Three Limericks

1. There was an Old Man in a Marsh
2. There was an Old Person Whose Tears
3. There was an Old Person of Brussels

TTBB Choir (divisi)


1. There was an Old Man in a Marsh. Video credits (above) : Illumni Men’s Chorale conducted by Micah Bisson at Inaugural VanMan Choral Summit in Vancouver, BC., April 2015

2. There was an Old Person Whose Tears. Video credits (above): Illumni Men’s Chorale conducted by Chris McCafferty at 2015 Seattle Sings Festival

3. There was an Old Person of Brussels. Video credits (above): Illumni Men’s Chorale conducted by Micah Bisson at Inaugural VanMan Choral Summit in Vancouver, BC., April 2015

Recording credit (below): Mvt 1 commissioned & performed by Illumni Men’s Chorale conducted by Scott Kovacs. Mvts 2+3 commissioned & performed by University of Wyoming Singing Statesmen, conducted by Nicole Lamartine.

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1. There was an Old Man in a Marsh

There was an Old Man in a Marsh
Whose manners were futile and harsh;
He sate* on a log, and sang songs to a frog,
That instructive Old Man in a Marsh.

*Sate is an archaic past tense of sit, equivalent to the present-day sat (without the “e”).  Is it also possible that Lear is evoking the other, more common meaning of “sate,” which is to satisfy to the point at which nothing more is required or desired?

from Limericks published in More Nonsense
by Edward Lear (1812–1888)

2. There was an Old Person Whose Tears

There was an old person whose tears
Fell fast for a series of years;
He sat on a rug, and wept into a jug
Which he very soon filled full of tears.

from a collection labeled [Other early limericks from A Book of Nonsense]
by Edward Lear (1812–1888)

3. There was an Old Person of Brussels

There was an Old Person of Brussels
Who lived upon Brandy and Mussels;
When he rushed through the town, he knocked most people down,
Which distressed all the people of Brussels.

from a collection labeled [Extra limericks prepared for More Nonsense]
by Edward Lear (1812–1888)

PROGRAM NOTES (abridged; see score for complete notes)

1. There was an Old Man in a Marsh
This quirky piece is in the following form: ABCAB1/Coda. Section A comprises the first two lines of the limerick, which establishes the character of Lear’s cranky old man, “whose manners were futile and harsh.” In the third line of the limerick, there is a distinct change of mood: all of a sudden the ill-mannered old man is pictured as placidly sitting on a log while he “sang songs to a frog,” a scene I found very endearing and bucolic. This is section B. Here we see the formerly crotchety old man reaching out to a creature with which he had virtually nothing in common (except perhaps the pond). And how did he reach out to the frog? By singing! In order to paint this musical scene I had to ask, “What does a ‘frog song’ sound like?” Rejecting the standard croaks and chirps, I used onomatopoetic words for frog sounds from many different languages. After the full ensemble sets the scene for us narratively, the tenors switch from the role of narrator to the roles of the Old Man (Tenor 2) and the frog (Tenor 1). In my interpretation of this scene, not only does the Old Man sing to the frog, the frog sings back to the Old Man, and they engage in a lovely duet during which they attempt to understand one another by trying out a variety of different frog “languages.” After several exchanges, they soon join together, now understanding one another (Section C) with the first tenors representing both the frog and the Old Man singing together in unity. Eventually they agree on that most iconic of frog sounds: “Ribbit!”, which acts as a transition back to a repetition of Section A, reminding us how much the old man has changed from his formerly crotchety self. Following a brief return of Section B, the Coda presents a musical picture of the entire population of the pond as it mirrors the transformation of the Old Man and the frog from multiple languages to a single language representing unity and understanding.

 2. There was an Old Person Whose Tears
My setting of Edward Lear’s uncharacteristically somber limerick, “There was an Old Person Whose Tears” will no doubt surprise many Lear fans, who are accustomed to his humorous nonsensical limericks, which comprise the vast majority of his output. (For those not familiar with Lear’s work, he is most famous for the poem and illustrations for The Owl and the Pussycat.) As I was planning the full set of Three Limericks for Male Chorus, I decided that the middle movement in the set should be a contrast to the faster and humorous outer movements. When I happened upon the limerick that began “There was an old person whose tears…” I realized that I’d found the right text, and I was moved by its pathos and the stark scene that Lear paints. All I could think of as I read and re-read the poem was the innumerable elderly people around the world who are not cared for adequately, who are warehoused in sub-standard nursing homes, and who are all-too-frequently abused by those who have been put in charge of their care, a most precious responsibility. In response I decided to add a dedication “to the countless number of elderly citizens around the world, who deserve our compassion and care.” On a certain level I want this piece to increase our awareness of and compassion for those elderly members of our society who are isolated and to encourage us to visit them and to care for them. As I was close to finishing this movement, our corner of Washington state experienced a landslide of staggering proportions: millions of cubic feet of mud and debris inundated a neighborhood in Oso, WA. As I was re-reading Lear’s poem, I couldn’t help apply his portrait of inexplicable and endless sadness to this situation in which so many people have lost their dream homes, not to mention the more staggering loss of family members and loved ones. Given the timing of this disaster and its resonance with Lear’s poem, it seemed appropriate to add the following to the dedication: “…and to the victims of the March 2014 landslide in Oso, WA and to their families, friends, and loved ones.”

3. There was an Old Person of Brussels
My setting of Edward Lear’s frenetic limerick, There was an Old Person of Brussels is in the style of a perpetuum mobile, a “perpetual motion” piece, a style of music characterized by an unrelenting rhythmic and melodic movement. Examples abound in music literature, including the well-known folksong rounds such as Frere Jacques and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. One of the most familiar examples from the Classical music repertoire is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.  The perpetual motion in my setting of Lear’s limerick represents the “Old Person of Brussels” himself as “he rushed through the town,” knocking “most people down.” The namesake musical figure (passed between the basses and baritones) has a headlong, reckless, staggering motion, befitting a person who “lived upon Brandy and Mussels.” Over the ostinato of the baritones and basses, the tenors present the lines of Lear’s limerick. Upon singing the text fully through once, the music becomes even more frenetic, with the tenors singing the entire text again, now in double-time. The only let-up in the forward motion is on the repetition of the line “he knocked most people down,” perhaps indicating that the main character in Lear’s limerick might have paused for a moment to survey the mayhem he had wrought, only to resume his seemingly pointless, headlong rush through town. The very pointless nature of his behavior is one of the most effective aspects of Lear’s limerick: at no time in the poem does he provide even a hint of motivation for the main character’s eccentric conduct.

Notes by John Muehleisen