What is a nursery rhyme?
We all know nursery rhymes. But how did originate? And how have composers used them in pieces of classical music? Here is our guide to this traditional form of singing-storytelling
What is a nursery rhyme?
A nursery rhyme is a traditional, frequently anonymous, song or poem for children. Many tell a story in just a few short lines, made memorable by their clever patterns of sound and rhythm.
How did nursery rhymes originate?
A lot of our best-known nursery rhymes are centuries old, and originated as part of an oral tradition, handed down from generation to generation. However, they only really began to be published in the 18th century, when children’s literature blossomed as a genre in its own right.
Are they meant to be funny?
While some nursery rhymes are designed purely to entertain, others give a moral or educational lesson. Many are intended to help children learn the alphabet and numbers, and support very young children in learning how to speak. Some are ostensibly for children, but have been scrutinised for coded, at times sinister, references to historical events and personalities. As such, they make a useful document of the times in which they were created.
What is the oldest nursery rhyme of all?
It’s hard to know which is oldest nursery rhyme of all, but a French poem numbering the days of the month, similar to ‘Thirty days hath September,’ was recorded as early as the 13th century. Other early examples include ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and 'Ding Dong Bell’, the latter recorded in 1580 by John Lange, the organist of Winchester Cathedral.
And the first published book of nursery rhymes?
The first significant book of nursery rhymes was called Tommy Thumb’s Song, published in London in 1744.
Are the oldest nursery rhymes the most famous?
Not necessarily. Relative late-comers such as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ (published by Ann and Jane Taylor in 1806) and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ (published by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1830) are just as well-known.
How have composers used nursery rhymes used in classical music?
Along with children’s games and story books, many nursery rhymes have found their way into pieces of classical music. Here are just a few examples:
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 1
In the third movement of Mahler's Symphony No. 1, the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler wrote a march based on the song ‘Frère Jacques’ in D minor. The idea was to depict a procession of animals attending a hunter’s funeral.
By using the minor version of this song, rather than the more commonly-heard major, Mahler gives the piece a sombre, funereal character, which is later elbowed out of the way by a raucous klezmer band. It’s an ingeniously biting and satirical spin on this unassuming little nursery rhyme.
Joseph Holbrooke’s Three Blind Mice Variations, Op.37
This quirky little orchestral piece by the early 20th century British composer Joseph Holbrooke was a favourite with Henry Wood, of BBC Proms fame, who frequently used to perform it. Using 'Three Blind Mice' as his starting point, Holbrooke takes us on a whirlwind tour of orchestral colours and moods - from bombast to wistfulness, demonstrating just how much juice there is to be squeezed from such simple melodic material.
Donald Draganski’s 6 Songs on Mother Goose Rhymes
Full of comical, off-beat effects, this set of songs by the contemporary Chicago-based composer Donald Draganski, capitalises on the nonsensical character of the Mother Goose Rhymes, constantly toying with our expectations as listeners. It’s charming, theatrical and totally tongue-in-cheek.
More like this
Richard Rodney Bennett’s Over the Hills and Far Away
Sir Richard Rodney Bennett was a man of many masks - someone who could inhabit the 12-tone system with the same conviction that he brought to his light, accessible miniatures. This endearing 1991 suite for piano duet belongs to the latter category, giving us a refreshing and punchy take on some very familiar nursery rhymes, including ‘Polly put the kettle on’, ‘Rockabye Baby’, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ and ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’.
Bruce Adolphe's Piano Puzzlers
You have to work hard to hear 'London Bridge is Falling Down' in this piano puzzler by the contemporary American composer Bruce Adolphe. But it is there, 'crumbling chromatically', as the composer puts it himself, 'in an unabridged version' of Chopin's much-loved E minor Prelude.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.