Musicology as Propaganda in Victorian Theory and Practice

By Hamilton, Sharon | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1998 | Go to article overview

Musicology as Propaganda in Victorian Theory and Practice


Hamilton, Sharon, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Drawing upon the mid-19th century discipline of comparative musicology, wherein European music was thought to symbolize a cultural and philosophical ideal, this essay explores the way that Rudyard Kipling used such ideas in poems like "Mandalay" and how he ascribed to the "Hammerstein principle"---i.e., "breaking into song"----in the interests of the imperialist emotion.

In Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that "the imperial experience while often regarded as exclusively political also entered into the cultural and aesthetic life of the metropolitan West as well" (136). Contending that the link between culture and imperialism reinforced a complex system of power relations which contributed to the "practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory" (9), he outlines how cultural products from Mansfield Park to the architecture of Saigon played a concrete role in the maintenance of European colonial rule. Furthermore, through an analysis of recent performances of Aida, Said demonstrates that even today the implicitly racist notion that Egyptian history may be manipulated at will to fit the extravagant imaginings of European minds is accepted--and excused--as long as that message is clothed in a particularly impressive high E-flat. In a similar vein, the connection between the arts and politics can also be seen in the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein--especially those with an imperialist theme like South Pacific and The King and I. Illuminating the way that such music might be linked to propaganda, Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim recently observed that "the Hammerstein principle was that when emotion got so high that speech couldn't accomplish what it was supposed to, then one burst into song."

Possibly, however, it is the Victorian period that best exemplifies such musical politics, and indeed one finds a perfect expression of the ideological implications of "bursting into song" in Charles Kingsley's Westward Ho! (1855), when he observes that the glories of Empire were "fit rather to be sung than said" (10). Nor was the value of music ignored by the most popular imperialist poet of the Victorian era, Rudyard Kipling--acclaimed in period newspapers as the "Laureate of Empire" (MacDonald 145). Kipling's general interest in and connection to various forms and aspects of music has of course frequently been noted in standard introductions to his work, to ballad collections, and to music-hall histories (see, for example, Abrams 1714; Woods ix; Disher 233), but what still requires closer attention is exactly why, and with what effect, he employed musical idioms in his poems. As a journalist and as a writer Kipling's chosen artistic medium was words, so why then his strong concentration on musical form?

More specifically, the question which I wish to pose in this essay is: how did Kipling's imitation of music within his poetry support the transmission and popular acceptance of the ideology of imperialism? And by way of addressing this issue, my focus will be on his perhaps most well-known poem "Mandalay"; published in June 1890, this poem later became part of his Barrack-Room Ballads, a collection of poems based on the imperial experiences of the common British soldier and written in the cockney vernacular of these men. In discussing "Mandalay" I will concentrate, first, upon the emotional impact of the two musical idioms which Kipling adopted in this poem: those found in traditional English ballads and in the music hall. Next, I will deal more generally with the historical developments in music theory which took place during the Victorian era, and the ways in which the mid-19th-century discipline of comparative musicology influenced Victorian thought. I will conclude by focusing specifically on how the musical cues in Kipling's poetry functioned as an appropriate vehicle for imperial thought and as a pernicious representation of imperial power by examining their final, literal, transformation into song in the now famous 1907 musical setting of "Mandalay," by American composer Oley Speaks. …

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