Music and The Adult Folktale

I use this essay as the basis for a lecture on adapting artworks in the New Music Project module at UWS.

The Florists of San Nicolao:  Music and the adult folktale


I wrote the short story The Florists of San Nicolao in spring / summer 2010. This essay will discuss the creative process, examine themes in the work and reflect on peer feedback.

I have been a professional songwriter for most of my working life and have developed certain signature styles, which naturally adapt to the song lyric. However the short story form is new to me and, as such, presented challenges throughout the writing process. These challenges were rendered more difficult by an early decision to adapt a narrative from one of my own songs, Haricot Bean and Bill (2003), as a basis for the story.

Haricot Bean and Bill

Haricot Bean and Bill follows two children who grow up ‘on a wintry hill’ among bears, outlaws and a statue of Jesus and who spend their time staring out over a city below. Of three distinct sections in the song[1] the second finds the children escaping to the hedonistic world of the city and the third has them rescued by the bears and outlaws and returned to the hill[2]. The themes of the song include loss of innocence, alienation & reconciliation and relationships with the natural world. These themes remain present in what became The Florists of San Nicolao although the narrative itself underwent significant changes.

Narrative in Songwriting

The popular song is by most definitions a short form; in context the word popular itself is usually shortened to the snappy, onomatopoeic pop. In light of contemporary music’s defining ability to miniaturise complex ideas this perhaps should be seen as more than a lazy abbreviation. The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations (1966) covers six distinct movements in well under four minutes and Paul McCartney expresses loneliness and disaffection before going on to cover a wedding and a funeral in the three short verses of Eleanor Rigby. The narrative pop song then must condense characterisation, plot and the passage of time with brutal economy. Musical arrangement, of course, helps fill in missing detail. Commenting on the descriptive power of harmony Stephen Sondheim goes a far as suggesting that lyrics should be underwritten. (Sondheim, 1983) In the second section of Haricot Bean and Bill, the children’s fun city lifestyle is hinted at musically (in the form of an exuberant 1950’s Rhythm and Blues setting) while the lyric conveys another side to the story with suggestions of violence and danger. The narrative of Haricot Bean and Bill is propelled forward with broad descriptions of events and environment contrasted with tiny details (the children steal shortbread and plastic cups before making their escape) and a change in viewpoint[3]. These are recognisable elements of narrative storytelling reduced to short form and with meaning enhanced by the musical material.

Adapting Haricot Bean and Bill

The intention when beginning work on the short story was to create an expanded version of Haricot Bean and Bill, however this underestimated one of the strengths of the song. It became clear that so much had been covered in the combination of lyrics, music and arrangement that 3000 words, a fair word count for a short story, would be inadequate. There were back-stories hinted at in the text and also in the musical setting. The extended play-out section, for example, carried resonances of long journeys, obsession, and addiction and, in the contrast between distorted guitar and high wordless vocal, lost or compromised innocence. Unpacked, de-coded, these textual and musical signals were proving difficult to cover in the new form.

My solution was to take a fresh look at the most basic elements of the existing narrative. In terms of characters, locations and events they included:

  • Two children
  • A mountain overlooking a city
  • Outlaws, animals and a statue of Jesus
  • A journey

This provided some broad scaffolding for the work and I was able to start building a new world and time frame for the narrative. In keeping with the notional location of Haricot Bean and Bill[4] I changed the name of the characters to Paco and Joanna[5]. Like Haricot Bean and Bill, Paco and Joanna are obsessed with the city below and spend hours staring out from their hillside village. For the short story, however, I dispensed with their escape, instead setting the action within the village and adding new characters and situations while attempting to preserve the thematic heart of the song.

Story Outline

In The Florists of San Nicolao a young girl discovers that her Grandfather is a fence for a gang of thieves, and that the apparently God-fearing village in which they live has been built on the proceeds of crime. After this discovery she suffers a crisis of confidence that is eventually mitigated by the casual spoken interventions of various village creatures and the statue of Jesus that stands in the village. The story ends with the girl accompanying her Grandfather to sell the stolen goods at market.

