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When the Words Go A-Pitterpatter pt. 1

ART TIMES October 2008

The study of word origins is a fascinating one. “Checkmate” ends a chess game because it is really “Shah mat” (king dead) in old Persian. “So long” is what English speakers thought Near Eastern speakers were saying when they said, “Salaam” (peace). And what is “Goodbye” other than a much elided “God be with ye”? So what about the word “patter” in its musical sense?

A “patter song” is usually described as any song that is sung very rapidly—and with any skill on the part of the singer, understandably. Examples are rife, mostly from Italian opera and European operetta; and long lists of such songs are given on several websites, which are linked to “patter songs.”

Wilfred Funk writes that the rapid delivery of the Pater Noster (Our Father) by the impatient faithful who wanted to get on to other pursuits is the origin of the word “patter.” I can easily see the transition. “You sing that as fast as a paternoster” elides into “You sing that like a paternoster,” then into “That is a paternoster song,” and finally by one more elision into “That is a patter song”

Now let us examine some other features of the patter song. In the “Elixir of Love,” Donizetti’s librettist writes an introductory song for the quack Dr. Dulcamara. As he sings the praises of his so-called elixir (it is merely wine in fancy bottles), he rattles off all the victims of diseases it can cure: paralitici, apoplettici, asmatici, asfitci, guarisce, timpanitidi, scrofole, rachitidi. No English translation can quite give the same effect, so I will not try. However, this section is not sung extremely fast, but the Italian words give the impression of speed.

When Gilbert wrote his parody of this opera, calling his “The Sorcerer,” he gave his baritone lines like these with which to grapple: “For he can prophesy with a wink of his eye, Peep with security into futurity, Sum up your history, Clear up a mystery, Humour proclivity, For a nativity…” And so on. Other than the fact that the words are meant to be sung very rapidly, the end words are all polysyllabic and are weak rhymes.

That is, “moon/spoon” is a strong rhyme in that the last syllables of the lines form the rhyme. “Nation/station” is a weak rhyme, because the rhyme comes on the next to last syllable, while “proclivity/nativity” is a double-weak rhyme, because the rhyme falls on the third from last syllable.       

In the Nightmare Song in “Iolanthe,” Gilbert does one better by alternating two strong rhymes with single weak ones: “When you’re lying aWAKE with a dismal headACHE, and repose is taboo’d by anXIety, I suppose you may USE any language you CHOOSE to indulge in without improPRIety.” (Try that for another 50 lines and see if you can manage!)

Another patter song from the early 1800s is Figaro’s introductory song in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” Here the entire song is sung quickly, with the tricky “Ah bravo, Figaro, bravo, bravissimo” middle section sung even faster. Note that since Italian has gender endings, strong rhymes are at a premium and almost all rhymes are weak ones.

Having established that patter songs are sung very quickly and use polysyllabic weak rhymes (polysyllabic strong rhymes are very hard to make up), we can see that many songs listed as patter songs on those patter song websites do not qualify.

Take “When I was a lad” from “HMS Pinafore.” It is never sung particularly fast and its rhyme words are as follows: term/firm, floor/door, carefullee/navee, mark/clark, bland/hand, free/navee. In fact, every rhyme is a strong one. Yet this song always appears in collections of “patter songs.” Among the many that appear in those lists but don’t qualify by my two minimal standards is “When e’er I spoke sarcastic joke” from “Princess Ida,” which is sung at a neat clip but not really at a patter tempo.

What remains, then, is to investigate the uses of the patter song in a musical, other than simply as a way to let the singer show off his vocal gymnastics.

Note: Larry Hart of the legendary Rodgers and Hart team was noted for “tricky” rhymes, even to the extent of ending a line in the middle of a word and starting the next line with the rest of the word. Ira Gershwin comes close.

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