In the recent production of Don Pasquale by the Metropolitan Opera, John Del Carlo (Don Pasquale) and Mariusz Kwiecien (Doctor Malatesta) delighted the audience when they sang the famous patter song, “Cheti Cheti Immantinente.” Their rapid-fire delivery of the multisyllabic lyrics was everything a patter song should be: impressively, breathtakingly fast, yet precisely articulated–and funny.
The opera’s creator, Gaetano Donizetti, was in good musical company when he ramped up the humor with the clever setting of his lyrics to impossibly fast-paced music; Mozart had used such tricks in his opera The Marriage of Figaro (“La Vendetta”), and Rossini carried on the tradition in The Barber of Seville (“Largo al Factotum,” more popularly known as “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro”).
The patter song continued to be popular in comic opera, especially in the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan in the late nineteenth century. William S. Gilbert, said to be a fan of Don Pasquale, wrote clever lyrics to the music of Arthur Sullivan in these highly entertaining pieces of music. In my high school we did several of their operettas. I was a Lovesick Maiden in Patience and a sailor in H.M.S. Pinafore ( girls’ school). Here is a sample of patter-song lyrics from”A Heavy Dragoon” in Patience:
“If you want a receipt for that popular mystery,
known to the world as a Heavy Dragoon,
take all the remarkable people in history,
rattle them off to a popular tune!
The pluck of Lord Nelson on board of the Victory,
genius of Bismarck devising a plan;
the humour of Fielding (which sounds contradictory) –
coolness of Paget about to trepan. . . .”
With the British history and literary reference here; you really need footnotes. I like the sophisticated style, clever rhyming, and unexpected parenthetical note.
In another song from Patience, in which a very attractive young poet is being auctioned off, we sang these words:
“Come step up and purchase with avidity,
Overcome your diffidence and natural timidity;
Tickets for the raffle should be purchased with rapidity,
Such an opportunity may not occur again!”
You have to be paying attention to do this well!
Another witty Gilbert and Sullivan tune, this one from Ruddigore, served as the model for a song in the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. First, some of the lyrics from the original, “My Eyes Are Fully Open to My Awful Situation”:
“This particularly rapid, unintelligible patter
Isn’t generally heard, and if it is it doesn’t matter.”
Then, a century or so later, a boss interviewing a potential secretary sings this in Millie:
“So if you can make sense of my unintelligible patter,
Then the job is yours and Hudson’s Floor Wax doesn’t matter.”
The patter song continues to figure as an important component of the musical. These lyrics from TheMusic Man‘s “Ya Got Trouble” have delighted audiences for quite a while now:
“Well, either you’re closing your eyes to a situation
You do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a pool table here in your community.
Ya got trouble, my friend, right here
I say trouble right here in River City.”
That’s quite a mouthful, and it goes on, as you probably know, and is so much fun to listen to. There’s the pleasure of wondering what the next rhyme is going to be, along with the excitement of wondering whether the singer is going to make it all the way through without a mistake.
And patter continues to matter in musicals. Lionel Bart’s “Reviewing the Situation” from Oliver! gets faster and more complicated as it progresses. Stephen Sondheim in “(Not) Getting Married” from Company! has the bride Amy follow a lovely sequence of church music with this nervous riff:
“Thank you all
For the gifts and the flowers,
Thank you all,
Now it’s back to the showers,
Don’t tell Paul,
But I’m not getting married today.”
Onward to the recent popular music of R.E.M. If these lines from “The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” don’t qualify as patter, I don’t know what does:
“. . . You vitriolic,
Patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty
It’s the end of the world as we know it. . . .”
I won’t quote Bob Dylan now, but certainly some of his image-crowded, oddly poetic lines qualify too.
More recently, some rap and hip-hop artists might be called the newest practitioners of the patter tradition. Here’s the You Tube singer and award-winning comedian Bo Burnham, with his “I’m Bo Yo”:
“Now I don’t know
if all boy scouts are gays;
they can probably tie the knot
in like fifty different ways.”
A lot more current, and a little more offensive than Gilbert and Sullivan, this Bo does use surprising, often clever rhymes, and he entertains people with his edgy humor.
Patter is alive and well in a variety of musical forms, and we can thank the old masters for starting it all.
See also: Coming Soon to a Movie Theater Near You: The Metropolitan Opera