Imagining San Nicolao

The village of San Nicolao was named for Saint Nicholas of Myra who is known as Patron Saint of Thieves who Repent but more widely as the model for Santa Claus who rewards children for good behaviour by giving gifts at Christmas time. (Saints and Angels [Online]) Both characters have clear resonance in The Florists of San Nicolao. The story implies that San Nicolao began life as a hideout for bandits but has evolved into a community with a small church, a school and a more regulated existence. While the life of the village continues to be funded by the activities of a shrinking band of thieves the story makes clear that the money is spent on good works; indeed the talking statue of Jesus reminds Joanna that Maria Danez, the conscience of the village, has her ‘books and icons and fancy knickers’ provided by the bandits who hide in the trees. Santa Claus is in some way present in the figure of the children’s Grandfather, Anselm. One key scene finds Anselm concealing stolen jewellery in the stamens and stems of large blue flowers in preparation for market; he literally wraps the glittering necklaces and chains round the flowers, like Christmas gifts.

In One Hundred Years Of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez prefaces the text with a graphic family tree that explains the lineage of the Buendia family and, by association, the history of the fictional town of Macondo. (Marquez p.iv) Progressing through Marquez’s lengthy narrative I found myself returning often to this family tree. The effect was akin to a wide-shot in film, where one can see a townscape before the camera zooms in to an apartment interior and back again to the big picture. For The Florists of San Nicolao I drew a map of the village and the surrounding area[6], which allowed me to imagine more clearly some of the important locations[7]. When I came to describe the journey Anselm, Joanna and the sleeping Paco make across the night village the map was a creative and very practical aid as indeed was the memory of one real location, that of the hills above the town of Lucca, Italy where I stayed in the summer of 2007. My family would be joined each evening by seven or eight cats who would suddenly appear at the corner of our terrace begging for food. The image of their green eyes glowing in skinny, ragged heads in the semi darkness was unsettling and enchanting[8].


In Haricot Bean and Bill the central characters cast off innocence by crossing the river into a world of hedonistic pleasure. Exhausted and unable to escape they nevertheless make a symbolic return to Jesus by sleeping on the chapel steps and are rescued. In The Florists of San Nicolao the children cross a line by spying on Anselm thereby learning an uncomfortable truth. Joanna’s rescue from her crisis is different to that of the children in the song, amounting in her case to an acceptance of the imperfect world she inhabits and the duality inherent in life. Part of this realisation comes from nature and magic; on the trip home after she has helped Anselm prepare the contraband for market Joanna witnesses animals speaking, asking her Grandfather casually if he received the goods to be fenced and if all is well for his forthcoming trip to market. Joanna ultimately perceives this as evidence that their way of life is normal, that the beauty and the ugliness she sees in nature are to an extent mirrored in the way people are compelled to behave. Bettelheim suggests that children remain animistic until the age of 12 and that in the context of folk tales they seek answers, perhaps comfort from objects and the natural world, in this case talking cats and bats. (Bettelheim, p.46) Joanna’s encounter the following morning with the statue of Jesus who argues that Anselm is a pragmatist in the process of fashioning good from bad convinces her to join her Grandfather on his trip to town. In this action we see the other themes of the story, alienation and reconciliation. It is hinted in the narrative that the children are orphans and that Joanna fulfills the role of Mother. She is alienated from her own childhood and childishness, instead dealing with the flighty Paco, determinedly living without help in a small shack. The scene in which she conceals the contraband is symbolic of the beginning of her return to childhood, allowing the old man to teach her. When she ducks out of school and kisses Anselm before helping push the cart down the mountain her reconciliation is complete.

Characters and Symbols

The character of Anselm is the father of the village; indeed his name is symbolic meaning ‘protected by God’. Anselm is known and respected by all in the village including the statue of Jesus who understands that the old man in turn protects the village. He is also a symbol for the journey of San Nicolao itself, a man who has not yet escaped his criminal path but aspires to virtue. There is an early image of Anselm drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and reading The Lives Of The Saints, which would naturally include the story of Saint Nicholas of Myra. Maria Danez, the conscience of the village, introduces saints in the form of the icons, which she positions to police the village, conveniently ignoring the fact that the icons are bought with dirty money. Maria’s bête noir is Paco who is obsessed with tormenting the woman. I wanted to suggest that Paco and Maria are in fact very close and that Paco is seeking attention and physical contact from an older woman[9]. Bruno Bettelheim discusses the depiction of children who are ‘cast out’ in folktales, noting that figure of the servant who is ‘dispatched to kill’ a child is a symbol for the ‘impotence’ of the parents themselves. (Bettelheim p.98) Maria is an accepted parent figure for the orphaned Paco, thankfully with no intentions of murder. Paco represents the energy and innocence of the village, another generation removed from the bandits. His penchant for practical jokes is responsible for the discovery of Anselm’s activity but he himself is ultimately oblivious. The speaking animals and statue are perhaps best viewed as the chorus, like the reader they are party to the real story of San Nicolao. Finally the character of the road is important in representing duality. Joanna, like her Grandfather, is well enough connected to the natural world to perceive the speaking voices of animal and inanimate objects within the village however she is also obsessed with the road, tracing its contours from her perch as it enters the industrial world of the metropolis.

