I’ve been reading Oh, My Horses: Elgar and the Great War, a collection of essays centred on the composer’s reactions to the War, but also covering some interesting general subjects, such as the changes in attitudes towards German music after war broke out.
The book comes complete with a CD of historical recordings, including the 1917 versions of Elgar’s The Fringes of the Fleet, which set four of the songs from Kipling’s papmphlet of the same name (later collected as part of Sea Warfare). Elgar said these settings were in a “broad saltwater style”, and and that’s an accurate description of the first two, The Lowestoft Boat and Fate’s Discourtesy. The third song though is Submarines – based on the poem better known as Tin Fish. This is a wonderfully dark and threatening setting, suiting the poem brilliantly. The fourth song is The Sweepers, a tribute to the professionalism of the unglamorous but dangerous work of this most necessary part of the Navy. (During the Second World War father commanded minesweepers during the siege of Malta, and later on the Atlantic convoys and elsewhere.)
Dawn off the Foreland — the young flood making
Jumbled and short and steep —
Black in the hollows and bright where it’s breaking —
Awkward water to sweep.
“Mines reported in the fairway,
Warn all traffic and detain.
Sent up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”
Noon off the Foreland — the first ebb making
Lumpy and strong in the bight.
Boom after boom, and the golf-hut shaking
And the jackdaws wild with fright.
“Mines located in the fairway,
Boats now working up the chain,
Sweepers — Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”
Dusk off the Foreland — the last light going
And the traffic crowding through,
And five damned trawlers with their syreens blowing
Heading the whole review!
“Sweep completed in the fairway,
No more mines remain.
Sent back Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain.”
Elgar’s setting of this combines a sense of the poetry and danger of the sea with a sense of the clipped understated voice of the sailor. It seems to me very successful indeed.
In 1917 these songs were presented as one item in a Music-Hall programme at the Coliseum that also included comic sketches and popular songs. Four men dressed as sailors sat in front of a pub and sang. Second from the left in the picture is Charles Mott, the main singer, and a favourite of Elgar’s. Before the end of 1917 he enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles, and was killed in May of 1918.
The enterprise was initiated by an Admiral, and according to a letter from Elgar:
The Admiralty are taking a great interest in it & on Monday night we hope to have a great shew of Admirals and gold lace in the front row.
The songs were popular with critics and audiences, and Elgar embarked on a six-month tour, conducting them at various venues around the country. the only person who seems not to have liked them was Kipling. As Elgar’s wife put it in her diary (26 August) ,”It seems atrocious but mean spirited R. Kipling wants to stop ‘The Fringes’ continuing.” In a letter a month later, she wrote, “I fear the Songs are doomed by R.K. he is perfectly stupid in his attitude.”
Kipling’s displeasure was not able to prevent a recording, but he did put a veto on further performances after December 1917. On November 27th Elgar wrote to a friend: “Are you coming to the funeral this week, so sad.”
Why did Kipling dislike the settings? The contributors to this book suggest that it was because of his change of heart after Jack’s death, and he no longer wanted to be seen as glorifying war. But these songs do not glorify war; they are tributes to the professionalism of sailors, for whom Kipling never wavered in his admiration.
Was his attitude partly caused by the fact that he had a strong relationship with another composer, Sir Edward German, who had set Just-So and Jungle Book songs before the War, and in 1917 set Have You News of My Boy Jack? (A very fine version of this, sung by Louise Kirby Lunn, is included on the book’s CD).
Or did he just feel steam-rollered into the project? Admiral Lord Charles Beresford asked Elgar to write the settings. How closely was Kipling consulted? Was he presented with a fait accompli that he was not altogether happy with? These poems were written to fit between the prose pieces of The Fringes of the Fleet. Did Kipling feel that they chnged their meaning by being taken out of context? I shall check some Kipling biographies in the hope of further clues.
Oh, My Horses seems an odd title for a book about a composer in wartime. It comes from a letter Elgar wrote on 25th August, 1914, when the scale of the War was just beginning to become apparent:
Concerning the war I say nothing – the only thing that wrings my heart and soul is the thought of the horses – oh! my beloved animals – the men – and women can go to hell – but my horses; – I walk round and round this room cursing God for allowing dumb brutes to be tortured – let Him kill his human beings but – how CAN HE? Oh, my horses.