"What They Said"

Jeremy Nicholas is a brilliant entertainer: lyricist, songwriter, actor, author, broadcaster, pianist and authority on the piano.

His latest book What Larks is a delight, a collection of his light verse and lyrics, and a reminder of his extraordinary versatility. In a brief but informative introduction Jeremy lists the many influences on his work, from listening to Gilbert and Sullivan as a child, through Flanders and Swan, Noel Coward and as he puts it, “a huge repertoire of schoolboy filth and rugby songs”, on to the Great American Songbook of Gershwin, Cole Porter et al, the British music hall, Tom Lehrer and many more: the results of this intoxicating cocktail can be found within these pages.

Some are published for the first time, such as a rhyming history of our Kings and Queens, abandoned after King John because no publisher would take it on – a pity. A particular joy is Jeremy’s updating of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, which first appeared in 1984, but so bang up to date that they might have been written yesterday. Who could resist a tale beginning,
A nauseating little swine
Was Quentin Courtenay-Caradine,
Who, as his name perhaps suggests,
Was one of Mother Nature’s pests.
And no one could be more topical than trans pioneer Dominic Formal de Hyde, arriving at Oxford to read sociology:
His first day up, when he appeared
In floral dress, stout shoes and beard
Caused several students to demur,
“Is she a him? Is he a her?”

Jeremy’s lyrical and musical skills were never more in evidence than in the 150 songs he contributed, for a dozen years from the mid-1970s, to the Radio 4 show Stop The Week, hosted by Robert Robinson on Saturday evenings. Jeremy would only be told the theme the producer wanted on Thursday and the song had to be ready just after lunch on Friday. “It’s amazing what panic can inspire,” Jeremy notes. It is indeed: the lyrics of some 30 of them are reproduced here and reveal his amazing range and wit. It’s just a pity we can’t hear the tunes. Have they been preserved in the vaults of Broadcasting House? They deserve to be re-heard. Again, some could have been written this month, such as ‘Flight of Fancy’:
Check in nice and early, sir, departure is at one,
So we’d like to have you standing by from eight.
We apologise to passengers — the flight will be delayed
And your baggage is ten kilos overweight.
And so on for another four and half sharply observed verses.

Jeremy rounds off the book with what he calls a ‘Bran Tub’ of assorted verses expressing his nostalgia for a vanishing England that is almost Betjemanesque, and a final section, ‘Love and Loss’, revealing an unexpectedly romantic and emotional side to his nature. It makes the perfect gift, but make sure to buy a copy for yourself too.

Bob Low


We (my brother and I) both had the cassette tape originally but they gave up the ghost long ago.  I will put a note with his to say not to listen to it whilst driving as last time he nearly crashed his van he was laughing so much. Just pleased you are making the recording available again. P Delvey (2022)

‘… Life enhancing’ Financial Times

‘Nicholas enlivens and extends the Jerome/Wodehouse  tradition’ Harpers and Queen


‘A capital way to spend an evening’ Daily Mail

‘ Jeremy Nicholas’s wonderfully sharp songs’ The Independent

‘Jeremy Nicholas’s truly wonderful songs’ Classical Music

‘An extraordinary talent’ Birmingham Post


‘The noted writer, commentator and Leopold Godowsky biographer Jeremy Nicholas [has] penned Musical Chairs, a classical music “A-list” invitation litany replete with wicked asides, plus three other charmers included here. (Classics Today)

‘Jeremy Nicholas’s “Usherette’s Blues” [is] a clever lament from a theatre usher who never gets to see the final reel, and “Musical Chairs” (Nicholas again), a catty cataloguing of the “glitterati” on classical music’s celebrity list that is guaranteed to have any ARG enthusiast giggling from start to finish.’ (American Record Guide)


‘Jeremy Nicholas’s amusing and wittily delivered verses make a refreshing change from the better-known Ogden Nash poems…’ BBC Music Magazine

‘My children were as charmed as I by Jeremy Nicholas’s cunningly clever new verses for Carnival of the Animals…’  Gramophone


‘In practical effect, the Beginner’s Guide could be more important than all the opera encyclopaedias in the world.’

