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Commentary by Derek B. Scott

“The Mistletoe Bough” (c. 1830) is a parlour song sung by Derek B. Scott to his own accompaniment, with lyrics by Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839) and music by Henry Rowley Bishop (1787-1856).

The story of the song is taken from the poem “Ginevra” by Samuel Rogers (1763–1855), but Bayly relocates the legend from a palace in Modena, Italy, to an unnamed British castle. A young bride suggests a game of hide-and-seek, but when she climbs into an old oak chest, the lid slams shut, and she is not found until many years later – as a mouldering form in a bridal wreath. It can be readily surmised how this tale might prove useful as a warning to children beset by curiosity (if not to cats).

The song was widely known in Britain and America and was the basis of a melodrama by Charles Somerset in 1835 as well as being the subject of numerous parodies. Its popularity outlasted the Victorian Era, Somerset’s melodrama was made into a film in 1923, and the song was still occasionally performed by folksingers up to the 1950s. The setting of Bayly’s lyrics by Bishop is, however, tailored to the drawing room and makes atmospheric use of the piano accompaniment. What begins as a carefree dance melody becomes spooky and disturbing as the guests fail to find the bride, and the piano adds a coda full of doom and desolation following the discovery of the skeleton.

Created 5 March 2023