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Griff Rhys Jones and Debra Stephenson delve into nonsense literature, from Anglo-Saxon riddles to limericks by Edward Lear, a poem by Brendel and Lewis Carroll, with music by Bach, Ligeti and Gilbert and Sullivan.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Boxing Day 2017 17:00

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • 00:00

    Daevid Allen

    Crocodile Nonsense Poem (Album: Now is the Happiest Time of Your Life)

    Performer: Daevid Allen.
    • Cube Records.
    • 6.
  • Anonymous

    A Riddle, read by Debra Stephenson

  • Edward Lear

    Limerick (Book of Nonsense), read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:01


    Hum, continued, and Little Nonsense Song & Hum (instrumental) (Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh)

    Performer: Lisa Saffer (soprano), Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre, Oliver Knussen (conductor).
    • EMI 575296-2.
    • 12-13.
  • WM. Davenport Adams

    Nonsense Verses (Extract from By-Ways in Book-Land), read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:03


    The Compleat Virtuoso

    Performer: Bryn Terfel (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano).
    • DG 477 5336.
    • 33.
  • Eliza Lee Follen

    Lines on Nonsense, read by Debra Stephenson

  • 00:06


    The Riddle Song (Album: Black Coffee and Sea Shells)

    Performer: Peggy Lee.
    • Universal-Island Records LImited.
    • 27.
  • 00:10

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    Royal Theme (Musical Offering, BWV.1079)

    Performer: Marc Hantai (traverse flute).
    • ALIA VOX AV9817.
    • 1.
  • Anon Ancient English

    Riddle, read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:11

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    Canon 5, a 2 per Tonos (Musical Offering, BWV.1079)

    Performer: Gottfried von der Goltz (violin), Michael Behringer (harpsichord).
    • HANSSLER CD 92.133.
    • 7.
  • Marie Duval

    Queen Kollikeel the 3/4th read by Debra Stephenson and Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:14

    Erik Satie

    Valse du ‘mysterieux baiser dans l’oeil’ (La Belle Excentrique)

    Performer: Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano).
    • DECCA 4736202.
    • CD2 T33.
  • 00:17

    Leos Janáček

    Bear sat on a Log (Rikadla – Nursery Rhymes)

    Performer: Academie Muzickych Umeni Praha, Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Thierry Fischer (conductor), Boris Berman (piano).
    • CHANDOS 9399.
    • 32.
  • E. E. Cummings

    Untitled [Love is more thicker than forget], read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:19


    Love unrequited..When you're lying awake (Iolanthe Act 2 No.7)

    Performer: Richard Suart (tenor), d’Oyly Carte Opera Orchestra, John Pryce-Jones (conductor).
    • That’s Entertainment CD TER 21188.
    • CD7 T2.
  • Edward Lear

    The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, read by Debra Stephenson

  • 00:24

    Gioachino Rossini

    Duetto buffo di due gatti

    Performer: Elizabeth Soderstrom (soprano), Kerstin Meyer (mezzo-soprano), Jan Eyron (piano).
    • BIS CD 17.
    • 19.
  • Marie Duval

    Prince Mincipince The Only One (A Rare and Choice Collection of Queens & Kings, and other things), read by Debra Stephenson and Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:28

    Quuarendo invenietis Canon 1 a 2 (Musical Offering, BWV.1079)

    • ARCHIV 413 642-2.
    • CD1 T10.
  • Marie Duval

    Prince Mincipince The Only One (A Rare and Choice Collection of Queens & Kings, and other things), read by Debra Stephenson and Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:30

    György Ligeti

    Etude No.4: Fanfare

    Performer: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano).
    • SONY SK62308.
    • 4.
  • Christopher Reid

    La Tartuga (from Nonsense), read by Debra Stephenson

  • Alfred Brendel

    Let’s make sense (from Playing the Human Game), read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:34

    Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats I(The Pied Pipers)

    • EMI.
    • 3.
  • Herman Melville

    Mad Song, read by Debra Stephenson

  • Dr Seuss

    quote on nonsense

  • 00:38

    Rodion Shchedrin

    Concerto for Orchestra No.1 ‘Naughty Limericks’

    Performer: Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev (conductor).
    • DG 471 136-2.
    • 14.
  • Edgar Allan Poe

    An Enigma, read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:46

    Reinhard Goebel & Hajo Bass (violins), Henk Bouman (harpsichord)

    Quuarendo invenietis Canon 2 a 2 (Musical Offering, BWV.1079)

    • ARCHIV 413 642-2.
    • CD1 T11.
  • Anonymous Ancient English

    Riddle, read by Debra Stephenson

  • 00:49

    Anton Webern

    String Quartet Op.28

    Performer: Juilliard String Quartet.
    • SONY S3K45845.
    • CD3 T5.
  • 00:53


    Hum & The Hundred Acre Wood *nocturne) – Piglet meets a Heffalump (Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh)

    Performer: Lisa Saffer (soprano), Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre, Oliver Knussen (conductor).
    • EMI 575296-2.
    • 10-11.
  • Ben Jonson

    Buz, quoth the blue fly (The Masque of Oberon), read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • Marie Duval

    King Hoddi Doddi the 18 hundredth (A Rare and Choice Collection of Queens & Kings, and other things), read by Debra Stephenson and Griff Rhys Jones

  • 00:56


    Finale: Allegro (Toy Symphony)

    Performer: Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, Karl Munchinger (conductor).
    • DECCA 458 595-2.
    • 34.
  • Lewis Carroll

    Alice in Wonderland (extract), read by Debra Stephenson

  • 00:59

    Max Richter

    Tokyo Riddle Song

    Performer: Max Richter.
    • 19.
  • Craig Raine

    A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 01:01

    György Ligeti

    The Lobster Quadrille (Nonsense Madrigals)

