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Oh! Oh! Antonio - first line of the music
Click to download the score of Oh! Oh! Antonio

I like it when teachers set grands battements on what I call a rumpty-tumpty 3.  My favourite pieces for this kind of exercise is the Zarah Leander song Davon geht die Welt nicht unterand Hands, knees and boomps-a-daisybut all good things must come to a brief pause, and so it was time to find another one, and Oh! Oh! Antonio is just what I was looking for.  If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly bringing music hall into this game, after all that Schubert and czardases, I have to point out that rhythmically speaking, behind every balletic variation, there’s a tarty music-hall number dying to show its frilly knickers, and a bit of decorum (which flies out of the window once you put some swing into a waltz) is the only thing that divides these songs from Paquita or Bayadère.  

How I discovered Oh! Oh! Antonio

I wonder what the chances are of anyone knowing this if you played it for class? I didn’t know it until last week, when it was used in Indian Summers, set in 1932:  Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters) proprietor of the English Club in Simla leads the singing as the local English gather for the club’s re-opening. You never can tell: someone on a forum remembers his great grandfather (Welsh, who spoke no English) singing it to him as a child. Songs have a way of travelling through time. I always thought the Teddy Bears’ Picnic was a song from the 60s (because I heard it as a child) yet the tune was written in 1907, and the words in 1932.

In fact,  this song is also about the way songs get transmitted. You may have noticed that it begins almost note-for-note like Strauss’s Kunstlerleben (Artist’s Life) waltz Op. 316, written in 1867, and regarded as the “twin” of the Blue Danube. Now listen to the words of the second verse:

Her old hurdy-gurdy all day she’d parade
And this she would sing to each tune that it played.

So what you’re hearing are new words to an old tune. But there’s a third temporal layer to this: the third verse (not on the recording, but available here) has the line (just before the chorus)

She faded away, but they say in the streets
The ghost of that girl in Italian repeats…

So this is a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. A Pathé newsreel film clip from 1923 of the “first wireless barrel organ” playing this song adds yet another layer to the story: here is a kind of hurdy gurdy playing, ghost-like through the ether, a song about people talking about the ghost of a girl singing a song that she made up to an old tune playing on her hurdy-gurdy. Incidentally, it’s wonderful to see people waltzing in the street as they hear the music. I nearly wrote “spontaneously waltzing” until I wondered whether perhaps Pathé had placed those people very carefully there to make the clip more interesting. Sadly, there’s no audio on the film.

Reanimating ghosts: songs and musicians

When Florrie Forde sings Oh! Oh! Antonio, she brings that ghost of a song back into the physical present (in 1908, that is).   That’s one of the things we do as musicians  –  let songs breathe a bit longer, or, if you like, plant them in ground where they’ll suddenly flourish again just when they were in danger of expiring. There is no natural process by which “great” songs stay hits purely on their own, it only happens by transmission, and the processes can be unpredictable and strange (and expensive, in the case of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke). They are “broadcast” both in the TV/Radio/Internet sense, but also in physical form as sheet music and records. They travel with people as carriers of songs, geographically and temporally.

Last week, I saw a 101-year-old woman teaching Are you lonesome tonight? to a young Filipino nurse in a care home in Streatham. I thought, that’s odd, she would have been 46 when Elvis Presley recorded it – surely this isn’t her generation of songs? But when I looked the song up just now, I discovered that in fact, it was first released in 1927, when she would have been 13 – which makes a lot more sense.

So let’s keep Oh! Oh! Antonio  going a bit longer—why not?  Sing along if you know the words (which you do, because I’ve put them in the score). It would of course be wonderful in any class where there’s an Antonio teaching or dancing, or maybe just for remembering your own Antonio-related history. There’s not an app for that, but there’s a song for it.

Update on 26th April 2015

As proof that the Internet’s power is limited by your diligence and ingenuity as a searcher, I’ve now come across a site that has the original sheet music for Oh Oh Antonio! Fuller and probably easier to read and play than mine, all credit to the person who put this site together.

