Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:


Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was the bard of [the British] Empire in all its manifestations. As he was born in India it is natural that many of his writings, poetry or prose, feature the sub-continent, but others recall the men, soldiers, sailors and so on, which bound the Empire together and If, apparently once set to music by Bantock, personifies the "stiff upper-lip" which built the Empire. This is not to say that Kipling was jingoistic. His poem Recessional appears indeed to foretell the decline of Empire. Both Sullivan and Elgar considered setting this to music, although neither got round to doing so (1); one may think, however, that Elgar's Second Symphony catches its spirit faithfully enough.

Many composers, Sullivan and Elgar included, set Kipling's words but we start this doubtless incomplete, fragmentary even, survey of music inspired by Kipling with the incidental music written for screen adaptations of his prose works. Curiously, perhaps, nearly all of them were American and most of these had scores composed by some of the all-time greats among Hollywood's music moguls: Captains Courageous (1937: Franz Waxman), Wee Willie Winkie (1937: Alfred Newman), Gunga Din (1939: Newman again), The Light That Failed (1939: Victor Young), The Jungle Book (1942: Miklos Rozsa), Kim (1950: Andre Previn), Soldiers Three (1951: Adolph Deutsch) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975: Maurice Jarre). The only British Kipling feature film in the post "silent" era was Elephant Boy (1937) which had music by John Greenwood (1889-1975). Better-known than any of these, both as a film and for its music, was the 1967 cartoon version of The Jungle Book, whose music and lyrics were by the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman, associated with so many of the latterday Disney cartoon films, although perhaps the film's best known song, The Bare Necessities had music and lyrics by Terry Gilkyson. Basil Poledouris did the musical honours for the 1994 television adaptation.

Many British, let alone other, composers were not drawn to Kipling. Most of these who are by common consent among the greats of 20th Century British songwriters - Gurney, Warlock, Ireland, Vaughan Williams (apart from the section Land of our Birth from his Thanksgiving for Victory of 1946) and Britten, among others knew him not.

We have already alluded to Sullivan - and Elgar and the fact that neither set Kipling's Recessional (2), but both collaborated with Kipling, an undoubted patriot, in time of war. When the Boer War of 1899-1902 broke out, Kipling's newly written poem The Absent Minded Beggar became immediately popular and Sullivan's setting of its words - no easy task, as he admitted - enhanced this popularity from its premiere at the Alhambra Theatre in 13 November 1899. 75,000 copies were printed (at the publishers' expense) and all proceeds from their sale went to wives and children of soldiers and sailors in active service. For his part in this Sullivan received as many sneers from people in the musical establishment, who should have known better, as he had done for years and was later, for having written the Savoy operas. Such comments need not concern us in this 21st Century when The Absent Minded Beggar may incidentally still be heard.

Eighteen years later Admiral Charles Beresford approached Elgar with a request that he set to music four Kipling poems entitled The Fringes of the Fleet. Kipling, grieving for his missing soldier son, was lukewarm about the idea, but Elgar, who later described his settings as being in a "broad salt water style", was enthusiastic. Four baritone singers, led by Charles Mott, premiered them at the Coliseum on 11 June 1917. A London "run" of these songs, plus another Elgar setting of words by Sir Gilbert Parker, was followed by a long and popular progress through provincial theatres, ending back at the Coliseum in December. The songs were recorded, also in 1917, by the original singers; two of them, Fate's Discourtesy and The Sweepers, were recorded in "electric" days by Keith Falkner and the whole cycle has been similarly treated in more recent times (3).

It is surely no accident that Kipling should have been set by two men who were successively, if largely unofficially, Britain's "laureate" composers. (It is also instructive that Sullivan, Elgar and Kipling were all at various times looked down upon by the respective musical and literary "establishments"). Many of the other settings of Kipling that were made, and especially the better known ones, were by composers who, rightly or wrongly, acquired the piegeon-hole "light music composer" (again both Sullivan and Elgar were this, in part). Edward German's lively baritone song Rolling Down to Rio may still be heard; years ago I was delighted to make the acquaintance of several other of the twelve settings collectively entitled Just So Song Book (many of the lyrics come from Just So Stories, beloved of several generations of children, including mine). A Smuggler's Song received choral settings by Christopher le Fleming (1908-1985) (unison and two-part voices), Paul Edmonds, Michael Mullinar (1895-1973) (unison) and the 1920s Doncaster organist and choirmaster Arnold Williams (SATB).

