The Yonghy Bonghy Bo

for Soprano & Baritone soloists, SATB choir, children's voices SA, brass quintet (2 trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba), percussion (3 players), organ
18 mins.
January 2014

a tragedy, based on the poem by Edward Lear,

Commissioned by JAM and St Davids Festival and first performed at St Davids Festival on May 27th 2014.

Programme notes

Edward Lear’s poem The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò first appeared in 1877 in a collection called Laughable Lyrics.  As in much of his poetry (The Owl and the Pussycat and the Dong with the luminous nose, for example) the “nonsense” surface conceals and conveys poignant human truths. The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò deals with loneliness, love and loss, and is one of the most tragic and beautiful poems in the English language.

My setting, which lasts about 18 minutes, is scored for soprano and baritone solo voices, children’s choir, SATB choir, brass quintet, percussion and organ. There is also a brief solo eruption by a tenor from the chorus, who represents the distant Mr Handel Jones.

In manner and structure the poem is a ballad; but since much of it consists of direct speech by the two protagonists (The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò and Lady Jingly Jones) I have treated it as a drama. The chorus tells the story, singing mainly in unison and octaves so that the words can be clearly heard. The children’s voices portray the sounds of surf on the shore, Bong-trees, pumpkins, forest sounds and clucking fowls; they also point up the narrative.

The location of the poem is distant and exotic. Lear would have known that the Coromandel Coast is the name of the south-eastern tip of India near Pondicherry. The name is a corruption of the Tamil word Cholamandalam – the kingdom of the Chola (a dynasty which ruled this part of India for sixteen centuries from 300 BCE to 1300 CE).

The names Jingly and Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò have a distinctly Indian sound. My suspicion is that Handel Jones (who, I regret to say, was probably a Welshman) had his wicked way with a Coromandel girl, promising her marriage and respectability before leaving her in the lurch and fobbing her off with occasional gifts of poultry. The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò has adored Lady Jingly since their childhood. He can offer none of the material security or social status with which Jones has inveigled her, but his love is as deep as the Indian Ocean which pounds the coast on which they live; and he points out that they could live comfortably because “Fish is plentiful and cheap”. Lady Jingly returns his love, but is bound by propriety to wait for Mr. Jones. In deepest misery, she rejects him with the killer line “Will you please to go away?”. The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò flees in despair, climbs on the back of a friendly turtle, and is swept away into the depths of the ocean, nevermore to be seen – the implication being that he is carried to his death. Lady Jingly remains alone with her hens, forever mourning the loss of her beloved Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò, and waiting in vain for the dastardly Mr. Jones.

The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bò was commissioned by John Armitage Memorial (JAM) and the St. Davids Cathedral Festival, with financial support from PRS for Music Foundation and the Britten-Pears Foundation.