Update on 31st Jan 2016

…and if you’d like to hear it or play it on the Ukulele, visit Colin Tribe via Youtube

6 thought on “A year of ballet playing cards #15: A rumpty-tumpty waltz (Oh! Oh! Antonio)”
  1. Hallo, I’m really delighted that you wrote about ‘Oh! Oh! Antonio’ because it has just popped up in my listening: I put on the gorgeous Rian de Waal CD of Godowsky paraphrases and the “symphonic metamorphosis” of Johann Strauß Jr. has this tune with a tone of aching nostalgia which immediately gives me frissons – then I think, but of course, it’s that song my nanny (grandmother) used to sing! But it’s a Strauß waltz which I don’t remember very clearly so I put it into my search machine and bingo, I find this entry. I appreciate your insight about “the ghost of a girl” framework, because it puts me in touch with the young woman my grandmother must have been around 1907, learning that song. She even had a sister called Flo who had been in show business in her youth and called everyone ‘darling’, as I remember. How time flies…

    1. How interesting is “timing”.
      After searching in Google for a waltz, I came to this site and I saw your comment, and I got tears in my face, because Rian de Waal was my piano teacher, and this morning I was thinking about him. That version of Godowsky paraphrases is a treasure.

  2. My story also has to do with Oh Oh Antonio, I am now 62 but when I was 9 my mum was expecting her 5 th child. She had a craving for ice cream in that pregnancy which was fortunate for us 4 girls because we used to get treated to ice cream much more often than we had before. My Mum would sing Oh Oh Antonio to her bump all the time and she although of course not knowing in those days really had the wish to call the coming baby Anthony. He was a boy and his name is Laurence Anthony. I live in The Netherlands not England and about 14 years ago I went into an antique shop in the town where I live. The owner had an old 1950’s grammophone with radio plugged in to the local radio station. We got talking about the simplicity of old fashioned “stuff” and that all that was needed to make it work was a plug into the mains whereas today you get a thick booklet and you still cannot manage easily to make it “go” or at least I can’t. I fell in love with that machine and my husband bought it for my birthday in 2001. Included in the buying was a pile of bakelite records, one of which was Oh Oh Antoniowho but my version is sung by a man. I got the radiogram set up and played the record for my Mum through the telephone. She asked me to do the same in the evening when Laurence Anthony would be home from his work.
    I did this and my brother asked me to carefully wash the record with good quality washing up liquid, rinse and drip dry it.
    Easy enough however, having no dish rack I placed the record in the rack of my dish washing machine. I am in 99.9% the person in our two person household who fills and empties the dish washing machine. I had gone to bed without doing it that evening because there was not much in it… The next morning when I came into the kitchen the door of the machine was closed….. “That’s funny” I thought, I didn’t do that last night….. And sure enough my not domesticated husband had acted out of character and put the machine on without checking the contents. My heirloom record was all wavy and thus for evermore unplayable. I was tell the above story to friends of mine who own a tv repair shop, they advised me to ring the local radio station and tell the story on the air…. I did just that and the very same day I got a new version of the bakelite record of Oh Oh Antonio which I still have to this day.
    The song is currently in our thoughts as sisters and brothers because our Mum died last Wednesday, June 27th 2016. In the period wherein she was dying Oh Oh Antonio was one of the songs we whispered/sang to her…. We are talking about what music will be played at her funeral this coming Thursday July 7th and once again this song has come up. I know this is a long story but it is a very personal connexion with the song you have written about. I hope even if you don’t place it on your page that relating it to you will give you even more understanding of how much a song can mean even over generations. By the way I don’t recall in the version that we knew that the ‘I’ person wanted to blow Antonio sky high…. That was new for us last week in the hospital when we downloaded the Florrie version.

    1. Thank you SO much for sharing this wonderful, detailed and moving story, with all its twists and turns, happiness and sadness. The song goes on, weaving its thread through our lives. Amazing.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist