Kipling and Music

(by Brian Mattinson). The text below is very much ‘work in progress’ since Brian has recently discovered the lively interest in Kipling’s verse among folk musicians in the United States and Europe. He plans to do better justice to this in later drafts. In the meantime, any comments on the current version will be gratefully received. (Ed.)


For Christmas 1937 my parents gave me a copy of the book “Toomai of the Elephants”, illustrated with photographs from the London Film Production Elephant Boy produced by Alexander Korda. They had taken me to see the film, released in April that year, and ‘Little Toomai’ was one of my early heroes. The book is inscribed in my mother’s artistic hand and, flicking through the pages sixty five years later, I am reminded vividly of my first exposure at the age of six to the images conjured up by the writings of Rudyard Kipling.

It was a favourite bedtime book and my mother, who was very musical, would sing the ‘soothing lullaby’ about the great God Shiv who made ‘mother’s heart for sleepy head, O little son of mine!’; perhaps we rarely got beyond that page, 43, before I slept. It is indeed described in the text as ‘an old, old song’, but of course there is no music in the book. There are however at least three published settings of “Shiv and the Grasshopper”, by Raymond Hunt (1896), Dora Bright (1903) and Percy Whitehead (1912) and anyway my mother would have had no difficulty improvising. The contrasting “Song of Kala Nag” is one of Three Poems, Opus 18 powerfully set by Charles Koechlin in his great Jungle Book cycle, and the “Dance of the Elephants” inspired instrumental compositions by Cyril Scott (1912) and Percy Grainger (1922).

But I am getting ahead of myself. My latent interest in Kipling was revived at the time I was privileged to get to know George Webb, who invited me to join the Kipling Society when he was appointed editor of the Kipling Journal in 1980. As a musician, when I saw references to Kipling’s ballads, ditties and songs I eagerly and naively sought copies only to discover, to my surprise and disappointment, verses but no music. I was familiar with songs without words, for example explicitly by Mendelssohn, but I was not expecting songs without music particularly as, according to T S Eliot interpreted by Charles Carrington, ‘For Kipling the poem is something which is intended to act . . . it is to be sung, not read in an arm-chair’. From my frustration developed my interest in the musical aspects of Kipling’s writing, particularly the background to and subsequent settings of his verse.

Music and the Man

It is said that Rudyard Kipling was tone deaf, ‘my ears being wavering’, and, as his daughter has affirmed, completely unmusical. According to Andrew Lycett , singing in the choir at Westward Ho! ‘was a struggle; in a letter to a family friend, Rudyard complained that, in preparation for a concert, he was forced to attend choir practice for an hour every Thursday, Friday and Sunday. ‘The constant la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la brings out all sorts of queer notes. I can’t make out where I get ’em from.’ ‘He admitted towards the end of his life that Allah had excluded all music from his ‘make-up except the brute instinct for beat, as necessary for the manufacture of verse’.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the musical aspects of his work are relatively neglected; if indeed he could not sing in tune, music, and songs in particular, might not have been important to him. But was Kipling tone deaf and, anyway, what does it mean? If singing, like speech, is instinctive, the tone deaf person must suffer from some innate disorder in the handling of sound. As a church organist and choirmaster, I had the privilege and pleasure to enrol boys aged seven to eight years and train them as choristers. The sole entry qualification I required of them was that they should wish to join the choir. Many, on joining, appeared to be ‘tone deaf’.

Of course singing and speech are not instinctive. A baby provides relentless evidence that primitive inarticulate vocal sounds are indeed instinctive, as a reaction to some stimulus be it hunger, pain or frustration; although we accept that articulate and therefore intelligent speech must be learned, we expect singing to come naturally. It is in fact a complicated process, a skill difficult to master. Many of my boys could not pitch a note, that is could not make a musical sound to match a given note. Resigned and sometimes dejected, they were surprised when I said that playing the organ or piano is easy compared with singing. I demonstrated this by playing a note and then asking them to play the same note; on the organ especially, their performance was the equal of mine. See, I said, how easy it is. Now to sing that note you must listen to it, identify it, make your own sound and adjust your sound to match. One very keen boy took weeks before he excitedly achieved this first critical stage, to his mother’s tearful delight. Of course, many boys could do it straight away.

Somebody, when asked if he could play the violin, is supposed to have replied ‘I don’t know, I have never tried’. My ‘tone deaf’ choirboy had never tried to sing, but he knew a beat as did Kipling. Permanent ‘tone deafness’ is, I believe, very rare but the sort I have experienced and ‘cured’ does not preclude the appreciation and love of music, even if not cured. These observations based on my personal experience have professional backing. Vocal music was, for example, introduced into the curriculum of Boston schools in 1837; it became evident that ‘the musical ear is more common than has been generally supposed’.

