A Game of Fives
for tenor and piano
Five little girls, of Five, Four, Three, Two, One:
Rolling on the hearthrug, full of tricks and fun.
Five rosy girls, in years from Ten to Six:
Sitting down to lessons—no more time for tricks.
Five growing girls, from Fifteen to Eleven:
Music, Drawing, Languages, and food enough for seven!
Five winsome girls, from Twenty to Sixteen:
Each young man that calls, I say “Now tell me which you mean!”
Five dashing girls, the youngest Twenty-one:
But, if nobody proposes, what is there to be done?
Five showy girls—but Thirty is an age
When girls may be engaging, but they somehow don’t engage.
Five dressy girls, of Thirty-one or more:
So gracious to the shy young men they snubbed so much before!
Five passé girls—Their age? Well, never mind!
We jog along together, like the rest of human kind:
But the quondam “careless bachelor” begins to think he knows
The answer to that ancient problem “how the money goes”!
6 pages, circa 4' 00"
Detail from Charles Dodgson's photograph of the MacDonald family, 1863.
The theme of girls in a family is found throughout many cultures, but
in the Victorian era of Lewis Carroll "girls" could be an expense quite
different from "boys." Carroll plays his "game of fives" over decades as
these girls age, not not "engage" and become "spinsters" -- a term
rooted in the notion that unmarried older women spent their time at the
spinning wheel, while remaining financially connected to the larger
family. Dodgson -- Carroll -- was a friend to the Scottish poet, George
MacDonald, and his family, whose children called him "Uncle."
“A Game of Fives” was first published in 1869 in Phantasmagoria and
Other Poems, six years after he took the photograph above. For other
settings of Carroll's texts, click
The setting is in 5/4, counting the number of girls thereby, while the
opening gestures are constructed of fifths, thinking about Carroll's
penchant for word games, mathematics and acrostics. Thus, this musical
game is much about five. The thematic two quarters, a triplet and two
more quarters as found in the accompaniment "spins" on through the
setting, moving to D flat, G flat, G, and finally back to the tonic of C
The vocal line plays the part of the father (or perhaps their uncle), at
first enchanted by his girls, then more urgently concerned about costs,
then confusion about suitors calling on which of the girls, then worry
when the suitors do not propose marriage, then acknowledging that the
"girls" perhaps may have been too picky as regards suitable suitors no
longer courting them, and finally the rather harsh and yet caring
judgment of these "girls" becoming passé.
The summary? It is all about "how the money goes," in this poetic
snapshot of one facet of that time and place and society. A final
dramaturgical moment conflates all the adjectives together, as the
initial observation of "little" move all too quickly towards "passé."
The score for
A Game of Fives is available as a free PDF download, though any major
commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior
arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this
Game of Fives