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Hot Cross Buns

By Walter Bitner

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… continued from last issue’s discussion of canons … Click here to view that article.

Now I know what you’re thinking. It’s not thatHot Cross Buns.” It’s not the “Hot Cross Buns” that you thought we had gotten past by now, those four measures of ignominy that haunt the deepest recesses of your early instrumental music education memories. It’s not that inane ditty that you practiced, repeating those three notes over and over, tormenting your parents and your siblings until finally, after what seemed like a very long time but probably was not very long at all, it was burned into your memory, burned into the memory of your fingers, those three notes:

  • B, A, G
  • B, A, G
  • GGGG AAAA
  • B, A, G.

No, it’s not that “Hot Cross Buns.” It’s a different one.

This three-part catch was a favorite of my students from upper elementary to high school, and usually reserved until the choir had many – at least a dozen – less challenging canons under their belts. “One a Penny, Two a Penny” is not for the faint-hearted!

What Exactly Is This Song About?

This song is about a tasty treat that humans have been consuming for centuries!

“Hot Cross Buns” have been around for a long time. Many historically Christian countries have the custom of eating yeast buns during Lent, and the practice of marking cakes with a cross dates back to the Greeks in the 6th century A.D. Talk about traditional! Some claim that the hot cross buns we enjoy today originated at St. Albans, a cathedral town in Hertfordshire, U.K. near London.

According to an article in the Herts Advertiser of 1862:

It is said that in a copy of  Ye Booke of Saint Albans it was reported that; “In the year of Our Lord 1361 Thomas Rocliffe, a monk attached to the refectory at St. Albans Monastery, caused a quantity of small sweet spiced cakes, marked with a cross, to be made; then he directed them to be given away to persons who applied at the door of the refectory on Good Friday in addition to the customary basin of sack (wine). These cakes so pleased the palates of the people who were the recipients that they became talked about, and various were the attempts to imitate the cakes of Father Rocliffe all over the country, but the recipe of which was kept within the walls of the Abbey.” The time honoured custom has therefore been observed over the centuries, and will undoubtedly continue into posterity, bearing with it the religious remembrance it is intended to convey.

To this day, the Abbey of St. Albans keeps the recipe of their hot cross buns a shrouded secret, but maintain that the abbey bakery today produces a bun faithful to Father Rocliffe’s 660 year-old recipe. Ingredients include eggs, flour, yeast, currants, and spices like grains of paradise or cardamom.

No kidding: these buns are so good folks make up songs about them!

“One a Penny, Two a Penny” dates from at least the eighteenth century, and like its humble predecessor described in the opening paragraph, takes inspiration from the cries of street-sellers “all over the country” hawking their seasonal buns, inspired in turn by St. Albans’ Good Friday tradition. 

Singing “One a Penny, Two a Penny” With Your Choir

I always made a big deal about this canon. This was the “too difficult right now, we need to wait a bit longer until we try to tackle it” canon. I would make younger grades wait until they were in older grades to teach it to them. If I had a graduated choir program I would make the younger choristers wait until they got promoted to a more advanced choir before they learned it. In high school I would make them wait until second semester before I trotted this one out. It’s not for beginners.

“One a Penny, Two a Penny” will require some stamina and precision to perform, but once your choir can pull off rousing up-tempo choruses of chestnuts like “Wilt Thou Lend Me Thy Mare” and “Fie, Nay, Prithee John,” they will be ready to sink their teeth in these “Hot Cross Buns.”

I would usually have the entire choir sing the canon once through in unison, then have each of the (previously divided) three sections enter one at a time in turn. “One a Penny, Two a Penny”  is great for practicing clear diction, and once all three sections had entered I would often have the choir sing a few strains sotto voce with crisp, clear enunciation before belting out the last strain subito forte for a grand climax!

Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as director of education & community engagement for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Richmond, Virginia. He writes about music and education on his blog Off the Podium at walterbitner.com.

Click here to download a pdf of this music.

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