The Master of the Tricky Lyric, W.S. Gilbert
Some time ago I was giving a seminar on the history of the American operetta and I thought it would be a Good Thing if I typed out the lyrics and ran off copies for my senior citizens. In doing so, one thing impressed me greatly: the utter banality of the words that composers like Victor Herbert had to set to music.
There was an episode on “The Avengers” (one with Emma Peel, not Captain America) in which a publisher of romances had a machine into which you simply punched buttons that plugged stock situations into a computer and the end result was a novel. Many of the lyrics I encountered seemed to be drawn from a boxful of clichés that were merely shuffled and reshuffled. All of which, I suppose, was okay, since the lovers in one operetta could not be distinguished from those in most others.
Example from “The Desert Song”:
Why waste your time in vague romancing
When life itself is at your call?
I come to you, my heart advancing.
Oh, come to me and be my all.
One from “The Red Mill”:
Only because you are you, dear.
Not that you are fair, dear,
Not that you are true.
Not your golden hair, dear,
Not your eyes of blue, etc.
Of course these horrible examples can be multiplied ad nauseam. But to be fair, so could many fairly clever lyrics that are found in the satirical (usually anti-feminist) songs of the period. But the great majority of songs from early musicals have lyrics that would have given a D to any student in a poetry writing class; and the reason for this situation is the same as that for today’s television fare: (1) the public did not demand any better and (2) it is simpler to write poor stuff than good stuff.
Now in 1878 something called “HMS Pinafore” happened in London that got people very excited. Here was a work in which the music was superb and the lyrics were actually intelligent, clever, and amusing all at once! Now the team of Gilbert and Sullivan had already created three works before this, but “Pinafore” was the first to reach these colonial shores and the theatergoers went wild. In New York City alone there were about 10 productions in competition with one another, all using pirated scores that had been hastily jotted down in London by agents from America in those days before international copyright agreements had been achieved.
Did you ever notice in most composer-writer teams, the composer always comes first? Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, for example. In fact who can really name off the cuff the lyricist for any given Romberg musical? I know that P.G. Wodehouse did the lyrics for several Kern shows in 1917 and thereabouts. But I could not tell you for certain who wrote the lyrics for (say) “Sally” or “Sitting Pretty.”
Now a lyric can be “clever” in what it says and how it says it. “Tea for two and two for tea” is not a very profound remark but its beautiful symmetry makes it clever in one sense. “When I’m not with the girl I love I love the girl I’m near” is even better though less palindromic. On the other hand, the rhymes with the lines I have not quoted are nothing special.
Except in the lyrics of the few writers being considered in this series of articles, you can go far and wide before finding any truly clever rhyme in American lyrics. On the London stage, however, Sullivan had words like this in the non-Gilbert “Cox and Box”:
My master is punctual always in business
Unpunctuality even slight is in his
Eyes such a crime that my showing my phiz in his
Shop I thought there’d be the devil to pay.
Not only do we get a triplet, but also the single word “business” is rhymed with three monosyllabic words in the next two lines. On top of that, Larry Hart is anticipated by several decades in that the rhyme words are broken off from the words to which they grammatically belong, thereby increasing the humor even more.
The miracle is what wonderful music was set to even the low-grade lyrics in so many of the operettas that have remained favorites because of the memorable melodies, certainly not because of the words. In fact Romberg boasted that he never cared what words were set to his music. (“Who knows for lyrics?” was his remark.) And that alone brings out a very interesting fact. Many if not most composers wrote the music before the words. The lyricists then were duty-bound to match their meters and moods to already existing notes. Note too that the great teams, especially the two with Rodgers as composer, were not so rigid in their collaboration: sometimes a musical idea would present itself, sometimes a verbal one. And of course, composers like Berlin and Porter, who wrote both music and lyrics, had no such problems!
[Notice that just about every other composer-lyricist team are referred to in that order: George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and so on. But with Sullivan and Gilbert, they are forever Gilbert and Sullivan. Strange.]
On the other hand, only on one occasion did Gilbert ask Sullivan to write the music first, but that was for a quick revision of the finale of their penultimate work. In all other cases, the words came before Sullivan’s music.
