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By the way ...

with Richard Graves

8. Roses of Picardy

Lyric writers tend to get a pretty raw deal on the whole. Composers of ballads have a far better chance of being remembered than those who write the words. Take Roses of Picardy for instance. It is still loved and sung today and has indisputably and deservedly become a minor classic in its way. First published in 1916, its soothingly sentimental imagery soon made it one of the most popular of all the ballads inspired by the First World War.

The composer, as most of us might recall, was Haydn Wood (1882-1958) though probably fewer people could name the lyricist. It was in fact Fred Weatherly whose name is to be seen on literally hundreds of music covers dating from the 1880's onwards.

Weatherly (1848-1933) was a man of many parts. Professionally he was first and foremost an eminent barrister. He was also an author of books on logic as well as of a delightful autobiography Piano and Gown (Putnam 1926). His great hobby however was music. He composed a few things himself as well as putting The Londonderry Air into prominence by both arranging the music and providing the words for its reincarnation as Danny Boy. Apart from writing all those ballad lyrics, he was also a minor poet in his own right and published a volume of his own poetry.

Roses of Picardy has always seemed to me to be the ideal fusion of words and music in ballad style. The sentiments of the lyric are fresh and touching, while the tune has immediate appeal and memorability - the verse being particularly lovely. Oddly, though, the partnership of Wood and Weatherly was in this instance totally fortuitous and quite unplanned. Weatherly tells us that he wrote the words originally to fit music which had already been composed by Herbert Brewer. Brewer, later to become Organist of Gloucester Cathedral, was at that time writing a lot of ballads - I treasure a copy of his setting of Rose Fyleman's words with the biologically curious title The Fairies Have Never a Penny to Spend. For some reason the first publishers did not like either the words or music of Picardy and the song was summarily rejected. Weatherly later sent his lyrics to Haydn Wood who eventually produced the version we all know so well. Fortunately, another publisher was quick to accept it. It is difficult to believe that words and music were not conceived as soul mates but it is good that they eventually came together so happily. The original publishers may have made the right decision in the first instance, but I can't help feeling it would be fun to come across the discarded Brewer setting just to see what it was like ...

Copyright © Richard Graves, June 10th 1999

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