Kipling’s complex cultural background exposed him to the rhythms of Bombay, Lahore and Simla, the vigour of African drums, old sea-songs, hymns, music-hall songs, border ballads, and the folk-songs of England and the American dust-bowl. So we should not be surprised that he often had a tune in mind when writing his verse. Kay Robinson wrote ‘When I knew Kipling in India . . . many of the ‘Departmental Ditties’, for instance, were written not only to music but as music. . . Kipling always conceived his verses in that way – as a tune, often a remarkably musical and, to me, novel tune’.

Some suggested templates are documented :-

“Boots” ‘John Brown’s Body’
“Coiner, The” tunes suggested by Kipling ‘King John and the Abbot of Canterbury’ (unlearned), ‘Tempest-a-brewing’ (learned)
“Danny Deever” bawdy army song ‘Barnacle (‘Bollocky’) Bill the Sailor’
“Farewell Greenwich Ladies” based on words and metre of ‘Spanish Ladies’, a Somerset sea shanty quoted in The Light that Failed.
“Follow Me ‘Ome'” part fits ‘Dead March’ from Saul by G F Handel
“Ford o’Kabul River” refrain echoes ‘Tramp, tramp, tramp, the boys are marching’
“Fox-Hunting” ‘The Vicar of Bray’
“Holy War, The” hymn tune ‘Aurelia’ (‘The Church’s one foundation’)
“If-” ‘Galway Bay’ . Hymn tune ‘Strength and Stay’
“Lukannon” long-shore bawd ‘I met Moll Roe in the morning’
“Mandalay” a popular waltz
“New Auld Lang Syne, A” ‘Auld Lang Syne’
“Puzzler, The” ‘The Garden where the Praties grow’
“Recessional” hymn tune ‘Melita’ (‘Eternal Father, strong to save’)
“School Song, A” ‘Pop! goes the Weasel’
“Screw-Gun Mules” ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’
“Screw Guns” ‘Eton Boating Song’
“Shillin’ a Day” Irish jigs ‘Vilikins and his Dinah’, ‘The Irish Washerwoman’
“Song of the Lathes, The” tune hummed at her lathe by Mrs. L. Embsay, widow.
“Tommy” ‘Lincolnshire Poacher’
“Way Down the Ravee River” ‘Old Folks at Home’

Other possible matches have been noted:

“Birds of Prey March” Crimean War song ‘Cheer Boys Cheer’ cockney song ‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road’
“Carol, A” traditional carol ‘Winchester Old’ “While shepherds watched”
“Gethsemane” ‘Auld Lang Syne’ hymn tune ‘Horsley’ (‘There is a green hill far away’)
“In Ancient Days” bawdy song ‘The Harlot of Jerusalem’
“Jobson’s Amen” hymn tune St Gertrude (‘Onward Christian soldiers!’)
“Last Chantey, The” folk-song base of ‘Waltzing Matilda’
“McAndrew’s Hymn” hymn tune ‘Aurelia’ (‘The Church’s one foundation’)
“Poor Honest Men” ‘Spanish Ladies’ (see ‘Farewell Greenwich Ladies’ above)
“Ripple Song, A” ‘Röslein’ by Schubert/Goethe
“Screw-Guns” ‘The Seven Joys of Mary’ (variant)
“Smuggler’s Song,A” Copper family tune ‘The White Cockade’

“Tommy” ‘Rising of the Moon’

Reference is made later to Peter Bellamy’s recognition of the link between much of the verse and traditional songs on which he drew extensively for his own settings, acknowledging general and specific sources. In an interview he illustrated the role of music by quoting from Carrie Kipling’s diary “Ruddy was singing a new poem today”.

Views will vary on the individual validity of these associations (for example the incongruity of ‘Let us now praise famous men’ to ‘Pop! goes the weasel’) and other possibilities, but the link with contemporary music is evident and important to the understanding of both Kipling’s work and its appeal to musicians. Compared with blank verse and much modern poetry, an underlying popular rhythm must make verses more accessible and memorable, and intelligent matching with music will enhance the impact of the words. I offer as one example the dramatic effect on me the first time I sang ‘Take ‘im away!’ to the ‘Dead March’, a tune Kipling recorded his intention to use . Rhythms would be part of the attraction for Victorian and later composers who wrote the music I had been seeking and, in the main, not found. In the pages of the Kipling Journal it has been contradictorily suggested that Kipling wrote verse for the speaking rather than the singing voice. It is perhaps surprising that so much of it has been set to music’ ; and that ‘his ballads sprang from the music hall tradition . . . it is not surprising that so many were subsequently set to music’. The treasure-house of musical settings which I have been exploring speaks for itself.
Sources of Information

