Abdul Abulbul Amir is a wonderfully satirical song written by one of Ireland’s greatest songwriters, Percy French.
It was French’s first published work and was written in 1877 at the height of the Russian Turkish war. The conflict was well covered in the Irish newspapers, but French doesn’t take a real event as his inspiration.
Instead, he invents a situation that gives him plenty of scope for humour.
French begins by introducing his characters. They are on opposite sides but they are remarkably similar.
Abdul is “unaccustomed to fear” and “the bravest by far in the ranks of the Shah”.
Ivan is the “bravest” of all among the famous troops of the Czar.
With two such titans involved we know there has to be trouble ahead, a heroic clash on the battlefield perhaps or some fight over a noble and worthy cause.
French does exactly the opposite. The two bravest men in their respective armies don’t meet in the heat of battle; they meet when Ivan takes a stroll down town.
The dispute isn’t over some great cause, or the love of a woman; it arises because Ivan treads on Abdul’s toe.
We’re not sure whether this is an accident or a direct challenge but either way it gives great scope for comedy because the song proceeds in a mock heroic style in which a triviality is treated as if it’s a major event. The men’s puffed up pride becomes their downfall.
Abdul feels he has been slighted and the only way to maintain his honour is to fight a dual and kill Skavar.
Skavar, for his part, is ready to accept the challenge. The humour comes from the pompous way both characters defend their honour and completely over-react to a trivial event.
The two men fight a long dual into the night and “huge multitudes came” to watch because they are so famous.
We know fight must end with the death of one of them but then French surprises us because after a titanic battle, they stab each other at the same time and they both die.
Percy French originally wrote Abdul Abulbul Amir as a monologue while he was at Trinity College Dublin. It was for one of the many concerts and shows organised by students.
French added the music later when he started performing his own concerts throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. The song is sometimes published as being author unknown or as anonymous.
This is because French, while still a naïve young man, sold the song for £5. The publisher didn’t put his name on the manuscripts and French never received any further royalties, even though the song was extremely successful.