Modern Major General's Song

"I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" (often referred to as the "Major-General's Song" or "Modern Major-General's Song") is a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera The Pirates of Penzance. It is perhaps the most famous song in Gilbert and Sullivan's operas. It is sung by Major-General Stanley at his first entrance, towards the end of Act I. The song satirises the idea of the "modern" educated British Army officer of the latter 19th century. It is one of the most difficult patter songs to perform, due to the fast pace and tongue-twisting nature of the lyrics.[1]

The song is replete with historical and cultural references, in which the Major-General describes his impressive and well-rounded education, but he says that his military knowledge has "only been brought down to the beginning of the century." The stage directions in the libretto state that at the end of each verse the Major-General is "bothered for a rhyme." Interpolated business occurs here, and in each case he finds a rhyme and finishes the verse with a flourish.[2]

Historical basis

The character of Major-General Stanley was widely taken to be a caricature of the popular general Sir Garnet Wolseley. The biographer Michael Ainger, however, doubts that Gilbert intended a caricature of Wolseley, identifying instead General Henry Turner, uncle of Gilbert's wife, as the pattern for the "modern Major-General". Gilbert disliked Turner, who, unlike the progressive Wolseley, was of the old school of officers. Nevertheless, in the original London production, George Grossmith imitated Wolseley's mannerisms and appearance, particularly his large moustache, and the audience recognised the allusion. Wolseley himself, according to his biographer, took no offence at the caricature[3][4] and sometimes sang "I am the very model of a modern Major-General" for the private amusement of his family and friends.[5]


Major-General's Song
File:Major-General's Song.ogg
George Baker sings the Major-General's Song with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, conducted by Malcolm Sargent (1929)

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I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;a
I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news, (bothered for a rhyme)
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
I'm very good at integral and differential calculus;
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from The Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore, (bothered for a rhyme)b
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you ev'ry detail of Caractacus's uniform:c
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
In fact, when I know what is meant by "mamelon" and "ravelin",
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a Javelin,d
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by "commissariat",
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery
In short, when I've a smattering of elemental strategy – (bothered for a rhyme)
You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee.e
For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

^a This is a reference to The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World by Sir Edward Creasy. This classic military history describes the great battles of the world, from "Marathon to Waterloo". When the Major-General says that he can name these "in order categorical", he is saying that he will organise the information not merely in a simple order, such as chronological order, but by category – sea battles vs. land battles, etc.[6]

^b The Major-General claims to be able to hum a fugue, but because a fugue contains more than one musical line playing simultaneously in counterpoint,[7] humming all the parts of a fugue simultaneously is impossible.[8]

^c In John H. Foley's 1859 sculpture, Caractacus is only wearing a loin cloth, and so knowing the details of his "uniform" is not a great achievement.[8][9]

^d In early versions of the libretto, "Mauser rifle" in line 26 is "Chassepot rifle". The Mauser rifle was based on the earlier Chassepot and had an improved rotating bolt system for breechloaders. First invented in 1867, the Mauser rifle was adapted by the German army in 1871, after the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.[10] Subsequently, the Mauser became the more widely used rifle and the more familiar to audiences, and the lyric was changed.[11]

^e  By "sat a gee", he means "sat on a horse".[8]

In popular culture

Film references

The Pirate Movie, a 1982 modern musical parody of The Pirates of Penzance, features many songs from the opera, including this song. A contemporary flavour was introduced, as the Major-General adds to the song lines such as: "Man, I'm older than The Beatles, but I'm younger than The Rolling Stones." In the 1983 film Never Cry Wolf, the hero sings the song.[12] Similarly, in the 2001 time-travel comedy Kate & Leopold, Leopold sings the song; however, the scene is anachronistic in that The Pirates of Penzance premiered in 1879, after Leopold had already left his own time of 1876.[13] The 2003 Veggie Tales cartoon film The Wonderful World of Auto-Tainment! features Archibald Asparagus singing the first verse of the song. In the 2004 movie Mickey, Donald, Goofy: The Three Musketeers, a major-general sings the song during a performance of the opera. However, the fight between the Musketeers and the Beagle Boys interrupts some of his lines.

Television references

The song, or parts of it, has been sung in numerous television programs. For example, The Muppet Show (season 3, episode 52) staged a duet of the song with guest host Gilda Radner and a 7-foot-tall (2.1 m) talking carrot. Radner had requested a seven-foot-tall talking parrot, but Kermit had difficulty reading her handwriting.[14] In Season 2, Episode 13 of USA Network series In Plain Sight, WITSEC workers, Mary and Eleanor, sing along to the song which is being used as hold music. In a Season 3 episode of Home Improvement, "Room for Change" (1994), Al Borland, believing that he is in a sound-proof booth, belts out the first stanza but is heard by everyone. In an episode of Unfabulous, Addie Singer begins to sing a pastiche of the song entitled "I am the very model of a modern major idiot" while rehearsing for The Pirates of Penzance.