Music inspired by Kipling’s writing, as song settings of his verse or instrumental allegories, is more extensive than generally realised. Accessibility is hampered by normal indexing methods which, for example, typically identify songs by title and composer, not by the author of the words; search a shop, library or web-site, for songs by Kipling or Sassoon and be disappointed; no problem seeking songs by Elgar or Grainger. In addition to catalogues of the contents of libraries, museums and private collections, lists of musical settings have been published. So far as I am aware the first systematic attempt was made by Mr F W Mackenzie-Skues and published in the Kipling Journal between 1928 and 1933. This was a major source for Appendix E in the definitive Kipling Bibliographical Catalogue published by James Stewart in 1959 . This in turn is acknowledged in the subsequent comprehensive catalogue of musical settings of late Victorian and modern British literature published by Bryan Gooch and David Thatcher in 1976.

Attempting to resolve inevitable inconsistencies and omissions in these invaluable lists, I became aware of the scale of the subject. I obtained considerable help and encouragement from members of the Kipling Society and early in 2000 I embarked on the compilation of a new list, as complete and accurate as I can make it. Particularly enthusiastic was Mr David Alan Richards, the Society’s North American Representative, who is currently working on a new bibliography of Kipling in which he hopes to include definitive musical information. The Kipling Journal is a mine of information and guidance; noteworthy amongst other published sources are the details of Percy Grainger’s huge commitment to Kipling as researched at the University of Western Australia.

I produced the first draft of my list of musical settings towards the end of 2000 and am continuously revising it. Since April 2001 the current version has been on The Kipling Society web-site, expertly managed by the Society’s On Line Editor, John Radcliffe. It is too long to include in this paper but is there for reference and can be downloaded as a personal copy. So far over 280 composers are linked with some 340 titles. Including duplication, there are over 700 songs plus instrumental items and theatre/cinema productions. These include unpublished manuscripts; about a quarter of the listed songs have not been published and many, for example folk music, were never written down. This of course makes access particularly difficult, although some old manuscripts are now being published for the first time eg Percy Grainger settings by Bardic Edition. The scope for research is illustrated by comparison with a previous informed estimate (1991) that ‘only’ 167 of Kipling’s poems had been set to music; composers are still at work, but not to that extent. As we shall see, the composers, their period, nationality, style and response to Kipling, in some cases close to obsession, provide vivid evidence of the extraordinary range and continuing wide appeal of his writing.
Musical Settings of Kipling’s Verse

Others have studied the extent to which Kipling permeates our culture and language, how often we quote him without even realising. For some enthusiasts their introduction may have come through one of the more accessible musical settings eg Oley Speaks’ “Mandalay” or one of Edward German’s Just So songs. As with all music, and indeed verse, quality and appeal vary but much of the music deserves to be better known, as indeed it once was. In this paper I quote extensively from a variety of sources and have tried to acknowledge this fully, both out of respect for those quoted and to enable readers to explore further.

The musical story starts to unfold in 1890; between February and July thirteen ballads were published in the Scots Observer under the general title Barrack-Room Ballads . These and more were then published collectively on both sides of the Atlantic, the evocative and musical verse which I had found without music but which had in fact soon attracted composers. The pioneer was the English musician Gerard Francis Cobb (1838-1904), who published three series of Barrack-Room Ballads in London and Boston in 1892, 1893 and 1897. To his seventeen titles in the series, which also include items by other composers, he subsequently added six making him one of the most prolific Kipling composers. He is possibly best known for these settings, two of which, “For To Admire” and “Back to the Army Again”, he set specially for The Scottish Students’ Song Book; this collection of popular and patriotic school and university songs, a genre already common in the USA, quickly became familiar throughout Scotland, England, India and many British outposts. Kipling’s co-operation is specifically acknowledged in the ‘Editors’ Preface’ and ‘Notes about some Contributors’.

Other composers soon followed. In 1900 an American, Arthur Whiting (1861-1936), published in New York a series of four of the titles set by Cobb, Another powerful American composer, Walter Damrosch (1862-1950), published in 1897 a further duplicate, “Danny Deever”, reputedly Teddy Roosevelt’s favourite song , going on to publish more. Already two features of the musical picture are apparent:

the contribution of American composers, broadened as time passed to include composers from Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary and Russia, the duplication arising from the strong appeal to composers of particular ballads.

