Monday, 9 June 2014

"The Immortal Bird" A Lecture on Nightingales Harland Walshaw joins the Open University Graduates' "Revivalist" Meeting Friday 25 April 2014

Harland Walshaw
in the library with
John Eaton Terry
Friday 25 April

Every two months Open University graduate John Eaton-Terry throws open his library in Lympstone, Devon, to his fellow graduates for an informal lecture. The group members have always called themselves "The Revivalists". The reference is to Age of Enlightenment and the First Great Awakening in 1750 which coincided with the transition, from the period of baroque art and music, to the classical period.

Talks generally concentrate on the period 1750-1820, the time of Mozart and Beethoven. The subject matter varies. Theatre costume design in the eighteenth century at one meeting may give way to a discussion of eighteenth century astronomy at the next. When Lympstone wildlife photographer Harland Walshaw joined the group it was no surprise when the conversation turned to ornithology.

Luscinia Megarhynchos: The Nightingale

At the meeting on 25 April 2014, the bird of the moment was the nightingale. April is the month when nightingales arrive in Devon following their long migration from Guinea-Conakry. The males arrive first and stake their claim to territory by singing lustily. With the arrival of the females, the singing of the males continues, in a more romantic vein. By the end of May each pair has a clutch of eggs to take care of, and it's time to pipe down. There is no more singing from then on, and the great return flight starts at the end of July.

Noel Perrin
Harland opened his presentation by recalling a debate between Noel Perrin, History Professor at Dartmouth College from the late sixties, and his M.Litt tutor at Cambridge - a fellow American. Noel suggested that the contemporary American poet Thomas Eliot had captured the nightingale's song in words ("Jug, jug to dirty ears") in his epic poem, "The Waste Land". Each suggested several other examples to support their own opinion - an exchange which could have supplied a lecture in itself, not to mention their post-pub stake-out of nearby Madingley woods to collect empirical data, in the true spirit of the enlightenment.

Thomas Eliot
The poem by Eliot, to which Noel was referring, includes the intriguing lines, "The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king so rudely forced." This put Harland in mind of the myth of Philomela and Procne, daughters of King Pandion I of Athens.

According to Ovid (Metamorphoses Book VI, first century) Procne was married to King Tereus of Thrace. Tereus agreed to invite Philomela to visit her sister, but betrayed their father's trust and sexually assaulted Philomela before she got to see her sister. In an attempt to prevent her speaking out, he compounded his crime by cutting out her tongue.

An old story (Attica 490 BC)
Philomela & Procne prepare to kill Itys
However, Philomela contrived to weave a tapestry for Procne, depicting Tereus' crime. Procne, incensed by her husband's behaviour, retaliated by killing their son Itys and feeding him to Tereus, before revealing the boy's severed head. Tereus, enraged, chased both sisters with an axe. They prayed to the gods to give them wings, and Procne became a swallow, Philomela a nightingale. Tereus, appropriately, was transformed into a hoopoe.

Bust of John Keats
It was not until the romantic period of English poetry, that the poor nightingale was allowed to lose its association with tragedy and misery.
The House in Hampstead
where John Keats lived from

1818 to 1820 and wrote
"Ode to a Nightingale"
under the pear tree
Harland cited the early eighteenth century poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Clare, and particularly John Keats who wrote the immortal "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819). The 'light winged dryad of the trees' no longer symbolises unhappiness, but rather contrasts with Keats own 'weariness, fever and fret', by making him 'too happy' - in Philomel's happiness.

"The Nightingale Sat on the
Blossom Tree and Sang"
Helen Jacobs (born 1888)
Jumping to 1888, Harland recounted Oscar Wilde's return to tragedy with
his short story "The Nightingale and the Rose", from his anthology "The Happy Prince and Other Tales". The selfless nightingale stays up all night, singing in order to create a single rose, coloured red with it's life-blood, which it drains by pressing its breast to a thorn. The rose, once formed, will enable a young student to convince an attractive girl to dance with him.

