Died o’ Fright

Schubert’s manuscript of a German Dance in G for piano duet, probably composed in 1818 for the children of Count Esterhazy

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.


“Calico Alley”
(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 —

Dance tunes

The Bluebells o’ Battersea
Pennylope’s Peevy
The Day Before the Day Before May Day
Tapioca Pudding
Galloping Mokes
The Last Slipper

Instrumental compositions
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 …

John Field, composer

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).

Johann Carl Christian Fischer by Gainsborough (National Portrait Gallery): note the oboe or hoboy on the harpsichord

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.

‘A Sunday concert’ by Charles Loraine Smith (of Enderby) published June 4th 1782 © National Portrait Gallery

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.

21 thoughts on “Died o’ Fright

  1. Pingback: Died o’ Fright — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. earthbalm

    Just brilliant Chris. Of all of your posts that I have found entertaining and informative (and that’s every single one) this is my very favourite. I did begin writing a longer comment but I think that says everything. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Entertaining and informative is my kind of raison d’être here, Silvia, so I’m pleased to have been that for both you and Dale! Of course it would mean more if one was familiar with the novel but I was hoping it would at least make some sense to those who’d not yet made its acquaintance. 🙂


      1. Yes, it did make sense. It seems to be a layered book, a book that adults will enjoy as much as children. I wish I had read the series. I can see this has been very meaningful to fans. I wish the admirers of the books on Goodreads got to this.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. No kidding, Chris! Are you seriously pursuing something like it? I think your research merits something else beyond the blog. If nothing else, I’m very glad you have this space for us to enjoy.

            Also, I haven’t explored this option, but at Goodreads there are features for sharing something like these series of posts. A group of sorts, or somewhere where fans of the book may be able to locate the results of your research.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Thanks for the kind words and advice, Silvia. I was enthused by Joan Aiken’s daughter Lizza after I’d shared some thoughts with her via joanaiken.com, and these blog posts seemed a good way to get some ideas out into the public eye.

              I used to belong to a couple of Goodreads groups (and also at LibraryThing.com) but there was nothing specifically dedicated to the Wolves Chronicles that I could see at the time (though there may be now). Anyway, I find the feedback on the blog sufficiently encouraging to pursue my thinking until I get to the end (only five more books to go!).


  3. As ever many thoughts stimulated by your excellent researches!

    News of bears taking advantage of breakdown of government in USA and moving in to clear up rubbish is just like wolves moving into London in our own benighted country, in the era of Dido & Pa, and possibly any time now, with breakdown of our current government…Joan Aiken far-sighted as ever.

    There was a certain Mr Fischer, who might interest you, famous for playing his hautboy in Vauxhall Gardens, and for offering compositions and tuition on this newly fashionable instrument – http://bit.ly/2FwR8P0

    My favourite moment of Dido’s, and of course Joan’s famous last words of the whole Saga, is when she forgives all, and admits that her dreadful Pa’s music has finally saved the day (will leave you to reveal how presently!):

    ‘Pa’s songs! They’ve really come in handy at last!’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lizza, I like to take refuge in dystopian fantasies and alternate histories whenever the mood takes me, but it’s definitely disconcerting when current situations and events start to resemble those fictions—most uncomfortable!

      That nugget of information about J C Fischer is such a helpful clarification, I’ll probably add that detail to the main body of the post (with acknowledgements, of course).

      I’m trying hard not anticipate too much of what’s coming up but in my notes I do have something about Pa’s music and Dido’s final words when the saga ends. So much to say about Joan’s wonderfully imaginative fictions, it’s like I’m perpetually trying to answer the question she must’ve been asked time and time again: Where do your ideas come from? The response must surely be ‘Here, there and everywhere’…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Delighted you took up the reference! Some marvelous illustrations on that link, and this was the music Joan listened to while writing; Handel was top of course, but she loved discovering early Baroque-and-rollers like Hertl & Fasch…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. What eclectic tastes Joan had! I wasn’t a great Baroque fan when at uni so Fasch and Hertl passed me by, but now I shall have to explore further!

          At the moment our local choral society is preparing for a music festival early May featuring Purcell’s Fairy-Queen and Bach’s B minor Mass, thus immersing ourselves in the whole Baroque experience, huzzah! Lucky me gets to accompany rehearsals as well as sing…


  4. This is wonderful. I love being able to trace references to other writing in fiction, and here you are providing me with musical connections…perfect. I’ve got to go look them up for myself, now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Cath! Strangely, this all relates to what you were partly discussing in your last post—I’ve certainly appreciated more about Joan Aiken’s writings through knowing some biographical details, and especially the little snippets that her daughter Lizza reveals!


    1. Ah, you’d have to read the novel to see how apt St James’s Park is for that fatal attack! I’ve played a couple of Field’s nocturnes and they were delightful—easy to see why Chopin was taken with them—though I don’t know what happened to the scores I had, lost (or, more probably, passed on) during one of our moves.


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