I have identified six settings of “Tommy”, nine of “Danny Deever”, ten of “Gunga Din”, “The Love Song of Har Dyal” eleven of “A Smuggler’s Song”, eighteen of “Mother o’ Mine” and nineteen of the old favourite “Mandalay”. Comparisons are interesting and in the case of “Mandalay” there will be personal preference for emphasis on the rugged British “Tommy” (Oley Speaks 1907), the tinkly temple bells (Charles Willeby 1911), the seductive little banjo (Walter Hedgcock 1899) or for contemporary folk style (Peter Bellamy). It is interesting that Willeby’s chorus is in 6/8 time; perhaps he felt the rhythm of the waltz, albeit a quick one, which Kipling had in mind – ‘I wrote a song called “Mandalay” which, tacked to a tune with a swing, made one of the waltzes of that distant age’. No less than fifty three tunes are associated with the great hymn “Recessional”.

Why are composers drawn to a particular poem? ‘Because it jumps out of the page’ is the simple answer given to me by one contemporary composer of a Kipling song. It is perhaps surprising that the masterpiece and nation’s favourite in 1995, “If-“, has not been better served by musicians. The Czech composer Otmar Mácha included it in his Songs of Men (1947) and Howard Blake’s striking setting was recorded live in the Royal Albert Hall on the 23rd March 1999. I sampled on the internet in June 2001 a recording of a setting by Australian folk-singer/song-writer Peter Crisp. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Composers profoundly influenced by Kipling

Three composers were particularly influenced by Kipling, in addition to Cobb. At about the time he and Whiting were publishing their Barrack-Room Ballads Series, Percy Grainger (1882-1961) was considering a similar group which never materialised. He was greatly influenced by Kipling books given to him, at the age of thirteen, by his father and over his lifetime he planned a general series of Kipling settings which he numbered 1-22, his intended order of publication .

“Mother O’Mine” 1912
“The Song of the Dead” 1911
“Morning Song in the Jungle”* 1912
“Tiger, Tiger”* 1912
“The Inuit”* 1912
“Anchor Song” 1922
“The Widow’s Party” 1923
“Hunting-Song of the Seeonee Pack”* 1922
“The Running of Shindland” 1922
“The Men of the Sea” 1923
“The Love song of Har Dyal” 1923
“Danny Deever” 1924
“Soldier, Soldier” 1925
“Peora Hunt”* 1924
“Mowgli’s Song Against People”* 1924
“The Fall of the Stone”* 1924
“Night Song in the Jungle”* 1925
“Recessional” 1930
“The Red Dog”* 1958
“Lukannon”* 1958
“The Only Son”* 1958
“The Sea-Wife” 1948

They are characterised by his unique style and use of resources and were subject to much reworking amongst instrumental arrangements and many unnumbered manuscripts. It is claimed that he considered “Mother O’Mine” his best Kipling song and with it he dedicated the series to his mother, Rose. Eleven of the numbered songs (* above) formed his song cycle The Jungle Book which, subject to much reworking, he considered ‘one of my very best works … My Kipling Jungle Book Cycle, begun in 1898 and finished in 1947, was composed as a protest against civilization’. He continued to work on it after 1947 and it was never published as a whole, except for a limited edition of complete sets of the individual songs bound together.

Grainger was a prolific composer of over six hundred works, unique in the sense that he brings to each a masterly blend of practicality, musical interest and beautiful sound. Cyril Scott (1879-1970), a pianist like Grainger who studied with him, himself composed a suite of five pieces for piano Impressions from the Jungle Book” he said ‘whenever Grainger elects to produce one of his Kipling settings . . . he becomes Kipling’. Examples from The Jungle Book come to mind; the virile song of the Seeonee pack and its punched ‘Once, twice and again’, the pathetic picture of the dying tiger and, of course, the restless unease of Mowgli’s song giving way to the calm of the jungle once all traces of man had been smothered by the bitter Karela. ‘My life’,Grainger wrote, ‘has been one of kicking out into space, while the world around us is dying of good taste’ ; Kipling would have appreciated that.

The Jungle Books also inspired the French composer, Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) to write his The Jungle Book. Composition, revision and lavish orchestration of the four symphonic poems, plus three contrasting songs, occupied him, on and off, from 1899 to 1940. The third poem, “The Song of Kala Nag”, is referred to in my introduction and its ecstatic trumpeting recalls the elephants’ compelling urge to escape, as seen by Little Toomai. Again we have unique, and in this case highly atmospheric, work developed over a long period and it is fitting that a recording of it won the 1994 Gramophone Award for the Best Orchestral Recording. Coincidentally the corresponding Artist of the Year was John Eliot Gardiner, who in October 1982 conducted the Centenary Concert of Grainger’s Jungle Book Cycle and other songs in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The third composer significantly influenced by Kipling was elected a Vice-President of The Kipling Society in 1981, only ten years before his untimely death. Peter Bellamy (1944-1991) was a very individual professional singer who had a constant love-hate relationship with the folk revival to which he made such a colourful contribution . He loved Kipling’s poems, which he saw as ‘folk songs without a tune’ , and he set a great variety to music drawing extensively on traditional tunes (78 titles, about a third published although he apparently never wrote any down himself). In the foreword to his collection of twelve ‘Puck’ songs, Oak, Ash and Thorn (1971), he says his settings ‘were conceived when it dawned on me (after many, many readings) that the verses had been composed as conscious (and very successful) imitations of traditional song forms’. He published a second collection of fifteen songs from Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies called Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye (1972) and, later, published his own collection of twelve Barrack-Room Ballads [check – was this published? by whom? a record album?] to set alongside those of Cobb and Whiting.