Oscar Wilde
The student is oblivious to the nightingale's efforts on his behalf and (no ornithologist he) decries the nightingale's song, saying, "She has form - but not feeling." To add further insult, the student, delighting in the rose, and rushing to show it to his inamorata, finds he has been gazumped by the Chamberlain's nephew, who can afford jewels. The rose? It ends up crushed by the wheels of a cart in the gutter. There's a moral in there somewhere, I'm sure!

In 1843, in Copenhagen, Hans Christian Anderson had invented another nightingale story from whole cloth. As one of his four "New Fairy Stories" (including "The Ugly Duckling") he created "The Nightingale", which was inspired by his unrequited love for Jenny Lind, 'the Swedish nightingale'. It was also an extension of his earlier story "The Swineherd", in which a prince's gifts of a nightingale and a rose are rejected by a princess in the hope of more exciting artificial gifts. (The princess, needless to say, comes to rue her ingratitude.)

Hans Christian Anderson
The 1843 story features a Chinese king. (The inspiration for the Chinese setting was Copenhagen's newly opened Tivoli Gardens - also the setting for the première of Hans Christian Lumbye's "Champagne Galop" in 1845!) The king delights in a mechanical nightingale but ails, and seems close to death, when his automaton ceases to function. The real nightingale nobly stands in for his man-made successor, restoring the king to life. Anderson's moral is clear. Always insist on the genuine article!

Alexandre Benois' set for
Igor Stravinsky's "Nightingale"
This story was adopted by Igor Stravinsky as the sequel to his ballet "The Rite of Spring". His early work on the project was put to one side in favour of the ballet "Firebird" in 1910, and subsequently "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring" in 1913. Just months before the outbreak of The Great War, Stravinsky and Diaghilev produced the opera "Соловей" (Nightingale).

Leopold Mozart & family
On the subject of the nightingale in classical music, Harland introduced the audience to an instrument specifically invented for Josef Haydn's "Toy Symphony" (now considered to have been created by Leopold Mozart from existing 'toychestra' cassations, much as he composed his "Musical Sleigh-Ride").
Harland Walshaw
plays 'Nightingale'

Harland had a special treat to share with his listeners. He had managed to get a genuine orchestral 'nightingale', a very intricate and expensive device. It is also fiendishly difficult to play well. However, Harland had gone the extra mile and mastered a very convincing 'mating call' for the assembled listeners.

Beatrice Harrison
Moving to the twentieth century, Harland recalled the fascinating story of Beatrice Harrison who claimed to be able to charm the birds in the trees. In 1924, the young 'cellist claimed that nightingales sang along with her when she played in the garden of the family home at Oxted in Surrey. Sensing a scoop, the BBC mustered all their available equipment for the first ever outdoor broadcast.

After an initial show of bashfulness, the nightingale obliged by singing along, unwittingly entertaining the entire British radio audience. (It has been suggested that a talented whistler called Maude Gould was on hand to take over 'in loco philomela' should the need arise - but nothing has ever been proved!)

The broadcast was very popular, and became a yearly feature in the BBC schedule. The broadcasts continued into the war years. Finally, in the eighteenth year of broadcast (1942) the 'performance' (a solo nightingale improvisation in this case) was interrupted by the sound of one hundred and ninety seven Wellington and Lancaster bombers setting off for Mannheim. The sound technician had the sense to halt the transmission in the interest of national security, but kept the recorder running. The recording still exists! (Listen) In 1943 Beatrice appeared as herself in Anthony Asquith's movie "Demi-Paridise" starring Laurence Olivier and Penelope Ward - in which she played 'cello with nightingale accompaniment for a BBC broadcast.


During the war another nightingale became increasingly popular. In the popular 1939 song by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". This line was first performed by actress Judy Campbell in the 1940 London revue "New Faces". Later it was made famous by Vera Lynn.(Compare Vera and Judy.) The song features prominently in Fritz Lang's 1941 remake of "Rogue Male" called "Man Hunt" starring Walter Pidgeon and Joan Bennett.

Harland ended his talk, as he started, with the song of the nightingale itself, in a remarkable recording made twenty years ago by a Minister of the United Reformed Church in Tiverton, from the kitchen window of the church manse, while he did the washing up.

As Keats so eloquently put it,

"Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or Sleep?"


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