‘A Pastoral Song’ (Hob. XXVIa:27) (1794)

Cecily Lock, June 2005

‘A Pastoral Song’, set in strophic form, is the third of Haydn’s ‘Six Original Canzonettas’ published by Corri, Dussek and Company in London in 1794. Better known by its opening line ‘My mother bids me bind my hair’it is the most famous of Haydn’s English canzonettas and was made particularly popular in the nineteenth century by the famous soprano Jenny Lind.

My Mother bids me bind my hair
With bands of rosey hue,
Tye up my Sleeves with ribbands rare
And lace my Boddice blue.

 For why, she cries, sit still and weep
While others dance and play.
Alas! I scarce can go or cree
While Lubin is away.

‘Tis sad to think the days are gone,
When those we love were near;
I sit upon this mossy stone
And sigh! when none can hear.

And while I spin my Flaxen thread
And Sing my simple lay,
The Village seems asleep or dead,
Now Lubin is away.

The text is by Anne Hunter (1742-1821), the widow of the famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) who, from 1783, lived in Leicester Square, London. According to Haydn’s early biographers Dies and Griesinger, Dr. Hunter offered to remove a nose polyp that had been bothering the composer for some time. However, when Haydn went to see the doctor in 1792 (during the composer’s first visit to London) neither the latter nor his assistants could persuade Haydn to undergo the operation. Mrs. Hunter herself seems to have been a well-educated and sociable woman, organizing regular get-togethers for discussion of music and literature. She established an enviable reputation as a poetess, and succeeded in having a large number of her works published.

The surprisingly cheerful musical setting of ‘A Pastoral Song’ forms a strong contrast with the sad words of the poem. The lively piano accompaniment, with its intricate rhythmic figurations, melodic curves and inner voices, seems to suggest the ‘dance and play’ described by the unhappy protagonist. Only in a few places, such as the 6th bar of the piano introduction (where the harmonic colour briefly darkens) or bars 22-24 (the expressive descending chromatic line), does Haydn let any sign of melancholy shine through into the music. With its touching words, memorable tune and carefully written piano part, ‘A Pastoral Song’ is sure to remain a favourite among singers, accompanists and audiences alike.