He sang his songs con brio to audiences in Britain, Australia, Canada and the USA and recorded them all. His flamboyant mannered style does not appeal to everybody, but nor of course does Kipling’s verse which it fits and illuminates, whether it be the galloping metre of “The Ballad of Minepit Shaw”, the capstan’s evocative lilt in “Anchor Song” or the soldier’s lament for a comrade in “Follow Me ‘Ome”. The latter could be a tribute to Bellamy himself as:

‘There was no one like ‘im …
An’ because it was so, why, o’ course ‘e went an’ died,
Which is just what the best men do.’

In recognition of his style, he goes on to say in his foreword ‘I like to think that whether or not Rudyard Kipling would have liked my tunes, my voice on the record or my pictures in this volume, he would still have approved my intention: to give authentic-sounding folk melodies to his authentic-sounding folk verses, that they may be sung and enjoyed in the way in which his characters might themselves have used them’.

I enjoyed the presentation, predominantly of his songs, to the Society by Peter Horridge (Peter Jackson) and Ann Surtees in the Kipling Room of Brown’s Hotel, London, on the 15th February 1995 . Bellamy’s unique renderings are not among my favourites; by his own admission his was “not a pleasing voice”. However his setting come from am intimate knowledge of Kipling’s work and its relation to the folk scene developed over his sadly short lifetime. I count it a privilege to own a little of his personal collection of music, which I obtained from his widow Jenny in 1994.

Bellamy is known in the contemporary US folk/filk music scene, where Kipling settings abound and recordings are available. Filk is the folk music of the Science Fiction (“With the Night Mail”, “As Easy as ABC”) and Fantasy (Mowgli and Puck stories) community, and related groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism (medieval re-enactors). Prominent among filk composers is guitarist singer composer Leslie Fish. I have so far listed over seventy of her Kipling settings and she claims “the Kipling tapes have some of my best tunes”; she estimates that she has set roughly one third of what is in the Definitive Edition, much of it unpublished and unrecorded. I am impressed by the small sample I have heard, evidence of a lively contemporary interest in Kipling.

Settings by Other Composers

Mention has already been made of Sir Edward German whose settings, published in London and New York, of the verses linking the Just So Stories (1903) are deservedly well-known and popular. He went on to set “Big Steamers” (1911), “Dane-Geld” (1911) and “A Song in Storm” (1916) before, possibly at Kipling’s request, setting the harrowing poem “My Boy Jack” (1917). Distressing as the words are in their own right, after ‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?’ the anguish in German’s treatment of ‘None this tide, . . Nor any tide,’ is almost unbearable before the final defiant shout of faith, ‘hold your head up’ . According to German’s biographers, his final Kipling song “The Irish Guards” (1918) was certainly the result of a direct invitation by Kipling.

After “A Song in Storm”, German set no more of the verses from The Fringes of the Fleet but Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), another famous contemporary of Kipling, responded to a request from Admiral Lord Charles Beresford to do so. He composed Four Songs from The Fringes of the Fleet (1916), “The Lowestoft Boat”, “Fate’s Discourtesy”, “Submarines” and “The Sweepers” and dedicated the music to Lord Beresford. My original copy for voice and piano (3/6d in 1917) contained a slip of paper saying ‘Kipling interest Not great music’. I sat down at the piano and let the last two songs evoke the contrast between the sinister menace and fear characterising the hidden submarine and the conspicuous triumph of the bucking mine-sweepers, powerful synergism between Kipling’s words and basic rhythms and their interpretation by Elgar in both melodic and harmonic context.

