From Mandalay to Tinseltown. An excursion with Rudyard Kipling.

Were you among the traditionalists who tuned in to the UK’s annual televised Royal Christmas address, broadcast on Christmas Day? It’s currently delivered by Queen Elizabeth II, who was just a 6-year old when the first such royal broadcast was made by her grandfather, King George V, in 1932. He opened this enduring tradition with a radio broadcast that began with the following words, reaching some 20 million people across the British Empire:

“I speak now from my home and from my heart to you all; to men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.”

Queen Elizabeth exercises control over the speech she delivers, generating the themes while leaving the textual details to others. Things were different at that first broadcast in 1932, when the address was written for the King by Rudyard Kipling, the celebrated journalist, editor, poet and novelist.

Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) was born in Bombay, India, to British parents. He became a well travelled man: early education in England; back to India in his late teens; on to Vermont in the US with his wife; back to England, then a stint in South Africa and a final return to Sussex, England where he remained until his death.

Kipling’s literary works went on to attract the attention of both composers and film-makers. This week’s blog dips into a few of the musical settings of his texts, and the spirit of the time is perhaps best captured in a setting of his poem Mandalay. The city of Mandalay was at one time the capital of Burma (present-day Myanmar) and Kipling’s poem embodies the nostalgia felt by a member of the British military on departing the exotic East for a more drizzly existence back in Blighty. Anyone who has made and sustained the reverse route to south east Asia surely won’t be able to resist joining in heartily with the sentiment of Oley Speaks’ On the Road to Mandalay (8.111345), which the American composer based on Kipling’s poem. If you know this rousing song, I hope you’ll join in lustily with the last stanza, especially if you’re cradling a cooling Singapore Sling:

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be—
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
Can’t you ’ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the Bay!

Charles Ives set a number of Kipling’s poems to music, including The Love Song of Har Dyal (8.559271), which found its way into T. S. Eliot’s  A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, compiled in 1941. Eliot was later to admit: “Traces of Kipling appear in my own mature verse where no diligent scholarly sleuth has yet observed them, but which I am myself prepared to disclose. I once wrote a poem called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I am convinced that it would never have been called “Love Song” but for a title of Kipling’s that stuck obstinately in my head : The Love Song of Har Dyal.

Here’s Ives’ setting of Kipling’s poem:

Alone upon the housetops to the North
I turn and watch the lightning in the sky—
The glamour of thy footsteps in the North.
Come back to me, Beloved, or I die.

Below my feet the still bazar is laid—
Far, far below the weary camels lie—
The camels and the captives of thy raid.
Come back to me, Beloved, or I die!

My father’s wife is old and harsh with years
And drudge of all my father’s house am I—
My bread is sorrow and my drink is tears.
Come back to me, Beloved, or I die!

Kipling wrote two editions of The Jungle Book (1894 and 1895). The Second Jungle Book has a chapter entitled The White Seal, which is prefaced by the poem, Seal Lullaby. This was set to music, in translation, by the French composer Maurice Delage (1879–1961) as part of his 3 Chants de la jungle and titled Berceuse Phoque (9.80617). Here’s Kipling’s original text as a guide:

Oh! hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,
And black are the waters that sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows that rustle between.
Where billow meets billow, then soft be thy pillow,
Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas!

I expect many people may have first encountered Rudyard Kipling at a showing of the 1942 action-adventure film by the Korda bothers, The Jungle Book, in Laurence Stallings’ screenplay adaptation of Kipling’s original story. The composer of the soundtrack for that film was Miklós Rózsa. He subsequently made a suite from the score (9.81064P), the opening of which introduces us to several of the creature characters we’re all familiar with.

Twenty-five years later, Kipling’s original was again adapted, this time by Walt Disney for his animated comedy, The Jungle Book. (Disney referred to Kipling’s original novel and the Kordas’ film as “nice, mysterious, heavy stuff”, something he clearly didn’t intend to replicate). The 1967 soundtrack was particularly well received. It included five songs by the celebrated Sherman brothers, but we’ll end today with the one which I’m sure everyone will instinctively join in with. Written by Terry Gilkyson, here’s an arrangement of Balu the Bear’s The Bare Necessities (8.570388).

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