Congratulations are also very much in order for The Beginner’s Guide to Opera. Jeremy Nicholas has written, and a team of appreciatively acknowledged helpers have given colourful body to, a book which does exactly what it sets out to do and, I think, more into the bargain. The assumption is that there are a lot of people who like a good tune and a good bit of singing, who might even try a night at the opera as an experiment, and then get hooked – accept that they meet tiresome folk who say things such as “Oh yes? Which version?” when you mention that you’ve been to see Boris Godunov. Television Channel Four have published the Beginner’s Guide to the Opera [sic] to accompany the TV series by Harry Enfield, who writes of that particular experience in his introduction. He also quotes The Spectator (1710) and Gerard Hoffnung to good effect; and, though he advocates a “Proud to be Thick” campaign to counter the operatic know-alls, there is nothing thick about the book, which is as sensible in approach as it is economical in demands upon shelf space.                                                                                                          A “Brief History in Five Acts” is followed by an “A to Z of Opera Terms”. ‘Arias’ are “the famous bits that stick out from the rest” (but more besides), and under ‘cadenza’ we read “Italian: cadence. A cadence is the rounding off of a musical phrase or close of a piece. ‘Cadenza’ has come to mean the flashy flourish just before the cadence.”  Well, we knew that, no doubt; on the other hand, I’m not sure that I had previously bothered to think what was so cadential about the cadenza. Much good sense has gone into this miniature glossary (‘diva’, for instance, is perceived as having “imperious overtones of a bygone era”); some erudition, too, as when, defined and ready to be set alongside the Pillars of Wisdom and Types of Ambiguity, seven species of claqueurs are specified.                                  Composers are briefly dealt with, sometimes very briefly as with “Glass, Philip. b. 1937. American composer. A minimalist.” Mind, here I do believe we may have caught them out, for ‘minimalism’ has no place in the A to Z. Singers are selectively listed, but it is good to see that the whole century is thought to be of interest, so that (to take an example) the firm of Lehmann, Lehmann and Lehmann comes between Kraus (Alfredo) and Ludwig (Christa). Recordings, too, are recommended not on grounds of modernity and the best of recorded sound but because this (the Björling-Milanov Aida and the Glyndebourne Figaro under Gui, for instance) is the one that has given the author most pleasure. The operas are wisely chosen for their value to beginners: Tristan und Isolde just scrapes in but where is La fanciulla del West, which can work splendidly as an introduction?). Not “an easy ride” warns the Beginner’s Guide when turning to The Ring cycle: “Each work needs some homework and, for many people, a deal of repetition before its attractions are realised”. The photographs and other illustrations (including scenes from L’africaine in advertisements for Liebig’s Extract of Meat) are delightfully selected and excellently reproduced. In practical effect, the Beginner’s Guide could be more important than all the opera encyclopaedias in the world.

John Steane


Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 6 May 2008

Strangely, when I first read this book several years ago, I thought it dry and not thorough enough. However, I recently took it off the shelves to give it another look. Imagine my pleasure when I discovered I had a little gem here. This is a wonderful guide to opera– for a beginner or even a not-so-beginner. I imagine that even if one is an expert, he or she might still enjoy the book if just to compare opinions.

The book begins with a glossary of terms. Here, for instance, you can find out that ‘coloratura’ is a term meaning the elaboration of the melody in the forms of runs, cadenzas, trills, etc.– a vocal line demanding great agility. To clarify each term, the author adds examples of coloratura sopranos, such as Joan Sutherland Best Recordings , or mentions several arias that require this ability (the Mad Scene from Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor (complete opera) with Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano, Tullio Serafin or the Bell Song from Delibes: Lakmé / Bonynge, Opéra de Monte-Carlo). Each definition is fully explained.

‘The Operas’ is the next section. Nicholas explains that because this is a book by and large for beginners, he chose the most well-known and accessible operas that would also be recommended for those who wish to discover more.

Included in each summary is the plot of each opera, the history of the opera, the names of characters, the length of the performance, the first-ever staging, and the highlights from each opera. The recommended recordings for each opera are also included– and this is a superb incluson! For instance, if one is wondering what the best recording of Bellini’s Norma is, he might try Bellini – Norma / Maria Callas, Ludwig, Corelli, Zaccaria, Teatro alla Scala, Serafin or Bellini – Norma / Sutherland Horne J. Alexander R. Cross LSO Bonynge. If one wishes to find a highly recommended recording of Verdi’s Rigoletto, she may want to try Verdi: Rigoletto (Complete Opera); Maria Callas; Tito Gobbi; Giuseppe di Stefano, Verdi – Rigoletto / Bruson · Gruberova · Shicoff · Fassbaender · R. Lloyd · Matteuzzi · Rydl · Santa Cecilia · Sinopoli, or to view, Verdi – Rigoletto / Luciano Pavarotti, Ingvar Wixell, Edita Gruberova, Victoria Vergara, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Riccardo Chailly.

‘The Composers’ is a smaller section and includes, well, all the composers mentioned previously. Here, you’ll find a brief biography of everyone from Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber: Overtures and Rare Ballets to Kurt Weill – The Threepenny Opera / Kollo · Adorf · Dernesch · Lemper · Milva · Reichmann · Tremper · Boysen · RIAS · Mauceri.

Finally, ‘The Artists’ ends the book. All the performers that contributed to opera are listed here, also with a bit of their history. From Thomas Allen and June Anderson to Dame Eva Turner and Jon Vickers, you’ll find most everyone you’ve heard of and many you might not have known before.