Other composers have written Kipling song cycles or groupings:

Rutland Boughton (1878-1960), Songs of the English (1901 unpublished)
“Coastwise Lights”, “Deep-Sea Cables”, “Song of the English”, “Song of the Dead”, “Song of the Sons” and possibly a sixth
Dora Bright, Six Songs from the Jungle Book (1903) “Night-Song in the Jungle”, “Seal Lullaby”, “The Mother-Seal’s Song”, “Tiger! Tiger!”, “Road-Song of the ‘Bandar-Log'”, “The Song Toomai’s Mother sang to the Baby”
Liza Lehman (1862-1918), Two Seal Songs (1908) “Oh! hush thee, my baby”, “You musn’t swim till you’re six weeks old”
Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946), A Song of the English (1919)
“The Coastwise Lights”, “Fair is our lot-“, “We have fed our sea”
Martin E F Shaw (1875-1958) (1919) “Brookland Road”, “Cuckoo Song”, “The Egg-Shell”, “Old Mother Laidinwool”, “Pity poor fighting-men”
Charles Green, Three Kipling Songs (1923) “Dawn Wind”, “My Father’s Chair”, “Reeds of Runnymede”
Maurice Charles Delage (French, 1879-1961), Trois Chants de la Jungle (1935) “Chil le Vanteur”, “Maktah, Berceuse Phoque”, “Themmangu, Chant et Danse du Tigre”
Otmar Micha (Czech, 1922-), Songs of Men (1947 unpublished) “Gipsy Trail”, “Hymn to Physical Pain”, “If-“, “When earth’s last picture is painted”
Phyllis Tate (1911-1987), Scenes from Kipling (1975 unpublished) “A Dedication” (“My New-Cut Ashlar”), “The Absent-Minded Beggar”, “L’Envoi” (“The Long Trail”)

There are more settings of Barrack-Room Ballads. Eight were published by W Ward-Higgs, including seven possibly as a set (1906), “Bill ‘Awkins”, “Danny Deever”, “Follow Me ‘Ome”, “The Lost Legion”, “Soldier an’ Sailor Too”, “Troopin'”, “The Widow’s Party” and later “The Married Man” (1915). Perhaps the best-known are Speaks’ “Mandalay”, already mentioned, and “Boots”; the cover of the latter’s published copy (1928) acknowledges music by J P McCall and ‘Sung by Peter Dawson’, the great Australian baritone (1882-1961). McCall alias Dawson also published “Cells” (1930) and “Route Marchin'” (1930), but his memorable recording of ‘Boots’ helped to establish it as a classic with its evocation of the relentless boredom of ‘foot-sloggin’ over Africa’; the welcome relief of the relative major key ‘to think o’ something different’ is tantalisingly short-lived. And the ballads are still sung today. Ralph Meanley (baritone) and David Mackie (piano) were so impressed by the settings that they planned a concert around them, ‘Thank You Mr Atkins’, given at Leighton House and Bateman’s in July 1996; five are included in their tape “Shipmates o’ mine” and they have just recorded all Cobb’s twenty Barrack-Room Ballads. There is a well-documented recording Soldier, Soldier – Barrack-Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling by Michael Halliwell (baritone) and David Miller (piano), a musical celebration for Anzac Day 2001.

There are many other composers involved; some are well-known like the Americans John Sousa (1854-1932) and singer Harry Thacker Burleigh (1866-1949), the English Sir Henry Walford Davies (1869-1941) and Roger Quilter (1877-1953); many are less well-known, perhaps undeservedly, with frequently only one Kipling setting attributed. In addition, mention has already been made of instrumental items and theatre productions. For details, readers are referred to the list which includes, besides film which is documented elsewhere, ballet, opera, musicals, plays, even pantomime. These shows are mainly based on Barrack-Room Ballads, the Jungle Books and Just So Stories and probably add little to the repertoire of individual Kipling songs; at least eight were staged in the 1990’s but few before the death of Kipling, who identified with the stage. We can only speculate on his reaction to the disturbing opera Baa-Baa Black Sheep: A Jungle Tale (1993), with music by Michael Berkeley and libretto by the Australian novelist David Malouf ‘boldly linking the sadness of the “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” story with the fulfilment inherent in the Mowgli myth’ . But again I am getting ahead of myself.

Kipling’s Reactions to the Settings

I have already discussed the limited significance of Kipling’s alleged tone deafness. There must have been music and not amusia in someone responsible for such rhythmic and evocative verse, verse with such a broad appeal to musicians. The poet who wrote “The Song of the Banjo” knew the power of music, ‘the tunes that mean so much to you alone’; the voice, the organ, the trumpet ‘can rip your very heartstrings’. Reference has been made to Hedgcock’s musical recognition of the importance of the banjo: ‘She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing ‘Kulla-lo-lo!’ . . . Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak! On the road to Mandalay . . .’. So what was Kipling’s attitude to music and his response to those who set his verse? There is much anecdotal, at times controversial and apparently contradictory, evidence.

