Piece of the Week 65: Variations on Old King Cole

Old King Cole is the final movement of my Colchester Suite, written for a youth orchestra in 1982.

There are several nursery rhymes associated with the Essex city of Colchester: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,Humpty Dumpty, and Old King Cole – but only the first of these has an undisputed link, being written by two Colchester sisters, Jane and Ann Taylor, whose statue was recently unveiled in the High Street. Humpty Dumpty is claimed (by Colcestrians at least) to be a large cannon on the city walls which fell to the ground during the Siege of Colchester in 1648, and Old King Cole’s connection with Colchester is even more slender, though it is the best tune.

There are many claims on its origin, but one is that King Coel of Colchester was the father of the Empress Saint Helena (whose statue adorns the top of Colchester’s Moot Hall) and therefore the grandfather of Constantine the Great. But whether that’s true or not, there is no doubt that he was a merry old soul, who called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three!

One of the attractive things about this traditional tune is that it’s cheerful, but in a minor key, and the arresting leap in the first three notes, followed by various climbing and falling sequential patterns (reminiscent of The Grand old Duke of York) make it ideal material for a set of variations, and at the beginning of my version, the various characteristic motifs form a background to a full statement of the tune in the violas and cellos.

The first variation continues the march-like rhythm, but now in a major key, with the woodwind taking up a decorated version of the tune. Variation 2 moves us into a waltz tempo – perhaps King Cole’s daughter Helena is dancing in all her finery in the grand ballroom of the Moot Hall (though this was built about 18 centuries later).  Then a third variation takes us back to the march tempo and various fragments of the tune, which lead us directly into the final section, in which Old King Cole is jubilantly restated at two different speeds at the same time – the original speed in the violins and flutes, and twice as slowly in the bassoons and horns, while the other instruments fill in with extra fragments of the melody. The violins and flutes wait for the bassoons and horns to catch up, and triumphantly all finish together!

My attention was drawn to this song and its Colchester links over forty years ago by the artist and historian John Bensusan-Butt, whose Lexden Road apartment was packed full of Colchester memorabilia and artworks, and I’m so glad that he pointed me in the direction of a melody which had so much potential for development!

There is a digitally produced recording, with visual images here, and there are links to more recordings on the Colchester Suite page, here.