Humpty Dumpty’s Recitation

from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”
(A Message to the Fish)

for SA voices, 2 Speakers, and Piano
(Version for TB voices coming soon!)

Video and Recording will be posted when available

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Humpty Dumpty (lower voice – Spoken):
“As to poetry, you know,” said Humpty Dumpty, stretching out one of his great hands, “I can repeat poetry as well as other folk, if it comes to that —”

Alice (higher voice – Spoken):
“Oh, it needn’t come to that!” Alice hastily said, hoping to keep him from beginning.

Humpty Dumpty (lower voice – Spoken):
“The piece I’m going to repeat,” he went on without noticing her remark, “was written entirely for your amusement.”

Alice (higher voice – Spoken):
Alice felt that in that case she really ought to listen to it, so she sat down, and said “Thank you” rather sadly.

Choir (Sung):
In winter, when the fields are white,
I sing this song for your delight —

In spring, when woods are getting green,
I’ll try and tell you what I mean.

In summer, when the days are long,
Perhaps you’ll understand the song:

In autumn, when the leaves are brown,
Take pen and ink, and write it down.

Alice (higher voice – Spoken over piano):
“I will, if I can remember it so long,” said Alice.

Humpty Dumpty (lower voice – Spoken over piano):
“You needn’t go on making remarks like that,” Humpty Dumpty said: “they’re not sensible, and they put me out.”

Choir (Sung):
I sent a message to the fish:
I told them “This is what I wish.”

The little fishes of the sea,
They sent an answer back to me.

The little fishes’ answer was
“We cannot do it, Sir, because —”


Alice (higher voice – Spoken):
‘I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,’ said Alice.

Humpty Dumpty (lower voice – Spoken):
‘It gets easier further on,’ Humpty Dumpty replied.

Choir (Sung)
I sent to them again to say
“It will be better to obey.”

The fishes answered with a grin,
“Why, what a temper you are in!”

I told them once, I told them twice:
They would not listen to advice.

I took a kettle large and new,
Fit for the deed I had to do.

My heart went hop, my heart went thump;
I filled the kettle at the pump.

Then some one came to me and said,
“The little fishes are in bed.”

I said to him, I said it plain,
“Then you must wake them up again.”

I said it very loud and clear;
I went and shouted in his ear.’

‘But he was very stiff and proud;
He said “You needn’t shout so loud!”

And he was very proud and stiff;
He said “I’d go and wake them, if —”


I took a corkscrew from the shelf:
I went to wake them up myself.

And when I found the door was locked,
I pulled and pushed and kicked and knocked.

And when I found the door was shut,
I tried to turn the handle, but —’


Alice (higher voice – Spoken):
‘Is that all?’ Alice timidly asked.

Choir (Sung):
‘That’s all,’ said Humpty Dumpty. ‘Good-bye.’

from Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (1871)


When Reg Unterseher notified me that I had been selected to compose the 2018 Washington State American Choral Directors Association Summer Institute commission, I wasted no time in letting him know that, regardless of the text we chose for the piece, I wanted it to be humorous because I had spent the previous three years composing works based primarily on very serious texts and subject matter. Not the least amongst them was an oratorio to commemorate the centenary of WWI titled But Who Shall Return Us Our Children – A Kipling Passion. Reg heartily agreed and was very supportive of the idea.

Because the commissioning project was targeted at two-part upper voices and piano, should also work for two-part lower voices, and should be performable by Middle School through adult singers, I had a unique challenge both compositionally and in terms of finding a text that would appeal to the wide ranges of ages. I started by perusing the wonderful treasury of limericks by Edward Lear, whose mostly witty and sometimes moving body of work I had turned to earlier for Three Limericks for TTBB choir. After perusing scores of poems, nothing leapt off the page for this project (although I found several texts for some future projects!). After revisiting the wide range of singers by whom the piece might be sung, my attention turned toward Lewis Carroll—whose works appeal to children and adults alike—which led me ultimately to “Humpty Dumpty’s Recitation” from Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass.

Carroll’s poem is a classic bit of nonsense verse, both surreal and humorous. Knowing that it came from Through the Looking Glass, I decided to read the poem in its original context, which revealed that it was framed by and interspersed with a fair bit of dialog between Humpty Dumpty and Alice that served to amplify both the surreal and the humorous quality of the text. After experimenting with including various excerpts from the spoken dialog in the book, I settled on several passages to use in my setting of the poem.

After a spoken prologue between Humpty Dumpty and Alice, the poem opens with an obtuse caveat in which the Great Egg warns Alice that it might take her a while to understand the poem. This he does by enumerating the seasons of the year, implying that it would take Alice that long to understand the poem. I responded to this change of seasons with music that changes character accordingly. After another brief spoken exchange, Humpty begins the heart of his surreal and nonsensical “message to the fish.”

From this point through the end of the work, various musical themes and motives represent the handful of characters and shifting plot lines in the poem, in particular the rather contentious relationship between the narrator (Humpty Dumpty himself?) and the fish to whom he addresses his admonitions. A third, less well-defined, character (“someone”) is introduced about 2/3 of the way through the poem, and his character’s reticence to help Humpty with the fish serves only to ratchet up the Great Egg’s annoyance with the fish and their lack of willingness to do his bidding. The musical setting also serves to amplify the interruptive structure of the poem by building up to several climaxes that lead nowhere and simply start over in a new direction (classic Lewis Carroll!). The music also reinforces the strangely melodramatic style of the narrative, following the mood of the plot line rather like that of a tongue-in-cheek film soundtrack or incidental music to an absurdist play. It is over-the-top music for an over-the-top narrative, and—I hope—great fun for performers and audiences alike.

Program Notes: Feel free to use excerpts from the information above for your program notes according to whatever you think would most interest and benefit your audience.
John Muehleisen, June 2018


Spoken Dialog: The spoken text is drawn from Chapter 6 of Through the Looking Glass and helps to provide context for the poem and to set up the relationship between Alice and Humpty Dumpty, which is part of the humor of this passage in Carroll’s narrative. Regardless of whether the work is sung by upper or lower voices, the conductor should choose a relatively higher voice (likely from Voice 1 in each ensemble) for the voice of Alice and a relatively lower voice (likely from Voice 2 in each ensemble) for the voice of Humpty Dumpty. It would be most effective to choose singers who have an ability to read dramatically, to act, and who have a sense of theatrical style.

Alternative Notes. In several sections of the work, I have provided alternate notes (smaller noteheads) for Voice 1 in each ensemble as described below.

  • Both Upper and Lower Voice versions:
    • In measure 81, I provided an alternate E in case the high G is out of the range of some or all of the singers. Although the E is presented as an alternate note, singing both the E and G should work fine at this climactic point in the piece.
  • Lower Voices version only:
    • In mm. 33, 35, 40, 47, 50, 55, 65, 74, 76, 81, 83, 90, and 104, I have provided an alternate C (middle C) in Voice 1 in case the lower octave is too low.

“x”-shaped noteheads. In mm. 35 + 37 I used “x”-shaped noteheads to indicate where I want the “-sh” of both “fish” and “wish” placed rhythmically. This notation also indicates that I intend for the “-sh” to be emphasized more than it might if I hadn’t used this notation.