suite of Tea Music
(includes the last five dance tunes listed above)
Royal Tunnel Music
(includes some of the songs listed above)
Eisengrim Concertos Nos 1 and 2
(no doubt inspired by Bach’s set of six concertos dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, who in reality promptly stored them away)
Bredalbane’s compositions for instrumental ensemble may have been akin to J S Bach’s (as with the Brandenburg Concertos) or to Handel (the Royal Tunnel Music may possibly be inspired by the Water Music suites or Music for the Royal Fireworks). As these would have been in a style no longer fashionable I wonder if instead the Suite of Tea Music might best resemble one of Mozart’s many serenades or divertimenti, perhaps with a touch of Haydn’s propensity for folk tunes or of Schubert’s for catchy melodies.
Lollpoop street games
The lore and language of the orphans of London in Dido and Pa included rhymes and chants which punctuate the plot and perhaps form a commentary on the action, rather in the manner of a Greek chorus. These ditties include:
“Dig a tunnel, sink a mine”
“Arminy, arminy, arminy”
“Bonnie Prince Georgie lies over the water”
“Mingle, mangle, mingle”
“In the reign of King Jim”
“Limbery, limbery, lag, lag, lag”
Many of these rhymes chanted to accompany the street games played by the lollpoops in the courtyard of Bakerloo House are reminiscent of the genuine examples collected by the late Iona Opie: these appeared, for example, in The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) and The Oxford Nursery Rhymes Book (1955), both of which she co-authored with her husband Peter.
Dido is, as we have noted, conflicted by her father. On the one hand he is an untrustworthy sociopath of a parent who is only pleased to see Dido because she could prove of material advantage to him and a means of advancement. On the other he composes such beautiful music and plays the hoboy (from the French hautbois or ‘high-pitched woodwind instrument’) so movingly that he is able to calm and even cure listeners of any malaise or malady.
It’s no real spoiler now to say that he doesn’t survive an attack by wolves in St James Park, London, though it is impossible to say whether, in his confused state, he suffered or merely died of fright. As his daughter’s name was more than once mangled as Died o’ Fright one hpes for his sake it was the latter.
All that was left of him was a trinket from the Margrave and, appropriately, his conductor’s baton. Sic transit gloria musici …
Did Joan Aiken base Dido’s Pa on a historical English composer? Probably not, but if we are looking for a model we might do worse than the Irishman John Field (1782-1837). Best known now as a composer of piano nocturnes and as a concert pianist, he spent much of his life in London, Italy and, finally, Russia (where he died of pneumonia).
From an earlier period we also have Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800) a well-known German composer and oboist popular in London, where he was known to perform in the fashionable Vauxhall Gardens (as Lizza Aiken reminds us).
He published The compleat tutor for the hautboy: containing the best and easiest instructions for learners to obtain a proficiency, to which is added a choice collection of the most celebrated Italian, English and Scotch tunes, also the favourite rondeau perform’d at Vauxhall, by Mr. Fischer, which Dido’s Pa may have been familiar with.
Charles Loraine Smith’s etching and aquatint (1782) of ‘A Sunday concert’ in the National Portrait Gallery, London shows Fischer and friends playing in ensemble, and could resemble Bredalbane’s group performing in formal wear for the Margrave.