Music and Rhythm

Music is present in the origins of The Florists of San Nicolao but also in its plot and dialogue. There are descriptions in the text of nature’s music and of the music that seems to accumulate and rise from the city below infusing the evening with a heady magic. The conversations between the animals, the statue and Anselm have a musical quality too with direct links to folktales. Anselm’s repeated rhythmic answers – ‘Indeed they did, and goodnight to you’ – suggest an incantatory magic is afoot while Joanna’s adoption of the same speaking pattern is another symbol of her reconciliation with her family and her childhood. In folktales rhythmical, sung answers are common – in Calvino’s The Seven Lamb Heads a sly cat tempts a child into stealing food with an offer to share:

Mew mew mew mew mew mew MEW

Half for me and half for YOU! (Calvino, p609)

…While in The Count’s Sister most of the dialogue is sung:

Golden Light, silver light

Does your prince sleep, or watch in the night? (Calvino, p.601)

Many of Grimm’s famous stories including Rapunzel and Hansel & Gretel also feature sung refrains; while these doubtless render the stories more memorable for their intended audience they also provide pace and structure to the narrative. In The Florists of San Nicolao Anselm and Joanna’s repeated ‘indeed I will, and goodnight to you’ on their midnight journey across the village is in part an attempt to increase the tempo of the narrative – as the music of the city rises towards them so the music and rhythm of their walking and speech increases, towards the story’s conclusion. Rosamund Bartlett comments on the use of linguistic rhythm in Chekov’s The Black Monk and the use of a kind of leitmotif in The Lady with the Little Dog. Bartlett notes that pace and mood is lent to the narrative by these essentially musical techniques. (Bartlett, 2004) In Chekov’s Gusev the rhythmic language is co-incidentally very poetic and consequently deeply hypnotic and seductive.


The presence of music in the layers of The Florists of San Nicolao was the least surprising aspect of the work for the author – it seemed inevitable that my past practice would influence the work strongly and so it did. Positive peer feedback centred on the poetic and rhythmic style of writing while there was a strong recommendation to shorten some sentences in order to introduce physical and metaphorical breathing space. These changes were effected to the benefit of the work. I received feedback from musical colleagues who also recognised the poetry of the language but failed to spot Haricot Bean and Bill. Finally I asked my 13-year old nephew (an enthusiastic reader) to look at the story. He pretended to read it before declaring the story ‘brilliant’ and finally admitting that he could not fathom the language.

Bruno Bettelheim constructed theories around the content of folktales, many of which have to do with sexuality and the border between childhood and adulthood. The latter certainly has clear resonance for Paco and Joanna in my adult folktale The Florists of San Nicolao.

Reference List

Bartlett, R (2004), Introduction in Chekov, A (2004) About Love and Other Stories, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Bettelheim, B (1991), The Uses Of Enchantment, London, Penguin

Calvino, I (1982), Italian Folktales, London, Penguin

Grimm, J&W (2007), The Complete Fairy Tales, London, Random House

Marquez, G.G (1967), One Hundred Years of Solitude, London, Penguin

Sondheim, S (1983), ‘Theatre Lyrics’ in Martin, G. (ed.) (1983) Making Music, London, Pan

[1] The title was originally Haricot Bean and Bill / Trilogy

[2] Appendix A Selected Lyrics: Haricot Bean and Bill

[3] Sections 2 and 3 are narrated by the central characters.

[4] Rio De Janiero

[5] These names were derived from an earlier, unrelated song, Paco and Joanne (1991)

[6] Appendices

[7] These include Paco and Joanna’s perch, Anselm’s house leading to the road and the trees behind the village.

[8] As was the apparent ability of the cats to suddenly manifest themselves at various locations on the hill. This is featured in the follow up story Into The World.

[9] He giggles hysterically when Maria beats him after the practical joke. This incident was based in a real story concerning my Uncle and his Grandmother.

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