Jeremy Nicholas infuses his writing with humor. Instead of a dry recitation of facts, he includes little details you might not find elsewhere– facts that make each synopsis extremely enjoyable to read. Besides everything else mentioned, I learned that when reviewing Bizet’s Carmen, The New York Times wrote, “Carmen must stand on its own merits– and those are very slender. . . As a work of art it is naught” in 1878. I also discovered that although only Massenet’s Manon (1884) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (1893) survive in performance today, there was also a ballet (Manon Lescaut) by Halevy (1830) and another opera (also Manon Lescaut) by Auber (1856) (all four based on the novel by Abbe Prevost).

A Beginner’s Guide to Opera is lavishly illustrated and includes a thorough timeline as well as a helpful cross-referenced index. This is an excellent book.

**Ed Gardner-


‘I didn’t know this book existed! It’s a treasure chest for those interested in the Golden Age of piano playing! Don’t miss it!’ (Amazon reader review, 2016)

‘An informative and vividly written biography resulting from 10 years meticulous research…’ (Jed Distler, Gramophone, 2014)

‘…a narrative aptly overstuffed with captivating quotes and Pickwickian asides..’ (Benjamin Ivry, International Piano, 2014)

‘…this book transcends the normal parameters of a biographical format: it opened up the door to a whole new truly inspiring musical world which remains with me to this day.’ (Amazon review, 2001)


REVIEW on musicweb.com

Books about Chopin are not exactly rare on the ground – as the selected bibliography in the end of the book tells us – but it also seems that latterly not many have been published. Given the short turn-over time for books few may be available in the stores.

This well-written overview certainly fills a need and – as far as I know – it is unique in that it is not just a book; it is part of a multimedia concept. It includes two well-filled CDs and access to a website. The content of the CDs is culled from Naxos’s complete Chopin cycle, played by Idil Biret. Even though there may be individual recordings by other great Chopin interpreters that are even better Biret’s remain consistent and illuminating readings. I collected several of the discs when they were new and have found much to admire, the snag being a somewhat clangy sound, robbing the music of some of its poetry. As so often happens, though, one gets used to it and adjusts.

The choice of music is excellent. It is presented chronologically with references in the text and also annotations for each of the musical numbers at the end of the book. By acquiring this book the Chopin newcomer will gain a fine cross-section of his best compositions. These are to be savoured a few at a time or will provide continuous listening for years to come.

The book is divided into fourteen chapters. We follow Chopin’s life and career from the cradle to the grave. In an Epilogue Jeremy Nicholas brings together all the loose ends: what happened to those who were close to him and survived him? It turns out that some of their lives occupy the rest of the century, his early love Maria Wodzińska died in 1896 and George Sand’s daughter Solange in 1899.

Under Jeremy Nicholas’s skilled guidance we get to know everything that was important in Chopin’s life and about the steady stream of people that walked in and out of his salons. So many of the greats of the first half of the 19th century were there, not only musicians but also painters, authors, all kinds of cultural personalities. It was a good idea to have a section entitled Personalities with thumbnail biographies.

I can sometimes become fed up with too much information of “whom he met”, “where he travelled then” etc when reading biographies, but I must say that this presentation really held me. The reason is at least two-fold: firstly Nicholas’s style of writing has the right light touch, addressing the reader personally, He also finds some humorous twists. Secondly he lets us look straight into the heart and soul of the main characters, especially Chopin himself, by frequently quoting from letters and diaries. Not that this format is novel but is done skilfully and the effect is heightened through italicizing the quotations.

The target-group for this book is more the general music-lover than the specialist, but I believe even the latter category will find several grains of gold.

The actual life story of Chopin occupies only the first 194 pages. The rest is a very useful appendix, comprising a Music Chronology with all his published compositions and with comments on all but a few minor works. This is very valuable as a reference. There are also lists, with comments, of “Chopin on Film”, “Chopin in the Theatre” and “Chopin Plagiarised” to mention some. Sooner or later, they’re going to steal those melodies”, Chopin’s teacher Elsner is quoted as saying in the film A Song to Remember, and the list of stolen tunes includes among other things Minute Waltz “every note of [it] sung by Barbara Streisand”. Since a couple of Gigli recordings are also mentioned I would like to add, since I reviewed it recently, his version of the Etude, Op. 10 No 3, while to the list of arrangements of Chopin’s music Julius Jacobsen’s hilarious version of the Minute Waltz for trombone (!) and piano, played on a BIS disc by Christian Lindberg and Roland Pöntinen, should also be added.

A glossary with simple explanations of central terminology adds to the value of the book, especially for the newly converted. Finally there is a very detailed index.

At an asking price of £16.99 this book+CDs would be a valuable addition to any music lover’s music library.