‘But Who Shall Return Us Our Children? — A Kipling Passion’
By John Muehleisen, conducted by Deborah Simpkin King
Sunday, Nov. 12, 5 p.m.
Church of the Immaculate Conception
30 North Fullerton Ave.
www.emberensemble.org, 888-407-6002, ext. 5
By GWEN OREL
Say the name Rudyard Kipling and you might get a grimace, an eye roll, perhaps the word “jingoism.”
The Victorian author of “The Jungle Book” and “Gunga Din” is associated with extreme nationalism.
But Kipling (1865-1936) lost a son, John, in World War I. John was not yet 18.
John’s loss changed his father’s life.
Kipling, who had helped his son receive a post in the Irish Guards after John had been rejected from service due to poor eyesight, wrote the lines “If any question why we died / Tell them, because our fathers lied,” which may refer to Kipling’s guilt.
Some people suggest Kipling’s poem “My Boy Jack” is about the death of his son. He never forgot the suffering of families, and joined the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Next Sunday, Nov. 12, Ember, the vocal ensemble of Schola Cantorum on Hudson, will perform the East Coast premiere of John Muehleisen’s work, “But Who Shall Return Us Our Children? — A Kipling Passion,” which dramatizes the lead-up to World War I, the loss of John Kipling, and the aftermath for Rudyard and his family.
Soloists perform as John Kipling, and Rudyard and Carrie Kipling, with a 24-member ensemble and an 11-piece orchestra.
The concert is part of a yearlong commemoration of the centennial of World War I. Schola Cantorum has scheduled the performances in New York and New Jersey for Veterans Day weekend.
Ember’s season, which is titled “When the War Is Over,” is, according to a release, supported by a special Veterans Task Force which is arranging for veterans’ involvement in every concert, and producing a series of podcasts.
The concert will include soloists, vocal ensemble, and a chamber orchestra.
HONOR AND HOMAGE
Muehleisen said that this oratorio grew out of an earlier work, “Pietà,” which was “ a work about the need for compassion and mercy.
In that work, “The central image was the relationship between mothers and sons, as a model for compassion and love.”
The work consisted of three stories of loss, one of which was the story of how Carrie Kipling grieved over her son John. Schola Cantorum on Hudson performed it in 2015.
“I was so compelled by this story, partly because it was really emblematic of what families and loved ones go through in any way, dealing with loss,” the composer said. “In this case it was very compelling, because after John Kipling was shipped to France, he was reported missing, presumed injured.”
The family then received no word of what had happened to him.
They spent more than two years trying to find out, interviewing soldiers, officers, looking through the lists of missing and the wounded, looking at English and German hospitals.
The parents’ odyssey is “the real focus of the Kipling passion. I pay homage and honor to the fallen of World War I, but as much as, if not more so, to the people left behind. It’s one of the real unaddressed issues of any war or tragedy.”
Post traumatic stress disorder was called “shell shock” 100 years ago, and considered “tantamount to cowardice,” he said. “Swept under the rug is military suicide.”
The passion addresses four themes:
1. To commemorate the centenary of World War I, and honor those who served, fell or survived
2. To honor the families and loved ones of the fallen and injured
3. To address PTSD
4. To address military suicide
Structurally, the passion has seven movements, including a prelude.
NOT ONE WORD
The libretto is made up entirely of primary sources, poems by Rudyard Kipling, World War I poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and more.
“I don’t believe John made up one word,” said conductor Deborah Simpkin King.
“I think that’s correct,” Muehleisen said with a laugh. “I wanted to make sure it was historically accurate.
“My research consisted of reading biographies of Kipling and his family, reading personal letters and diary entries, newspaper articles, announcements of war. World War I is one of the richest literary treasures that we have.”
King said, “A lot of the dialogue is the ensemble singers in recitative, who function as a Greek chorus, giving the date. The chorus also acts as a reflective element.”
The music itself embraces different styles: when John is born, in Part I, a movement titled “Family Portrait,” Carrie sings a lullaby to him.
Then the music reprises in the context of a soldier going off to war.“To make those tie-ins gives a narrative that follows through the entire two-hour work,” she said.
Audience members will recognize musical quotations, she said: at one point Muehleisen uses music from the Bach passion, takes out the German text, and puts in a poem.
For King, making sure the narrative taking place onstage and the composer’s message are entwined is part of the challenge. While Muehleisen provides metronomic markings, she must decide on space between the movements, how to position the soloists and ensemble members.
The singers are not costumed, but all are wearing poppies, a symbol of the fallen in World War I. Poppies are a symbol of the 2017-2018 season, King explained.
LONG AGO, AND HAPPENING NOW
For Muehleisen, the work is not just history, but “a topic that resonates today. We hear about the numbers, the clinical, quantitative numbers of how many people were killed, but not about the untold injuries, and the impacts on families.”
Since the work premiered in March at Choral Arts Northwest, Muehleisen has done deep edits on the score, she said.
“The Cenotaph” is a new section. Muehleisen explained that the Cenotaph is a monument in London to the tomb of the unknown soldier; Kipling chose its inscription.
In this section, Kipling’s 1923 poem “London Stone” is set to music:
When you come to London Town,
Bring your flowers and lay them down
At the place of grieving.
What is the tie betwixt us two
That must last our whole lives through?
‘As I suffer, so do you.’
That may ease the grieving.
The poem shows how “we deal with loss. Not just honoring that loss. How does the world deal with the loss that came out of fighting together, and not have a sense of enemies continue?
“Part six [“Reconciliation and Remembrance”] is really about that,” Muehleisen said. “Part four [“Lost & Found”] is about the personal loss of family, how Carrie and Rudyard try to find out what happened to John and how they dealt with that.
“Six takes a personal journey and makes it more universal, by saying we don’t just grieve alone, we support one another.
“We gather together, around the Cenotaph.”
King said, “The larger contest for this large piece is the whole issue of military conflict in the world.
“How does it get started? World War I got started for reasons that were really stupid: rhetoric, hubris. Later on in the season we will be doing music from all of the nations involved in World War I.
“We are preparing for a very meaningful centennial anniversary of the war that was supposed to end all wars.”