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Monastic secret

31 May 2013


IN THE world of children's stories and nursery rhymes, there is no such thing as innocence. What is left of a fairy tale once the cultural historians and Freudians have picked at it, the linguists and educational psychologists have a go at, such that even the unselfconscious babble of the infant becomes an expression of sociologically informed prejudice.

A fine example of this analytical dismemberment came in Twenty Minutes: Are you sleeping, Brother John? (Radio 3, Thursday of last week) in which Peggy Reynolds set out to discover the secret of the song "Frère Jacques". Who was he, and why do people around the world sing about him? To this end, we heard from a folklorist, a neuroscientist, and some tuneful Dominican friars, among others.

Origins first. The sensible money goes on the theory that it was a satirical song, ribbing the Dominicans (or Jacobins) for their laziness. For those who are ill-disposed towards the obvious answer, there is the theory that it refers to a 17th-century surgeon and fake friar who performed largely unsuccessful bladder operations.

But then there is the issue of its simple melody, which apparently has something to do with the way children perceive harmony and melody as a patterned whole; and the linguistic unity of the song across different cultures, which bears witness to humanity's shared enthusiasm for something called "ablaut reduplication" ("Ding, dang, dong", etc.)

All of this could be true. There may be something archetypal in the song that encourages people to reinvent it as political satire or protest song. We heard some obscene versions intoned by French schoolchildren. But none of it acknowledges our propensity for nonsense and vulgarity. Whatever the song, the childish mind will invent new and subversive words. I wouldn't be surprised if "Frère Jacques" originated in just this way, as a didactic tune, set to new words by some cheeky schoolboys.

Schoolboy cheekiness was evident in at least one anecdote from Choristers of the Coronation (Radio 4, Saturday), in which veterans of the service 60 years ago recounted their experiences. Rehearsing for a month at the Royal School of Church Music's HQ in Croydon, a group of boys found time to earn some money on the side by caddying at the neighbouring golf course.

The recollections were populated by pillow fights and barley sugars; but, for all the expressions of gratitude for the experience, this account of chorister life in the early 1950s gave me a sense of relief that things have changed. Tyrannical choirmasters and endless rehearsals - none of this would be allowed any more.

A very different choral culture was explored in Creating Pitch-Perfect (Radio 4, Monday of last week), which looked at the Auto-Tune technology that makes singing stars out of the tuneless. One spokesman justified it by saying that, throughout history, we have always manipulated vocal acoustics - witness the medieval cathed- ral. But a more honest view came from a record-industry executive, who admitted that, before, he had to find good singers; now, he just had to find good-looking singers.

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