Fight the frightening Jabberwock with this entertaining song
We’re turning toward autumn and the stores are filling with pumpkin-flavored everything and Halloween costumes. This either makes you squee with joy or groan with annoyance.
The change in season, however, does give me a chance to chat about holiday music. Many of you are familiar with Lewis Carroll’s (Charles Dodgson) poem “Jabberwocky,” which first appeared in his novel Through the Looking Glass. It’s full of wonderful nonsense words, and parodies English scholarship and heroic poetry.
Today’s focus is favorite of mine — a choral setting by Sam Pottle. Along with doing a lot of songwriting for “Sesame Street,” Pottle co-wrote the theme to the “Muppet Show” – one of the best TV theme songs, ever! I guess that helps explain why I like “Jabberwocky” so much.
(Tangent: if you haven’t seen the Muppet version of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” do it. Now. You’ll thank me.)
Here’s the song to get you started:
Setting the scene
The piano starts with a bouncy accompaniment firmly in the key of E major. The full choir enters soon thereafter, the opening jumps in the melody reminiscent of horn calls signaling a hunt. At 0:17, the women break out into beautiful three-part harmony, followed by the men in unison with the piano, the tonality shifting a bit out of our happy key of E. The choir finishes out the verse with a neat chord progression that brings us back to E (0:25-0:28). At 0:30, did you catch the small “ping” of the triangle? What else might appear throughout the piece?
The second verse takes on a more ominous tone as we hear the first warning about the feared Jabberwock (0:32). While the women’s part at 0:40 is the same cheery bit at in the first verse, the addition of the men’s voices add weight to the words. Descending chromatic lines between the men and women (and the addition of a baby rattle) further warn us of the “frumious Bandersnatch,” with a final severe warning at 0:55. Brrr!
The hero’s journey
We return to the horn-call melody for the third verse, the hero taking up his sword in preparation of battle. This time Pottle changes up the women’s line, keeping the same tonality but changing the melodic content (1:07) and adding a glockenspiel for effect. The men echo the women, both groups coming together in thought at 1:14. They think some more. They finish the verse with what must have been a very profound thought, given the seriousness of the tone at 1:25.
A roll of the tambourine and deep tremolo in the bass notes of the piano warn us that danger is near (1:32). We also shift into C minor, the piano playing a similar, but scarier, version of the original accompaniment. The percussion also shifts – now we hear a drum and cymbal as well as the tambourine.
At 1:38, the men bring a different melody into the fourth verse, one that fits with the menacing tone of the accompaniment. The women join in, the drum accentuating what must be the footfalls of the horrible beast. We hear a modified version of the chormatic theme from the second verse, this one whirling about twice as fast (my guess is that the Jabberwock is twice as scary as the Bandersnatch!).
“One, two! One, two! And through and through the vorpal blade went snicker-snack!” We’re in the heat of battle now (2:03). The percussion (now including a ratchet) starts going crazy. Snicker-snack! Everyone holds a mostly-B♭ major chord, the tremolo E in the left hand of the piano giving what should be a triumphant chord a lot of tension (2:15). The choir cuts off as we hear two beats from the piano and percussion. Then silence.
The piano regroups, continuing in a series of two beats at a time, but softly and on a different chord. The choir comes in softly at 2:27 with the open fourths and fifths we heard during the battle scene. As our hero leaves the scene, he gains strength and energy, taking the motif upward chromatically toward home (2:35).
The hero’s triumphant return
The hero arrives home, both in key (E major) and to his father (2:49). We hear the original piano accompaniment with added percussion. The father’s theme also returns, this time asking if his son was successful (2:54). The women (Mom? Sisters?) are all “Ah!” and “Ooh!” at the tale. Everyone then joins in for the women’s motif, rejoicing that the Jabberwock is no more! At 3:05 we think we’re going back to the chromatic theme, but we don’t. This is a celebration, after all! Whee!
We return to the original theme just as we return to the words of the first verse (3:15). The percussion join in the revelry. Instead of having to warn of the Jabberwock, the group continues to celebrate (3:34) using an effective alteration between C major and E major. The choir and piano belt out heroic-sounding chords as they finish the piece. Ta da!
Whew! After that perilous journey, I believe I’m ready for a nice cup of tea and a crackling fire. Look for my next post around Halloween – I have a great piece picked out for the occasion!