Some people spend their career trying to do important things, and then become famous for one of their most trivial innovations.
So it is with the nineteenth-century English professor of music Ebenezer Prout, who despite making prolific contributions to the theory of music, and writing textbooks on harmony and counterpoint which found a permanent place on the book lists of music students, is most widely remembered for fitting droll words to the main theme of each fugue from Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. Some lyrics were pure invention, others were taken from well-known texts sacred and secular—whatever was sufficiently memorable to make it easy to refer to any one of the fugues by a phrase instead of an anonymous number.
A century later, reading over his coinages reveals a baffling mixture of heavy humour and long-lost cultural references. I've noted the widely-known references by linking and some less familiar ones in footnotes, but I've almost certainly omitted many more—/msg me if you can identify anything I haven't listed.
- He went to town in a hat that made all the people stare.
- John Sebastian Bach sat upon a tack, but he soon got up again with a howl!
- O what a very jolly thing it is to kiss a pretty girl!1
- Broad beans and bacon...(1st countersubject)...make an excellent good dinner for a man who hasn't anything to eat.(2nd countersubject)...with half a pint of stout.
- (Subject) Gin a body meet a body
Comin' through the rye,
(Answer) Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
- He trod upon my corns with heavy boots—I yelled!
- When I get aboard a Channel steamer I begin to feel sick.
- You dirty boy! Just look at your face! Ain't you ashamed?2
- Hallo! Why, what the devil is the matter with the thing?
- Half a dozen dirty little beggar boys are playing with a puppy at the bottom of the street.
- The Bishop of Exeter was a most energetic man.
- The slimy worm was writhing on the footpath.
- Old Abram Brown was plagued with fleas, which caused him great alarm.3
- As I sat at the organ, the wretched blower went and let the wind out.4
- O Isabella Jane! Isabella Jane! Hold your jaw! Don't make such a fuss! Shut up! Here's a pretty row! What's it all about?
- He spent his money, like a stupid ass.5
- Put me in my little bed.6
- How sad our state by nature is! What beastly fools we be!7
- There! I have given too much to the cabman!
- On a bank of mud in the river Nile, upon a summer morning, a little hippopotamus was eating bread and jam.
- A little three-part fugue, which a gentleman named Bach composed, there's a lot of triple counterpoint about it, and it isn't very difficult to play.
- Brethren, the time is short!8
- He went and slept under a bathing-machine at Margate.
- The man was very drunk, as to and fro, from left to right, across the road he staggered.
- Sir Augustus Harris tried to mix a pound of treacle with a pint of castor oil.
- Old Balaam's donkey spoke like an ass.
- O, here's a lark!
- Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle! The cow jumped over the moon!
- To play these fugues through is real jam.
- 'Ark to the sound of the 'oofs of the galloping 'orse! I 'ear 'im comin' up Regent Street at night. (Countersubject:) 'Is 'oofs go 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, on the 'ard 'ighway.9
- Mary, my dear, bring the whiskey and water in—bring the whiskey and water in.
- I went to church last night, and slept all the sermon through.
- I'd like to punch his head...(countersubject:) ...if he gives me any more of his bally cheek.
- As I rode in a penny bus, going to the Mansion House, off came the wheel—down came the bus—all of the passengers fell in a heap on the floor of the rickety thing.
- Needles and pins! Needles and pins! When a man's married his trouble begins.10
- I told you you'd have the stomach-ache if you put such a lot of pepper in your tea.
- Great Scott! What a trouble it is to have to find the words for all these subjects!
- She cut her throat with a paper-knife that had got no handle. (Subject, bar 20:) The wound was broad and deep. (Bar 36:) They called the village doctor in: he put a bit of blotting-paper on her neck.
- The pretty little dickybirds are hopping to and fro upon the gravel walk before the house, and picking up the crumbs.
- Oh, my eye! Oh, my eye! What a precious mess I'm getting into today.
- I passed the night at a wayside inn, and could scarcely sleep a moment for the fleas.
- Two little boys were at play, and the one gave the other a cuff on the head, and the other hit back. (Countersubject:) Their mother sent them both to bed without their tea.
- In the middle of the Hackney Road today I saw a donkey in a fit.
- He that would thrive must rise at five.11
- The noble Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up the hill, and marched them down again.
- O, dear! What shall I do? It's utterly impossible for me to learn this horrid fugue! I give it up! (Countersubject:) It ain't no use! It ain't a bit of good! Not a bit! No, not a bit!, No, not a bit!
- See what ample strides he takes.12
- The wretched old street-singer has his clothes all in tatters, and toes showing through his boots.
References: Footnotes 1,2,4,5,9 apparently identify references to popular songs of the period, and are included in the various copies of this material floating round the Internet, seeming to trace back to Emma Lomax's article Dr Ebenezer Prout—and Bach, Music in Education vol. 23, July–August 1959. The other footnotes are my own.
3Parody of traditional song Old Abram Brown is dead and gone.
5The Prodigal Son
6American song, 1870 by C.A. White, to words by Dexter Smith.
7Parodying a Methodist hymn by Isaac Watts, after Mark 9:24.
How sad our state by nature is!
81 Corinthians 7
Our sin, how deep it stains!
From act II of Acis & Galatea
by G.F. Handel