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When the Words Go A-Pitterpatter pt. 2

ART TIMES November 2008

In the first part of this essay, we more or less defined a patter song as any song sung at the fastest tempo that still allows for comprehensibility and uses for the most part polysyllabic rhymes. We also noted that the entire song need not be sung at a patter tempo, as in Figaro’s “Se voul ballare” in “The Marriage of Figaro,” which has its patter section only in the last third of the number.

The USE of the patter song is the next step in this examination of the genre. Here, I think working by examples would be useful.

In the first act of Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne,” a rich Brazilian shows up at the train station and announces in a patter tempo, “Je suis Brasilien, j’ai de l’or”(I am Brazilian, I have gold), and so on, slowing down in the middle section by way of contrast (and to give the singer a chance to keep from asphyxiating). Here the patter works in two ways. It establishes his character as devil-may-care (he will spend his gold as quickly as he sings about doing so) and also as impatient to get on with it.

Figaro’s “Largo al factotum” early in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” also establishes his character but without any hint of impatience. Any character who can sing such patter must be a clever fellow indeed, and Figaro is not shy about saying so. So here the patter also shows cleverness and boastfulness. Same patter as in Offenbach, different results!

The Figaro in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is also given a patter section, as stated above, but here it shows his anger at the Count’s disregard of their past good relationship and of the marriage bond. Two numbers later, Don Bartolo has a very similar song with a patter section designed to show his cleverness.

            On the other hand, the Bartolo in the Rossini “Barber” has a long aria with a patter section in which he tells Rosina that she has gone too far and that he will keep her under lock and key until she accedes to his wishes. Somehow—and this might be partly due to the music and partly due to what we know about the character—the effect on the listener is to show what a blustering fool Bartolo is.

Consider. The same patter format in four numbers produces quite different reactions. I wonder if a person not knowing the dramatic context of any of them and hearing them played by orchestra alone could discern cleverness, foolishness or any other characteristic in them. No, it is the lyrics and characterization that complete the process

Patter to portray a character who thinks he is smart and is really a fool is found in Gilbert’s Major-General Song, but in the third stanza (which should begin at a slower tempo, a point missed by too many singers) he cheerfully admits he knows nothing as yet of anything that qualifies him to be a Major-General. (Would that our leaders were so frank!) There is an even better patter song in “Patience” in which the Colonel gives “a receipt for that popular mystery known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon.” He simply takes “all the remarkable people in history and rattle[s] them off to a popular tune.” The flood of names, some familiar, some meaningful only to informed people of Gilbert’s time, delivered in patter tempo does not show character as much as it reveals yet another use of the patter song. It creates a MONTAGE.

This was a device used by Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass.” By giving a long, long list of details, he creates an impression of our seeing them all at the same time, very much like a montage sequence in a film. The same effect is given in “Barnum,” in which the only true patter song in Broadway musicals is delivered by the title character. By listing in patter tempo all the wonders of his show (“Fleas, A tribe of Aborigines, Two ladies joined across the knees…”), Barnum gives the effect of telling us about them not linearly but all at once.

One last most unusual use of the patter song is found in the “Iolanthe” Nightmare Song. Here the effect of the rapid changes by association that seem so natural to a dreamer (read your Freud for details) can be conveyed by a long narrative song delivered in an unvarying patter tempo.

Of course, no consideration of the patter song can omit mention of the great Patter Trio in Gilbert’s “Ruddigore,” in which the singers openly admit that “This particularly rapid unintelligible patter isn’t generally heard—and if it is, it doesn’t matter”!

Note: If any of my readers can spot a true patter song in any Broadway or London musical other than the one in “Barnum,” I would be most appreciative. (“Mad dogs and Englishmen” does not, I think, come from a show.)

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