Five Last Songs

Binder was a highly competitive composer, constantly seeking to outdo his illustrious predecessors. He pitted himself against Bach and Borodin, Beethoven and Berg, each of whose names, you will note, begin with B, like Binder’s own. This fixation had its origin somewhere within the pulsing grey jelly of the Binder brain, and we know of only one occasion when he directed his efforts to going one better over a composer outwith the ranks of the Bs.

“If Richard Strauss could write Four Last Songs,” he shouted, one day, at his helpmeet, the dwarf Crepusco, “Then I shall write five!”

Very gently, the dwarf Crepusco, who was both tactful and wise, pointed out to Binder that he was yet a young man, at the outset of his career, and that to be writing his last songs so early was, shall we say, a tad premature.

“Why the hell should I wait until I am an octogenarian, as Strauss was when he wrote his last songs?” shouted Binder, “Dammit, I shall write mine now, and they will be five in number, not a pitiable four!”

And hardly were the words out of his mouth than the impatient young hothead strode out of his chalet and down the mountainside to town, to buy a ream of sheet music paper and a biro. Crepusco settled back on the divan, by the oil heater, and devised a two-pronged strategy. The first prong was to ensure that, throughout his career, however long it turned out to be, he forbade Binder from ever writing another song. Were this prong to fail, as well it might, Crepusco reasoned that he could, long in the future, scribble a sneaky amendment to the date on the MS of the Five Last Songs, and forge parallel documentation if necessary, to confound the historians. This was his second prong. Well satisfied, he closed his eyes and dreamed the dreams of a dwarvish helpmeet, until Binder returned.

The first of the Five Last Songs, a glistening jewel, was polished off that very same day. Binder took as his model the jaunty cowboy song “The Man With The Foldback Ears” by the Reverend Fred Lane. Indeed, he took the song whole, in an act of plagiarism, and then tweaked it here and there, scoring for a piccolo instead of guitar, undermining the rhythm, inserting a campfire atmosphere, and translating the words into one of the Nordic tongues. It is thought that Crepusco, his head still half in dreamland, suggested the wash of melancholy overlaying the finished piece, a melancholy so overpowering that most listeners begin to weep during this first song, and do not stop until the following four have played out.

It was Crepusco, too, who provided the words for the second song. He was steeped in the folk tales of his Carpathian homeland, and oftentimes over breakfast would regale Binder with a story or two. One of his favourites was “The Fable Of The Carpet Beetle And The Submarine Captain”, and he had abridged this long-winded and frankly idiotic yarn to a dozen rhyming couplets. Finding the breakfast cereal carton upon which he had scribbled his version, the helpmeet dwarf left it upon the rough-hewn rustic wooden carpenter’s bench where, at this time, Binder liked to compose. Inspired, as Crepusco knew he would be, Binder set the words to what he dubbed “a metaphysical oom-pah, heavy on the tuba”. It was quite out of keeping with the mood of the first song, but once again Crepusco applied a wash of melancholy, this time particularly unremitting.

Much has been written about the washes of Crepusco, with some critics insisting he has claims to be credited as co-writer of the Five Last Songs. He disavowed such lobbying on his behalf, content to remain in the shadows. “Binder was a genius,” he wrote, many years later, “And his name would ring down the ages whether I had been his dwarvish helpmeet or not. The melancholy washes in which I almost smothered some of his songs were involuntary, a by-product of my immeasurable gloom and the confined space of the chalet, together with a certain suggestibility in Binder’s character, particularly when I placed him in a hypnagogic state, using tricksy methods as employed by some of the great Carpathian mindbenders of my childhood years.”

Which brings us neatly to the third of the Five Last Songs, the middle one, known as “The Song Of The Carpathian Mindbenders”. The score calls for three singers, a pair of tubas, a fiddle and saw, and thousands upon thousands of handbells. The words are deliberately senseless, the music both frightening and gorgeous. At forty-five minutes, it is by far the longest of the five songs, though all but two of those minutes consist of cacophanous, yet melancholy, bell-ringing. In his lifetime, Binder steadfastly refused to allow a truncated version of the song, without the bells, to be performed. Since his death, mischievous maestros insufficiently awestruck by the Binder legend have chanced it, only to find that audiences boo and throw tomatoes and walk out of concert halls en masse.

There is a persistent rumour, put about by the more irresponsible Binderists, that the song was originally meant to end with the howl of a werewolf. Let it be said, once and for all – this is bosh.

The fourth song, on the other hand, does begin with howling, but it is human howling, very human howling. “It is the howl of a soul in torment,” wrote Glib, “Torment which, as the song progresses, evaporates, to be replaced by a fathomless sense of sludgy torpor, as when one has eaten far too many boiled eggs at one sitting.” This is a sound observation, and indeed the song is now popularly known as “The Eggy Breakfast Song”. Its proper title is “Habeat sua fata apis”, that is, “A bee has its destiny”, an enigmatic, and possibly meaningless, saying Binder had had tattooed on his forearm during his unruly teenage years in Cuxhaven. It is the most personal of the five songs, the only one where Binder wrote his own lyric, in which he evokes his childhood, on the coast at Cuxhaven, staring at the sea until enshrouded by mist. Quite what bees and breakfast have to do with it is a mystery, and one the composer was happy to encourage.

“Binder could be a very mysterious man,” wrote Crepusco, “Particularly after eating too many eggs for breakfast. Sometimes his behaviour was so dotty I had to inject him with one of my serums.” Sometimes Crepusco could be a very mysterious helpmeet.

You will be familiar with the fifth and final song in the sequence, as it has been wrenched from its context and covered by innumerable musicians, including Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, Kinnie The Explorer and Plastic Bertrand. It is so well-known that it hardly seems worth writing about. For the rest of his life, Binder was able to live comfortably on the royalties earned from this one song.

“When the first cheque arrived in the post,” wrote Crepusco, “He immediately strode out of the chalet and down the mountainside to town, and went to the bank, and cashed it, and bought a shiny new parpophone.”

And thus was born the germ of the Sinfonietta For Shiny New Parpophone And Broken Eggs. It is not Binder’s best-loved work, indeed it is quite unlistenable, but many would argue, and have done, in the pages of obscure music journals to be found in the waiting rooms of culturally superior dentists, that it was with this piece that the “B” (Binder) found his destiny.

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