Other renditions have included the Babylon 5 episodes "Atonement", sung by Marcus Cole to irritate fellow passenger Dr. Franklin; The Wind In The Willows episode "A Producer's Lot" (Series 3, Episode 11) sung by Mole (Richard Pearson); the Married With Children episode "Peggy and the Pirates" (Season 7, Episode 18); the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Disaster"; the episode of Frasier titled "Fathers and Sons" (Martin interrupts the song trying to join in, singing, "With many awful facts about the scary hippopotamus!"); the Mad About You episode "Moody Blues" (Season 6, Episode 5); the "Deep Space Homer" episode of The Simpsons; two VeggieTales episodes: "The Wonderful World of Auto-Tainment!" and "A Snoodle's Tale", which aired on qubo; and a 1989 episode of Neighbours. Sometimes the song is used in an audition situation. For example, in the Two and a Half Men episode "And the Plot Moistens" (Season 3, Episode 21), Alan sings the first verse of the song to persuade Jake to join the school musical. Similarly, in season 2 of Slings & Arrows, Richard Smith-Jones uses the song to audition for the festival's musical. In the pilot episode of 90210, Annie Wilson sings the beginning of the song in a flash back of her old school performance. The song is sung by Brick Breeland in season 1 of Hart of Dixie in episode 19, "Destiny & Denial". In a short cutaway from the 2012 Family Guy episode "Killer Queen", Peter plays the Major-General in a community theater production and mumbles all through the opening verse of the song.[15]

Parodies or pastiches of the song have been sung in a number of television programs. For example, the computer-animated series ReBoot ended its third season (Episode 39: "End Prog") with a recap of the entire season, set to the song's tune. The Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip episode "The Cold Open" (2006), the cast of Studio 60 opens with a parody: "We'll be the very model of a modern network TV show; we hope that you don't mind that our producer was caught doing blow".[16][17] In the Doctor Who Big Finish Productions audio, Doctor Who and the Pirates, the Doctor sings, "I am the very model of a Gallifreyan buccaneer".[18] Other songs, from Pirates, Pinafore and Ruddigore, are parodied. When he hosted Saturday Night Live, David Hyde Pierce's monologue was a parody of the song.[19] In the Animaniacs short "H.M.S. Yakko", Yakko sings "I am the Very Model of a Cartoon Individual".[20] In a 2011 GEICO commercial, a couple that wants to save money, but still listen to musicals, finds a roommate, dressed as the Major General, who awkwardly begins the song while dancing on a coffee table.[21] In the Phineas and Ferb episode "One Good Turn", Major Monogram sings it as "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major Monogram".

Other parodies and pastiches

The song has been used as the basis for numerous parodies and pastiches,[22] including Tom Lehrer's "Elements Song", and "The Unix Sysadmin Song," written for the book The Unix Companion by Harley Hahn, which replaces the military references with Unix trivia.[23] Another pastiche, also inspired by "The Elements", is the "Boy Scout Merit Badge Song", listing all the merit badges that can be earned from the Boy Scouts of America.[24]

On the last night of The Proms in 2000, the outgoing conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, sang a pastiche of the song celebrating the festival.[25] When Derek Pattinson retired as Secretary-General of the General Synod of the Church of England in 1990, a choir sang a variation on the Major-General's Song, with the line "He was the very model of a Secretary-General", in a meeting of the General Synod.[26] In May 2010, a parody version of the song was posted as an op-ed piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch mocking actions of the Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli.[27] In October 2010, Ron Butler released a YouTube video pastiche of the song in character as President Obama.[28] Florida gubernatorial candidate Michael E. Arth released a YouTube video in 2010 of him singing "I am the Very Model of a Pragmatic Humanitarian" while using placards as Bob Dylan did in Dont Look Back.[29]

In the video game Mass Effect 2, the character Dr. Mordin Solus sings a short pastiche version ("I am the very model of a scientist Salarian").[30] Alternative lyrics for the song were featured in comic No. 1052 on the webcomic xkcd in 2012.[31] This comic then became the subject of numerous musical adaptations.[32]



External links

  • TV Tropes
  • Gilbert & Sullivan parodies
  • Tom Holt
  • Johns Hopkins University promo

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