    Performer: The King’s Singers.
    • SONY.
    • 6.
  • Anonymous

    Nonsense, read by Debra Stephenson

  • Punch

    Ballad of Bedlam, read by Griff Rhys Jones

  • 01:06


    Finale: Con Spirito, molto vivace (Divertimento Macchiato, Op.99)

    Performer: Hakan Hardenberger (trumpet), Swedish Chamber Orchestra, H.K. Gruber (conductor).
    • BIS 1884.
    • 11.
  • Lewis Carroll

    Jabberwocky, read by Debra Stephenson and Griff Rhys Jones

Producer Note

The rise of the modern nonsense verse, as we typically know it, dates back to 1846, the year in which Edward Lear published The Book of Nonsense, his collection of self-illustrated limericks that he created for the children of the Earl of Derby.   Thereafter, the celebrated nonsense of Lewis Carroll arrived on bookshelves, with the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and also the limericks of Hilaire Belloc and Marie Duval.  These nonsense works are not just humorous or whimsical, but are distinct from other comic verses in that they literally make no sense; they resist any rational interpretation and are often peppered with words that are newly invented for the nonsense cause.  Take the beginning of Lewis Carroll’s Jabbberwocky, perhaps the most famous example of nonsense verse: 


’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.


There are, however, other types of non-sense, which make us look at the realities of life tangentially.  As Dr Seuss says of nonsense, ‘it wakes up the brain cells.  Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.  It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope’.   The Martian literature of the 1970s makes a new sense through its non-sense.  Craig Raine’s poem, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, reports a martian’s observations of Earth in a seemingly nonsensical way that actually does make sense; for example:


Rain is when the earth is television.

It has the property of making colours darker.’


This kind of non-sense has a point, unlike the nonsense of Lear and Carroll, and therefore does make a new kind of sense of things. 

Another form of non-sense, with ancient Anglo-Saxon origins that does ultimately have a point, is the riddle.  These riddles must once have made a cogent point, but their original sense has got lost in the passage of time and they now read as non-sense.

This edition of Words and Music is a celebration of nonsense literature from the enigmatic riddles of Anglo-Saxon English to the classic nonsense verses of Lear and Carroll, including The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, Alice in Wonderland and Jabberwocky, and the Martian literature of the 1970s.  There are also poems and quotations about nonsense by the scholar Davenport Adams, American poet Eliza Lee Follen, the legendary pianist-turned-poet Alfred Brendel, and Dr Seuss.   When I was looking for texts for this programme, I also stumbled across the most delightful set of illustrated limericks by Marie Duval centred on rare kings and queens.  We have King Hoddi Doddi the 18 hundredth, Queen Kollikeel the 3/4th, Prince Mincipince the only One and Princess Winnipins, and I use their limericks as punctuation points throughout the programme. 

There is also much music that is either non-sensical or about nonsense.  Settings of pure nonsense range from Daevid Allen’s Crocodile Nonsense Poem that begins the programme to the gibberish of the Lord Chancellor’s ‘Nightmare Song’ from Iolante and Mairzy Doats sung by The Pied Pipers.  I have also included The Compleat Virtuoso, a setting of Edward Lear by Stanford to comic snatches from Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Lewis Carroll’s Lobster Quadrille from Ligeti’s Nonsense Madrigals, and the tale of a bear sitting on a log, trying to cut his trouser leg, from Janacek’s Rikadla (Nonsense Nursery Rhymes).  Shchedrin’s wildly eccentric-sounding Concerto for Orchestra No.1 is subtitled Naughty Limericks, the rough and inexact usual English translation of Ozorniye chastushki.  A ‘chastushka’ is a specific topical ditty found in Belarussian and Ukrainean folk culture and, as Shchedrin himself explained, “In a chastushka there is always humour, irony and a sharp satire of the status quo, its defenders and the ‘leaders of the people.’  Even such powerful or dreaded names as Marx, Lenin and Stalin have been ridiculed in chastushki.” 

Satie’s nonsensical music is represented in the programme by the ‘waltz of the mysterious kiss in the eye’ from La Belle Excentrique and I have also included Leopold Mozart’s playful Toy Symphony, often attributed to Haydn, and Rossini’s Duetto buffo di due gatti to follow the owl and the pussy-cat as they ‘dance by the light of the moon’.  Knussen’s Hums and Songs of Winnie-the-Pooh match perfectly the opening Lear limerick of the programme about a man who was ‘horribly bored by a bee’, and also Ben Johnson’s ‘Buz, quoth the Blue fly’.

There are plenty of riddles in music too.  Peggy Lee sings The Riddle Song and Max Richter composed Tokyo Riddle Song, but by far the most enigmatic are the riddle canons and puzzle canons of Bach’s Musical Offering.  I have used Bach’s canons as punctuation points throughout the programme in a similar way to how I have used Marie Duval’s regal limericks.  The Thematis Regii (Royal Theme) is introduced just before the first ancient Anglo-Saxon riddle, followed immediately by one of the riddle canons, Canon 5, a 2, per Tonos, which is so-called because it is inscribed ‘Ascendenteque Modulatione ascendat Gloria Regis’ (as the modulation ascends, so may the King’s glory rise’; the theme rises and rises throughout the canon as the glory of the King rises.  The puzzle canons are inscribed Quaerendo inventietis (‘Seek, and ye shall find’), which is a quote from the Sermon on the Mount.  The first of these is used in the programme to join Prince Mincipince and Princess Winnipin together in suitably regal music, and the second is used to introduce my second Anglo-Saxon riddle.  I have also included Webern’s String Quartet Op.28¸which is a reference to the Musical Offering and also to ‘the dear names that lie concealed within't’ of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, An Enigma. 

Elizabeth Arno (producer)



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