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Music / Who Pays the Piper?

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Who Pays the Piper? is a 45-minute "poem with music" written in 1983 by the British songwriter and musician Richard Stilgoe (who is most famous for collaborating with Andrew Lloyd Webber), and submitted as the BBC's entry to the 1991 Prix Monte-Carlo. The poem is written throughout in iambic pentameter in rhyming couplets, and is interspersed with classical music excerpts, some of which have humorously re-written lyrics. It details parts of the history of Western music, with an emphasis on the dilemmas arising from the business aspects of maintaining the artist. In its definitive realisation, the poem was narrated by Michael Williams, with music provided by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Andrew Greenwood, and several singers including Stilgoe himself.


Tropes featured include:

  • Affectionate Parody: Of a large range of historical figures and musical tropes.
  • Anachronic Order: Played for laughs, and lampshaded. The work presents itself as going through the history of music, but after briefly beginning with an outline of the evolution of Pan's flute music to the music of Olivier Messiaen:
    Somehow I don't trust that scenario:
    In the beginning was no word, no note…
    • And slightly later:
    Again we go too fast – our headlong flight
    Has made us spring too quickly to the Rite. (i.e. Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky)
    Pull back a bit, and give the folks a chance:
    So far we have the rhythm of the dance,
    And simple notes on string, and horn and pipe
    Enough, perhaps, for something of this type. (cue a Brandenberg Concerto from Johann Sebastian Bach)
  • Apocalypse How: Class3b is part of the poem's Bittersweet Ending.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humour: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is referred to as this, ridiculing (and undermining) the very same aristocracy that paid for its production.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Humans burn themselves (and their environment) out while failing to resolve the eternal dilemma of how to maintain the artist with his "mission to explain, that happiness lies in my soul, in me - not cast in chipboard from a chainsawed tree." But on the other hand, music is free and continues forever, even after mankind has gone.
  • Black Comedy: The segment on how composers died - Anton Webern shot by a "nervous GI" while smoking after curfew, Charles Alkan having a bookcase fall on him (this theory is disputed), Ernest Chausson falling off his bicycle, Alexander Scriabin dying from "a septic pimple". The treatment of Jean-Baptiste Lully's death, however, takes the cake: after describing his death from gangrene after striking his foot with a baton during a performance, a light-hearted bar of Delibes pizzicato plays, ending with rhythmically precise "thump merde!"
    • This segment is introduced by a more stealthy example: shortly after a mention of salmonella (as a re-written lyric to Verdi's "Questa o quella"), the narrator says "We must get back to pipers and to pay, not bother when composers passed away, or how!"
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  • Book-Ends: The poem begins and ends with the sound of the wind over the Hindu Kush, respectively before and after the time of humans.
  • Brick Joke: After mentioning how Claudio Monteverdi left Mantua for Venice, it is stated that "That Duke of Mantua's the self-same fella - whom Verdi made perform 'Questa o quella'. Much later in the poem, after it's mentioned that Gioachino Rossini's father was an abattoir health inspector, "Questa o quella" begins playing, with the tenor singing "Salmonella" instead of "Questa o quella", abruptly being cut short ("Now look, all this is getting out of hand; be silent, Duke of Mantua, shut up, band!")
    • Fryderyk Chopin's biography song begins by saying that anyone who comes from his father's hometown of Nancy "must be rather strange". Later in the song, this is recalled in reference to Chopin's attraction to the unusual George Sand.
  • Creation Story: The beginning of the poem plays this for laughs, even taking its cue from The Bible:
    In the beginning was no word, no note.
    No symphonies were heard, and no-one wrote
    Suite number four for alto flute in E.
    There were no flutes, no suites one, two and three.
  • Deadpan Snarker: This tone is adopted throughout the poem; the history of opera, of specific composers and their stories, is treated with the utmost snark.
  • Double Entendre: The Chopin biography song ends with one: "…nobody can expect to become bronzed and healthy, just by lying on the Sand."
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  • Fauns and Satyrs: Pan is the central focus in the beginning of the story, and is credited with first discovering the mechanics of pipes (which he played to "ape the chortling birds"), strings (through the sound of his bowstring), percussion (his heartbeat), and harmonics.
  • Green Aesop: The material near the end of the poem, and especially the rueful re-written lyrics to Villa Lobos' "Bachianos Brazileiras" ("Hear the chainsaws singing in the forests of Brazil…") verge on being this.
  • Lady Looks Like a Dude: The Chopin song says of George Sand that she would "…habitually wear trousers, collar, tie and crew-cut hair."
  • Mid Word Rhyme: The Chopin song rhyms "Berlin" with "Paganin-i", and "cigars" with "trous-ers".
  • Mood Whiplash: The abrupt switch from Mars from 'the planets' to the montage of "Berlin, and blues" counts as this.
  • Patter Song: The biography of Fryderyk Chopin set to the tune of Chopin's Minute Waltz.
  • Shout-Out: To his famous collaborator, Andrew Lloyd Webber:
    Of course there’s freedom in the private sector -
    No self-respecting managing director

    Would ever dare to tell the Sinfonietta

    "Drop Stockhausen – we like Lloyd Webber better".
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Many times, poetic or sophisticated language is juxtaposed with slang for laughs. For example, "Be silent, Duke of Mantua; shut up, band!", or Richard Wagner being called a "jerk".
  • Take That!: Stilgoe's many targets include opera from George Frederic Handel:
    Accompanied by Hanoverian snoring
    for Handel operas, honestly, are boring.
    And unaware that Wagner was a jerk,
    King Ludwig paid, and got this wonderous work.
    • And the pizzicato number from Leo Delibes' Sylvia:
    I know that's by Delibes, and not by Lully,
    but Lully didn't write a tune that silly!
  • Title Drop:
    And there is music's problem, I'm afraid -
    Who pays the piper? For he must be paid.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The segment about composers who died in their thirties. This trope is comically lampshaded through the relevant composers being listed in the form of re-written lyrics to "Dido's Lament" from Henry Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas".

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