So it would be a valuable thing to examine the lyrics of the man who began it all, and now we shall examine the tricky lyrics of William S. Gilbert.
During a televised colloquy of funnymen, Milton Berle brought up the difference between a “comic” and a “comedian.” The first, he explained, says funny things while the latter says things funny. Gilbert, of course, did both. No one before him had turned out such intricate rhymes to better comic effect; and almost always the humor of Sullivan’s music kept in step with the librettist.
Their earliest collaboration was “Thespis,” in which Gilbert was already dealing out such “weak” rhymes as “function-junction/exceeding-breeding/Directors-inspectors/fivers-drivers/compunction-unction-function-junction” in a single stanza of a patter song. [In case your English 1 is far behind you, a “strong” rhyme comes on the last syllable as in “today-replay” while a “weak” one comes on an earlier syllable as in any of the above examples.]
“The Sorcerer” was a spoof of “The Elixir of Love” and had to contain a patter song to match that of the quack in the Donizetti work. Now since Italian has more vowels per linear foot than does English, very weak rhymes were called for. As witness this:
Such is his knowledge he
Isn’t the man to require an apology!
Many times, Gilbert will set himself a challenge and rhyme where no man had rhymed before. For example, in “The Mikado” he forces himself to find rhymes for “executioner” in Pooh-Bah’s Act I song. So Nanki-Poo is called a “very imperfect ablutioner” (which rhymes but makes little sense), Pooh-Bah calls himself “Of your pleasure a diminutioner,” and ends by advising “so you shun her!”
And witness how he rhymes proper nouns in the Major-General’s Song and the “Private Dragoon” numbers, which are too long to quote here.
When he does use strong rhymes (and how can one avoid them?), he will often make a triplet in a single line as when Pooh-Bah sings “Now though you’d have said that head was dead.” Or he will alternate two strong with two weak as in the Nightmare song:
When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache and repose
is taboo’d by anxiety,
I conceive you may use any language you choose to indulge in
In “The Grand Duke,” a most inferior libretto compared to what has gone before, he rhymes “lowest” with “ghoest” and compounds the groaner with the explanation
When exigence of rhyme compels
Orthography forgoes her spells
And “ghost” is written “ghoest.”
Getting back to “The Mikado,” Gilbert gives us one of the greatest tongue-twisting alliterations of all times:
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock,
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock,
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!
Possibly one of his happiest thoughts is a seldom quoted song from “Patience” in which the titular heroine claims she never loved except in babyhood and “He was a little boy.” Her confidante insists that “He WAS a little boy”; to which Patience replies that “He was a LITTLE boy”; to which the friend retorts that nevertheless “He was a little BOY”–proving how the same sentence can mean so many different things depending on the accent.
One typical Gilbertian trick is to prove one thing in one stanza and to prove quite the opposite in the next. In “Princess Ida,” the tenor wonders how he was twice the age of his intended when they were betrothed at ages 2 and 1 respectively, and now that he is 22 “she has gained upon me since.” In “Patience,” Lady Jane manages to convince us how the ravages of time will result in “little will be left of me in the coming by and by” while at the same time her spreading shape will result in “too much of me in the coming by and by.” The funny thing is that both cases seem quite valid.
For once, in “The Yeomen of the Guard,” this antithesis is used seriously as a prisoner condemned to die ponders that if life is a “boon” we should be glad to live even one extra day, while if life is a thorn we should be content to leave it as soon as possible.
But when he seems at his most serious, you can never quite be sure if his tongue isn’t firmly in his cheek. When he has the chorus exclaim, “He is an Englishman” and praise him for not choosing to be “a French, a Turk, or Proosian,” it might take us a moment to realize how silly some real patriotic songs are if analyzed semantically. In fact, in his salute to the English Girl in “Utopia” it is still being debated whether he is praising her or … heaven knows what Gilbert might have had in mind.
At any rate, I would need a book to really do a thorough job on the subject. But when you see what the other Masters of the Tricky Lyric have done in the decades after Gilbert, you will clearly see the influence of this Victorian innovator.