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Tom LEHRER (b. 1928)
The Queen’s Six murder the songs of Tom Lehrer
The Queen’s Six
rec. Ascot Priory, Berkshire, UK, 5-6 February 2021

The songs of the strictly academic American Thomas Lehrer have long held a fascination for audiences in Europe, even more so than in his native land where it may be that his earnest platform demeanour has tended to lead to a disparagement of his exquisite melodic gifts. My late mother was particularly fond of an LP of his songs issued in the 1960s, and when she moved to the Republic of Ireland in 1968 she was particularly distressed when the customs authorities, doubtless attracted by the religious nature of Lehrer’s Vatican Rag, confiscated the record (which was never seen again). However the current disc testifies to the continuing attraction of the composer’s art, and it is pleasing to hear these songs delivered by well-trained voices as opposed to the unfortunately amateurish and self-accompanied composer himself.

The booklet begins by quoting the composer’s own decision in 2020 to surrender his copyright in his songs. It is clear from this that Lehrer is anxious that his music should be presented in the most serious manner possible, and I imagine that he must have welcomed the attention paid to them by a sextet of singers drawn from the Lay Clerks of St George’s Chapel in Windsor, one of the most celebrated royal institutions in the world and a long way distant from the American university glee clubs who have long espoused his music. The arrangements are expertly crafted (many of them by the singers themselves) and only one of the songs requires any accompaniment, where the insouciant accordion playing of Hrólfur Vagnsson admirably transfers the implied location of Poisoning pigeons in the park to the Bois de Boulogne.

Apart from the heartfelt tribute to the muse of Sir Arthur Sullivan in the tongue-twisting The elements, the patter extraordinarily and bravely undertaken here by two singers in unison, many other of the songs on this disc bear witness to the composer’s heartfelt tribute to the soul of the American psyche in the post-War era. The heart-wrenching lyrics of She’s my girl and The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz are given their full pathetic measure, and the overtones of Franz Lehár in the latter are expertly realised as much as the echoes of Piazzolla in The Masochism Tango and Scott Joplin in The Vatican Rag (neither of them composers at all familiar in the 1950s and 1960s, and thus furnishing evidence for Lehrer’s often overlooked modernist credentials).

The words are given in full in the booklet, which brings out some of the meaningful emphases in the text which might perhaps have otherwise been subsumed in the expertly smooth delivery of the singers. We are also given some additional material to flesh out some of the period references – a quotation from Mahler’s First Symphony to headline Alma, and some imitation plainchant to launch The Vatican Rag. And the highlight of the disc has to be that paean to the power of love I got it from Agnes where even the lamentable and undeserved fate of Daniel’s pet dog brings tears to the eyes in the penultimate verse.

The only possible criticism that might be levelled at this revelatory disc is its short duration – none of Lehrer’s songs are very long and, even with the Mahler quotation added here, Alma (the most extended) hardly exceeds four minutes in duration. Lehrer’s song output, like that of Henri Duparc, is not extensive – the composer’s reaction to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger was no less fatal to the his muse than the artistic crisis of self-confidence that afflicted Duparc – and one might have regretted the omission of further material such as his quintessential tribute to the lifestyle of the Irish peasantry in the form of the Irish Ballad or the American South in I want to go back to Dixie, although even here we are vouchsafed some compensation in My home town, a vision of American rural life which forms a headlong challenge to that of Barber’s Knoxville. A more extensive conspectus of Lehrer’s output was perhaps provided by the ‘soundtrack’ of the 1980s London revue Tomfoolery (with Robin Ray a somewhat unexpected exponent of some of the material) and of course the composer’s own recordings have a historical interest although some of the later songs have been difficult to obtain in the past. The composer has given permission for notes on the songs in the booklet to be provided from his introductions to his own live performances.
Those who love the music of Thomas Lehrer cannot help but succumb to the charms of this disc, which is a thoroughly worthy successor to the recordings by these singers of more expected repertory. I note with pleasure that the disc acknowledges the assistance of (among others) the Trustees of Ascot Priory and the Dean and Canons of Windsor; and the cover illustration by Paul Taylor, depicting the composer in the guise of a pigeon poisoned with cyanide-laced peanuts before the façade of Windsor Castle, strikes just the right note.

Paul Corfield Godfrey
The Masochism Tango: Oedipus Rex: Poisoning pigeons in the park: Pollution: She’s my girl: The Elements: The Wiener Schnitzel Waltz: My home town: I got it from Agnes: Alma: The Vatican Rag: We will all go together when we go

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