Why are we singing a lullaby to a seal? Are seals somehow part of the Christmas story?
Let's get the connection between seals (the animals) and Christmas out of the way first. There isn't one. So that's settled. (There are Christmas seals, though—remember those? The little stamps with holiday themes that you stick on the envelope flap of your Christmas cards? They're issued by the American Lung Association and have been around . . .
Lullabies, though, can be considered relevant to the season since the assumption is that Mary sang them to the Christ Child. (The Bible doesn't actually say she did so, just to be clear. That omission hasn't stopped numerous composers from writing them anyway.) So our piece fits into Christmas in sort of a sideways fashion. And also into our overall imagery of a “shining night,” although this time it's not the stars but the moon: “The moon o'er the combers looks downward to find us at rest in the hollows that rustle between.”
But, as the Modern Major General says in Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, “What's going on?” You might have ignored the title as you listened to Eric Whitacre's beautiful setting but then been brought up short by the phrase “wee flipperling.” Huh? Oh, wait a minute. This isn't a manger scene. We're in the middle of the ocean, and this is a mother seal singing to her baby. And, let's see . . . the author of the text is, of all people, Rudyard Kipling? He of the heroic and rather hectoring poem “If”? (“You'll be Man, my son!”) And the funny and clever Just-So Stories? And (my favorite Kipling poem) “Boots”? (“Boots, boots, boots, boots, movin' up an' down again/There's no discharge in the war!”) And the novel Kim, set in 19th-century India during British rule and centering around the exploits of a boy who becomes a spy? (I had the biggest crush on Kim when I read the book in junior high.) Somehow this tender mother's song doesn't fit into my image of Kipling as a 100% manly man.
But Kipling also wrote The Jungle Book, and while the most famous of the stories are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, other stories are about other creatures. “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” my favorite, is about a mongoose who kills a cobra. And our selection takes its text from the introductory poem to “The White Seal,” about a rare albino seal, Kolick, who witnesses the slaughter of hundreds of his fellows by hunters, who are after their pelts. The description of the killing is not at all what you'd expect in a story written for children; it's pretty graphic. While the rest of the seals are apathetic and unconcerned, saying, “Oh, yes, that happens every year,” Kolick is determined to find a place of safety where humans will never come. He searches for years until he finds an island that can't be approached by man's ships, and he leads his people there. There's no specific reference to the poem in the story, but there's a great deal about the way the adults raise the pups, taking them out to sea and teaching them how to swim and survive. Kipling seems to have a deep understanding of the natural world; I don't know much about seals but was very convinced of their reality in the story. I was surprised, therefore, to learn that the stories in TJB are usually seen as strongly moralistic fables, so much so that the Boy Scouts' founder asked Kipling if he could borrow some of their names and ideas for use in his organization. (I always though the Boy Scouts originated in America, didn't you? But the founder was British.)
If you'd like to read the entire text of “The White Seal,” it's available online here. (You should also read the story of the heroic mongoose here.) And I'm including below, even though I'm at risk of making this post even longer than usual, the notes that Whitacre includes in the sheet music about how he came to write the piece. I was very kindly granted permission by Whitacre's agent to reprint this material, so it seems a little nitpicky for me to point out that he has the name of the story wrong. But he's absolutely correct in his description of the story itself. And he's very funny and self-deprecating. So here goes:
About the Work:
In the spring of 2004 I was lucky enough to have my show Paradise Lost presented in the ASCAP Musical Theatre Workshop. The workshop is the brain child of legendary composer Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell), and his insights about the creative process were profoundly helpful. He became a great mentor and friend to the show and, I am honored to say, to me personally.
Soon after the workshop I received a call from a major film studio. Stephen had recommended me to them and they wanted to know if I might be interested in writing music for an animated feature. I was incredibly excited, said yes, and took the meeting.
The creative execs with whom I met explained that the studio heads had always wanted to make an epic adventure, a classic animated film based on Kipling's The Seal Lullaby. I have always loved animation (the early Disney films; Looney Tunes; everything Pixar makes) and I couldn't believe that I might get a chance to work in their grand tradition on such great material.
The Seal Lullaby is a beautiful story, classic Kipling, dark and rich and not at all condescending to kids. Best of all, Kipling begins his tale with the mother seal singing softly to her young pup. I was struck so deeply by those first beautiful words, and a simple, sweet Disney-esque song just came gushing out of me. I wrote it down as quickly as I could, had my wife record it while I accompanied her at the piano, and then dropped it off at the film studio.
I didn't hear anything from them for weeks and weeks, and I began to despair. Did they hate it? Was it too melodically complex? Did they even listen to it? Finally, I called them, begging to know the reason that they had rejected my tender little song. “Oh,” said the exec, “we decided to make Kung Fu Panda instead.”
So I didn't do anything with it, just sang it to my baby son every night to get him to go to sleep. (Success rate: less than 50%.) And a few years later the Towne Singers graciously commissioned this arrangement of it. I'm grateful to them for giving it a new life. And I'm especially grateful to Stephen Schwartz, to whom the piece is dedicated. His friendship and invaluable tutelage has meant more to me than I could ever tell him.