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Three Nursery Rhymes with Questionable Themes (2013)
for Soprano and Flute
Commissioned by soprano
Samantha Leibowitz and flautist Annie Gordon
Click here to view score

I. Naughty Baby

II. Two Little Blackbirds

III. The Little Guinea-Pig

Performed on April 10, 2014 at the University of Texas at Austin

Pasted Graphic 1 I. Naughty baby
Pasted Graphic 1 II. Two Little Blackbirds
Pasted Graphic 1 III. The Little Guinea-Pig
Performed on February 21, 2014 in Pittsburg, PA

The earliest English nursery rhymes, published in collections in the mid-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sometimes don’t have the same uplifting or child-friendly nature one might associate with the genre. Some of the more common adult themes include drunkenness, violence, and death. As I read through these collections, it struck me as strange that these poems were actually intended for children.

In Naughty Baby, each performer plays a different character; the soprano is the mother, singing a sweet and concerned lullaby, while the flute is the noisy and often dissonant baby. On the surface, the text is rather dark. The mother explains to her baby that if he doesn’t quiet down, he’ll be eaten – which, of course, is just a lie that becomes more and more embellished.

The second nursery rhyme presents a peaceful outdoor scene with “two blackbirds sitting in a tree,” which takes a sudden and brutal turn in the very last line. Throughout the song, the flute is used to paint the flow of water, the sound of birds, and the speaker’s thoughts and actions.

The final poem describes the very plain life of a guinea pig. Line-to-line, it doesn’t make sense most of the time; the poem seems to wander without any real meaning. The music reflects this in its simplistic and repetitive nature. The story ends abruptly with the guinea pig dying for no particular reason.



Naughty Baby

Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't,
Every day on naughty people.
Baby, baby, if he hears you
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you,
Just as pussy tears a mouse.
And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you into pap,
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel snap, snap, snap.


Two Little Blackbirds

As I went over the water,
The water went over me.
I saw two little blackbirds sitting on a tree:
The one called me a rascal,
The other called me a thief;
I took up my little black stick,
And knocked out all their teeth.


The Little Guinea-Pig

There was a little Guinea-pig,
Who, being little, was not big,
He always walked upon his feet,
And never fasted when he eat.

When from a place he ran away.
He never at that place did stay;
And while he ran, as I am told,
He ne'er stood still for young or old.

He often squeak'd and sometimes vi'lent,
And when he squeak'd he ne'er was silent
Though ne'er instructed by a cat,
He knew a mouse was not a rat.

One day, as I am certified,
He took a whim and fairly died;
And, as I'm told by men of sense,
He never has been living since.