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s setting of “The Absent-Minded Beggar” (1899) was a very popular Boer War fund-raiser and it is on record that Kipling once asked Sullivan to compose a tune suitable for “Recessional” . In his cycle, The Just So Song Book (1903), German alters the order of the twelve poems but Kipling’s general approval is evident from his letter to German in which he thanks him for the ‘keen pleasure that your settings of Tegumai and Merrow Down have given me. They are the ones I like best in The Just So Song Book, though the “The Camel’s Hump” runs them close. Our children sing them zealously.’ If ‘My Boy Jack’ and his final song “The Irish Guards” were indeed the result of direct invitations by Kipling, it is evidence of a positive attitude to music. Of “The Irish Guards” Kipling wrote a congratulatory letter to German – ‘It’s wonderful and goes with a dash and a devil that can’t be beat’ – and he encouraged German to arrange it as a march for the regiment, exceptionally signing the manuscript ‘for you to whom my verse owes so much’.

Speaking in the Mansion House in 1915 to raise funds for Army bands, Kipling had stressed, with moving references, the importance of the regimental band and the regimental march ; words may come to mind when the band plays, but he was talking enthusiastically about the power of the music. Also at the event was Sir Frederick Bridge (1844-1924), Organist of Westminster Abbey and Professor of Music at London University; he had said ‘what was needed was a band that would play good rousing tunes’. He himself had already published settings of “The English Flag” (1897), the skit “The Ballad of the ‘Clampherdown” (1899) and “England’s Answer” and had published alongside Elgar, whose four later settings The Fringes of the Fleet suited the war-time mood; as conductor Elgar was exhausted by the tour of the provinces, so successful was it.

But there was another side to balance these positive signs. Sullivan found the metre of “The Absent-Minded Beggar” so difficult that, but for the national fund it was designed to support, he would have given up. His failure to set “Recessional” may simply have been acceptance of its established association with Dykes’s tune, “Melita”, but Kipling’s daughter wrote in response to a newspaper correspondent ‘the only tune to which the “Recessional” should be sung is that of the hymn ‘For those in peril on the sea’ ‘, as sung at the Thanksgiving Service in St Paul’s cathedral after the 1914-1918 war. Kipling was meticulous in correcting errors in German’s copy and German was later distressed by a copyright dispute.

Elgar’s biographer, Jerrold Northrop Moore, says of Fringes of the Fleet ‘Elgar produced some hearty tunes for baritone and men’s chorus, but then Kipling objected to the verses being turned to musical entertainment’. The cycle did eventually go ahead but, after its initial success, Kipling halted the performances; the composer wrote ‘I fear the songs are doomed by RK. He is perfectly stupid in his attitude’. It has been suggested that, in this case, Kipling’s refractoriness may have been precipitated by the growing conviction that his son John was dead in France. “Inside the Bar”, a fifth title added to the cycle, was to words by Sir Horatio Gilbert Parker, not Kipling, but Elgar did go on to set “Big Steamers” (1918).

There are other ‘straws in the wind’. Percy Grainger began settings for chorus and orchestra of “The Rhyme of the Three Sealers”, and early manuscripts exist (1900-1). He then retitled it “At Twilight” and added his own to the first two verses by Kipling (1909). Kipling may well have refused permission to mix words, and the published score (1913) contains no reference to Kipling, its original inspiration; “Away by the lands of the Japanee” had become “Away by the reefs of the Chilean Coast”. The American Charles Ives (1874-1954), whose methods were often startling, set five Kipling songs. He set the first and apparently last verse of “Tarrant Moss” without permission to use the text and it was published with the first four words only “I closed and drew etc… He then used the music, again Kipling inspired, for his own song “Slugging the Vampire”; ‘I closed and drew for my love’s sake’ became ‘I closed and drew, but not a gun’. The attraction of Kipling’s rhythms is such that there are many cases where the words have been altered, a copyright offence vigorously resisted by many composers and their agents.

This fascinating argument is encompassed by Kipling in “The Conversion of St Wilfrid” ; Meon teases Eddi and says ‘You are just about stupid enough for a musician’. Anyone encouraged by that rebuff to question Kipling’s attitude to musicians and song has only to read on to be enlightened: ‘The music had turned soft – full of little sounds that chased each other on wings across the broad gentle flood of the main tune. But the voice was ten times lovelier than the music.’

I do not believe that all this evidence is contradictory. David Peters asked why Kipling was uncooperative with Elgar when both were contemporary creative artists and patriots. I suggest that there is an underlying reason which can be used to explain tensions which can also be identified, for example, between Sir Arthus S Sullivan and Sir William S Gilbert, between Puccini and his librettists and, particularly painfully in my experience, between Anglican clergy and their church musicians. Poets are aware of the power they wield in their creations and its potential for reward, whether it be spiritual, material or simply egotistic. It is natural to defend this power, but we recognise that it can be intensified by enriching words with the universal, almost instinctive, appeal of music; to put it crudely, who then takes the credit?