Percy Grainger (1882-1961), not a composer one would immediately link with Kipling, embraced his cause enthusiastically and made around twenty settings of him, as the fascinatingly entitled The Beaches of Lukannon: Song of the Seal Rookeries, Aleutian Islands, laid out for mixed voice chorus and nine or more strings and harmonium ad lib appeared in 1958 (though composed, as was usual with Grainger, much earlier) was described as "Kipling Settings No.20". Some of Grainger's settings, like Dedication, The Love Song of Har Dyal, The Man of the Sea and The Only Son were for solo voice, but perhaps a majority, such as Morning Song in the Jungle (male voices), Recessional (mixed voices), Red Dog (male voices), Soldier, Soldier (six solo voices and chorus), The Fall of the Stone, The Sea Wife, The Widow's Party, We Have Fed Our Seas and Tiger, Tiger, are for a variety of choral ensembles and, often, accompanying instruments. Grainger undoubtedly immeasurably enriches the Kipling musical portofolio.

Other choral settings included Lee Hoiby's Song of the Galley Slaves Op.14 No.3 for four part male choir and timpani (1958), Josef Holbrooke's Hymn Before Action Op.113c for SATB, Armstrong Gibbs' Tiger, Tiger (TTBB) and The Love Song of Har Dyal, for two sopranos and piano accompaniment (1966) by Anthony Scott.

Kipling's words supplied lyrics for Edwardian (and post-Edwardian) balladry. We may cite The Drums of the Fore and Aft by James Molloy (1837-1909), quite popular in its day, while Gerard Cobb, around 1900, set all twenty of the Barrack Room Ballads. A few years ago, Ralph Mearley recorded Fuzzy Wuzzy, Tommy, Danny Deever (memorably set by Grainger also) (4), The Young British Soldier and On the Road to Mandalay and very good they are. The best-known setting of the latter was of course by the American Oley Speaks (another was by Walter Hedgecock [d. 1932], Musical Director at the Crystal Palace) and another Kipling ballad, very popular in its day, was Boots, by J.P. McCall, otherwise the outstanding Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson (1882-1961) and this was not, by any means, the only McCall/Kipling song, though only Boots may still be heard nowadays. Dora Bright (1863-1951) published a set of six songs from The Jungle Book, including Tiger, Tiger. Kipling even appeared in musical comedy when The Drums of the Fore and Aft was included as a drum feature in The Antelope (1908), whose music was by the Austrian-born Hugo Felix - but the show, briefly staged at the Waldorf, failed.

Kipling's reputation has been in decline - along with that of the British Empire which he illustrated so faithfully - since he died, in the same month as King George V, in 1936. In my undergraduate years I remember G.M. Trevelyan, in his Cambridge lectures of 1953, A Layman's Love of Letters, making an urgent plea for him but despite that - perhaps because of it - his reputation has hardly seen an upturn in the years since then. One's experience in musical settings of Kipling tends to run parallel with this, for all the charm of the settings by Edward German and others and despite the brilliant special pleading of the admittedly maverick Percy Grainger, they in general do not have the prestige of those by, for example, Hardy or Housman. Many of them have the status of either occasional music or light music, which many observers look down on as lower forms of life. Few have appeared in the past generation or so (5). At least a number of them were by non-British composers. And at least the American Kipling films used the best musical talents Hollywood could call on at the relevant times. Is it too late for our best composers to help reinstate Kipling? Given the present guilt-laden attitude to British imperialism I fear it may be.

Philip L. Scowcroft - March 2001

(1) One of the few that did apart from Percy Grainger, as we shall see, was the American composer Reginald de Koven, best remembered for an opera on Robin Hood and specifically the one song O promise Me - long popular at weddings - from it.

(2) Josef Holbrooke was another composer who contemplated, but did not complete, a large-scale setting of Kipling.

(3) Elgar also set to music Kipling's Big Steamers in 1918 as a short song.

(4) Danny Deever, in a version for baritone, male voice chorus and orchestra, is a movement from the Third Symphony of the Soviet composer Lokshin (performed, incidentally, in England in the 1980s under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky's baton). Another setting of Danny Deever came from Walter Damrosch (1862-1950), German-born American-domiciled conductor and composer.

(5) The only solo song to Kipling's words that I have found from the last thirty years is The Wishing Cups, published in 1971, by the obscure composer Gordon Binkerd.

NOTE FROM Hubert Culot

1. Charles Koechlin's Jungle Book cycle of tone poems should be added to this list as well as Koechlin's earlier vocal cycle.

2. Also add Michael Berkeley's Baa Baa Black Sheep recorded by Collins Classics

Return to Index