Who Killed Cock Robin? (1995)

For SATB Chorus a cappella   6 minutes

Like so many nursery-rhymes, the deceptively simple surface of Who Killed Cock Robin? covers mysterious depths of disturbing feelings.  Why did the sparrow kill the robin?  He confesses his crime in the first verse, but the rhyme does not say whether he suffers any punishment for it.  As a child, I found his brazen confidence peculiarly unsettling: it has a note of callous horror.  And there is no comfort to be found in the macabre details of the funeral arrangements, each creature claiming its role, dwelling on blood, shroud, coffin and grave.

According to the always-fascinating annotations in Iona and Peter Opie’s marvellous  Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, there is a possibility that the rhyme is a political allegory, referring to the intrigues leading to Robert Walpole’s downfall in 1742; but it may well descend from some early myth.  I prefer this explanation: I like to think that it refers to ancient avian murder.

In setting the rhyme to music, I imagine that it is sung by the birds of the air, who have come looking for Cock Robin, and suddenly come across his dead body.  Their litany of questions combines bird-like and nursery music, becoming more sustained and melodically engaged until the tolling of the bell announces a passage of collective sadness.

Who Killed Cock Robin? was commissioned by the National Youth Choir of Wales for their tenth anniversary in 1995.

Commissioned by the National Youth Choir of Wales

First performance: 24th September 1995, National Youth Choir of Wales, conducted by Simon Halsey, St David's Hall, Cardiff .