Category Archives: Lyrics

No Small Wonder


Canterbury choir

The Choir of Canterbury Cathedral, 1986. Dr Barry Rose invited me to shoot a series of pictures on the day they recorded the carol. (On ‘LP’.)

Earworm. This, I am told, is the correct name for that annoying scrap of music that insists on ringing in the ears and round and round the brain from the moment you wake in the morning until you fall asleep at night. You cannot stop it. One November morning in 1983 I woke to find I had an earworm. But mine wasn’t music. I am a lyricist, so my earworm was considerate enough to present itself in words. Two words. ‘Small wonder.’

Small wonder small wonder small wonder small wonder – it went on and on throughout the morning, the afternoon, the evening. It was the same the next morning. I had to do something to stop it.

And then I had a bright idea. I was in the middle of writing lyrics for a new collection of Christmas carols. Suppose I wrote one using the words ‘small wonder’? Might that stop it? I began writing. And so the carol No Small Wonder began to emerge. And, yes, the earworm stopped.

I wrote the three short verses about the wonders of the Christmas story. The crowd of singing angels! The strange star seen by the three wise men! The shepherd being told by the angels where the baby, Jesus, could be found! However, all through these three short verses there is a ‘but’. All these wonders were small wonders when you consider the astonishing fact that God himself was coming to Earth as a human being! Over all these lesser wonders came that one truly enormous wonder; no small wonder indeed.

Screen shot 2013-12-18 at 15.45.12

The poem was written. I sent a letter to my dear composer friend, Paul Edwards, enclosing my poem. Paul remembers the day it arrived. He writes:

I well remember Friday 18th November 1983, when the morning post brought Paul’s text beginning, “Small wonder the star. . .  I was on my way to the nearby ‘Washeteria’, so I took the verses and some manuscript paper with me to while away an idle hour. And so it was that No Small Wonder (op. 204) came into being.”

His idyllic composition knocked me out. I had never heard anything quite so lovely. It transformed the words. Not long after it was published by Animus it spread across the country and round the world. Cathedral choirs, small church choirs and choirs of many kinds embraced it. The BBC included it in its televised Christmas 2000 broadcast of carols sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Animus tells me that this earworm-cum-washeteria production has broken their records

NOTE: Some internet references mistakenly refer to it by its first line, ‘Small wonder the star’. but the title remains, No Small Wonder.

Now see and hear the recording made in Paul Edwards’s own church, with Paul himself accompanying.

The Water Poem

Me, I’m a versifier. Give me a subject, any subject within reason, and I’ll write a bit of verse for you that rhymes, has a definite beat and, after you’ve read it, leaves you with something to ponder on. There are limitations, of course. First, I need to know something about the subject. I need time. I need time to think about it, obviously. Then I need time to start getting something on paper or, in my own case, screen.

I need time to get rid of the lot and start again. And when I have finished it for a second time I need time to show it to someone not involved to see how it strikes them. I then need time to start again.

Sometimes, the request is easily met and flowers are strewn in my path. Sometimes I get a blinder that sends me rushing to my room and my comfort blanket and drawing the curtains.

Once, this did happen. Not the comfort blanket bit but certainly the rushing to a small room – I forget which one. The chap on the phone said actually he not only wanted the poem to be on a specific subject, he had to have it by the following weekend.

The specific subject was water. The chap – just one chap – who wanted it was the Speaker for the Sunday service at a rather well-known church, and his subject was Water. And he wanted it to be in the form of a hymn. He wanted words for singing. For singing by the church congregation and the Choir. And set to some already well-known tune.

I could not swear to it but I daresay I slept fitfully that night. And the next. I bubbled and possibly squeaked and was very hard to get on with for several days. Draft followed draft. But I made it; I not only made it but also received a very nice note of thanks from the Speaker.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am preparing you for one day a little while from now when I shall be able to tell you about a brief given to me for a hymn on a subject so utterly un-hymnlike, so foreign to any church congregation anywhere in any kind of church that you can think of, that you will scarcely believe me.

Watch out.

Charles Wesley: two thoughts

I‘m afraid, for this bit of fun, the reader has to know something about Charles Wesley, the English hymnwriter of the 19th century, and in particular his love for – and his extraordinary skill in using – the English language. In his well-loved hymn, ‘O thou who camest from above’ he uses the word ‘inextinguishable’. At first sight it looks unsingable. Then you find that, with absolutely no effort, you’ve just sung it. Wonderful.

Mr Wesley, of hymnnody, King,
Once did a remarkable thing;
    Is six syllablesful
Yet it's awfully easy to sing.

And, in passing:

Charles Wesley liked to use the pun
   But most of all the metaphor;
And managing the two in one
   I’m sure he felt much better for.


words ©paul wigmore 2013

P G Wodehouse, songwriter

I have just read in Robert McCrum’s excellent biography of PG Wodehouse that the master wrote the lyrics of about 250 musical comedy songs for the theatreland of London and New York.  Working with composers like Jerome Kerne he wrote the words of songs like ‘Look for the Silver Lining’, ‘You’re the Top’, ‘Yesterday’, ‘Only a Rose’, ‘My Bill’, songs hummed on the busses and whistled in the streets by people who had heard them only secondhand on radio and recordings. I heard them myself as a young boy  back in the 1930s and you can still hear them nowadays on nostalgic radio shows and TV programmes, as delightfully singable as ever.

On the very rare occasions when someone asks me questions about lyric-writing (chiefly, no doubt, in order to say something about anything) it is usually along the lines of ‘which comes first – the words or the music?’ The answer is, both. I prefer having the tune already in front of me when I begin on the words. I was relieved to read that Wodehouse, too, always preferred the composer to write the tune first, so that he could follow the mood of the music and write words to fit. It means that the words can be written according to the mood of the music, changing from the lighthearted to the solemn, the languorous to the active, at the right points, and welding themselves to the music so that you can’t hear the joins.

To do it the other way round is possible but only if the lyricist has written all verses, each line of each verse, in exactly the same mood as in Verse One. And not mood alone; scansion – regularity of stresses – is vitally important. If the first line of Verse 1 goes, ‘The cat sat on the mat and waited patiently for milk‘, then in the first line of Verse 2 the stressed syllables must come in exactly the same places.

And I have found that, in most cases, that is exactly what eventually happens; the lyricist has to buckle down and write first. The alternative is a luxury seldom enjoyed.