Think of Ko-Ko’s solo (‘tit-willow’) in The Mikado or ‘Dance a Cachucha’ in The Gondoliers; do we most readily hum Sullivan’s tunes or recite Gilbert’s words? In La Boheme, are we moved by Puccini’s magical melody or by Giacosa’s words ‘Che gelida manina’? After an uplifting cathedral service, do we particularly remember the liturgy or the music which transported the worship? Lovers of German lieder can name Brahms, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf but how many of the poets? Add to this the general convention, already mentioned, to index songs by title and composer and we can readily sympathise with any author’s defensive tendencies; the appeal of music is powerful enough to generate a resentment which can strain working relationships, as many church musicians ruefully recognise. It is interesting, incidentally, to extend the comparison with Gilbert and Sullivan. The order G & S is significant; Gilbert wrote his inimitable words for Sullivan to set to music but, as we have noted, Kipling usually did the opposite, modelling his verses on an existing tune. “The Absent-Minded Beggar”, the great Boer War fund-raiser, was the exception but in spite of Sullivan’s initial reservations it became, with the war-time audiences, a very popular song.

In short, I believe that Kipling appreciated music, welcomed its impact on h is writing but fiercely defended his ownership of it, as he did over its rewarding exploitation in films. Compared with the many similar situations which I have only sampled, his verse is widely remembered in its own right, if not sometimes his authorship of it. We sometimes forget that, whether it be a song, a hymn or a chorus, the words are the key, the music a sort of lubricant; we can so easily overlook words when sung because they are in a foreign or unfamiliar language, or trivial and repetitive, ‘or simply badly enunciated and require a little effort. With Kipling this will not do and, for example, Cobb recognised this from the start. In a footnote to his setting of “Shillin’ a Day” he defers to Kipling:

‘The composer has endeavoured to indicate by the usual signs the constant changes of time and expression etc aimed at in this Song, but a careful study of the poem itself with its marvellous combination of stirring heroism, deep pathos and scathing sarcasm will be the singer’s best guide to a correct rendering of the music.’

We all recognise the saying ‘It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’; that puts the music first. I prefer ‘It’s what you say and how you say it’.
Current Interest and The Future

There is no doubt that music is an important part of the world of Kipling, and he would not have disagreed with or regretted that. It should perhaps be better represented in the activities of the Kipling Society, for example by a more comprehensive sheet music/recordings section in the library, more concerts/lecture-recitals in the programme, perhaps even the commissioning of new settings and ensuring publication of these and some of the many existing works which are unpublished or out-of-print. A setting of “Gertrude’s Prayer” by Gordon Crosse was commissioned in 1989 as a test-song for the first BP Peter Pears Singing Competition. The composer introduces it as ‘a Test Piece not only for the technicalities of singing, but also for the intelligent and sensitive reading of a text’. He makes minor changes in the singing text, with the option to revert to the original, a questionable liberty not without precedent.

Effort has been concentrated so far on the comprehensive identification of existing music rather than its assessment; hopefully however enough evidence is presented to demonstrate the quality of some at least of the music and there is much Kipling verse still awaiting worthy settings. After a concert in 1980 it was said ‘For those of us who had mainly regarded Kipling’s verses as something flat on the printed page, Peter Bellamy’s projection of memory-smoothed lines into a third dimension of fresh vitality, with unrefined vigour where the context requires it, startlingly opens new doors of understanding’ . We may not all agree with the specific example, but there are plenty more. I was moved by a live recording in York Minster on the 21st March 1998 of Andrew Carter’s choral and orchestral setting (1998) of “The Long Trail”, a poem previously set only by Phyllis Tate (1975 unpublished).

It is said that Kipling was the most popular writer of English prose and verse of his day. Reference has already been made to other recent events which attest the living interest of musicians in the wider appreciation today of the verse of the first British writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. I have had private communications with three US singers, Kurt Stenzel who has personally recorded at home about 46 Kipling songs (some four hours listening), David Newman, who was inspired to seek more Kipling settings after preparing German’s Just So Song Book for a recital and, indirectly, Leslie Fish whose contemporary filk involvement has already been mentioned. This review therefore looks forward with lively anticipation. The list of musical settings being compiled on the society web-site summarises the opportunity and the challenge facing Kipling-lovers and possibly provides a focus for new members, researchers and musicians attracted by the rich musical dimension. Readers are warmly invited to examine the list, make use of it and contribute to its improvement. Musicians and music-publishers are also encouraged to respond.