Go back to article: Capturing the song of the nightingale

The cultural blues

Harrison’s selection of pieces for the nightingale broadcasts, such as Londonderry Air, Dvorak's Songs My Mother Taught Me and Rimsky-Korsakov's Chant Hindou, were played adagio and with much feeling. Harrison’s existing repertoire included several pieces that were contemplative and mournful. The Nightingale’s song has long been associated with sadness and lament across a wide range of art and literature, beginning with the tragic myth of Philomela referred to in the immediate reaction to the broadcasts, (‘Philomel’, 1924; ‘Philomel Calling’, 1924), which originates from Homer’s Odyssey and Sophocles’ tragedy, Tereus.  

Harrison selected pieces from her repertoire which the nightingale responded to. Interviewed in June 1924 by a correspondent from the Yorkshire Observer, she revealed that she had found that several nightingales also responded to particular notes of the scale, and often, she was able to maintain a kind of conversation with a particular bird by playing certain notes – to which the bird responded by singing the same tune (West, 1924; ‘Nightingale Conversations’, 1924).

In her autobiography, first published in 1985, Harrison wrote:

Suddenly, at about quarter to eleven on the night of 19 May 1924, the nightingale burst into song as I continued to play. His voice seemed to come from the Heavens. I think he liked the Chant Hindou best for he blended with it so perfectly. I shall never forget his voice that night, or his trills, nor the way he followed the cello so blissfully. It was a miracle to have caught his song and to know that it was going, with the cello, to the ends of the earth. My excitement was intense. My greatest wish was accomplished… (Beatrice Harrison edited by Cleveland-Peck, 1985, p 132)

Harrison’s emotive performances on the recordings attain magical effects. Writing of music as romantic expression, Arnheim writes, ‘Sensibility and nerves are directly attacked, music becomes an organic part of nature, pulsating, rejoicing, sorrowing, boundless, amorphous’ (Arnheim, 1936, p 41). We may say that Harrison explored the expressive potentialities of her cello in line with this romantic style, while also referencing and anticipating emerging forms of popular music.  

The Nightingale broadcasts acted as a kind of ‘blues’. They were interpreted at the time as a form of grieving, not solely because they were associated with some of saddest pieces in Harrison’s repertoire. Grieving can be defined as transitioning from the way life was before a cataclysmic event, to life after it. By expressing or experiencing intense emotions associated with grief creatively through a new auditory medium, perhaps it seemed easier to come to terms with the uncertain emotions that radio itself stirred up – to regain a feeling of control – by its ‘taming’ a natural environment that was familiar, and presenting it as content to console the listener.     

A sense of sadness was already entrenched in the gramophone culture that was very much the ‘ground’ into which the new ‘figure’ of broadcast radio arrived. The famous dog-and-gramophone logo that would be adopted by the Victor Talking Machine Company, and several associated brands, featured Nipper listening to ‘His [late] Master’s Voice’. The rights to the painting and the ‘His Master’s Voice’ slogan had originally been sold to the Gramophone Company by painter Francis Barraud in 1900. His brother, Mark Barraud, had died young, but had left behind a phonograph recording. When his dog, Nipper, responded to the recording it had inspired Francis to create the original painting, which was then altered to create the HMV logo.  

Here we have a contemporary metaphor and a quasi-technology for exploring ‘beyond death’. However, an earlier ground of Victorian spiritualism is also significant here. Christie highlights the funerary and séance like associations which occurred with the gramophones, observing that ‘music, or essentially speech, without bodily presence…spoke suggestively to a culture that was already accustomed to imagining life after death and to the denial of death’s finality in many of its most highly acclaimed imaginative works’ (Christie, 2001, p 9). Sterne observes that Nipper ‘illustrates the peculiar Victorian culture of death and dying into which sound recording was inserted’ (Sterne, 2003, p 301). There is a long history of images of dogs showing interest in their masters’ musical and vocal performances (Sterne, 2003, p 302; Leppert, 1993, pp 78, 167).

The nightingale, hidden in the trees, is a metaphor for the singer hidden by radio, ‘without bodily presence’. ‘True music,’ says Goethe in Wilhelm Meister, ‘is for the ear alone. I want to see anyone I am talking to. On the other hand, who sings to me must sing unseen; his form must neither attract nor distract me’ (Arnheim, 1936, p 143). Nonetheless, the nightingale conveys an image similar to that of Nipper – translating it from the visual to the aural. In the same way that Nipper was interested in Mark Barraud’s (his master’s) voice, the nightingale expresses interest in the sound of Harrison’s cello, but with its song rather than visual action. As a medium, radio was more suited to such a spiritual message through its occupation of the invisible ‘heavenly’ air waves. This would seem to support Sterne’s wider argument that ‘the metaphorisation of the human body, mind, and soul follows the medium currently in vogue’ (Sterne, 2003, p 289).

The earlier logo of the Gramophone Company, The Recording Angel, had been much the same idea as Nipper, the angel bringing ‘voices from beyond’ – calibrating human senses to the new medium using the old (spiritual) situation. Peters suggests that, even more than angels, animals have probably been the chief object for contemplating the human estate (Peters, 1999, p 241).

The nineteenth century had pushed ‘man’ toward both animality and mechanism via the assumption by machines of supposed human functions (speaking, memory) and the increasingly permeable intellectual and morphological membrane between humans and animals (always thin in childhood and fairy tales) (Peters, 1999, p 244). There was a perception that man and nature were mechanical and machine-like. But the electric age brought with it its own form of malaise. McLuhan observed that a culture is an order of sensory preference, and suggests that ‘all new technologies bring on the cultural blues, just as the old ones evoke phantom pain after they have disappeared’ (McLuhan and Fiore, 1968, p 16). He argues that ‘technological traumas’ including ‘the trauma of industrial change’, ‘the major trauma of the telegraph’ and ‘the transition from mechanical to electric technology’ are so very traumatic and severe for us all (McLuhan, 1964, p 365). Similarly, he and Fiore suggest that ‘at the popular level, the confusion and pain created by radio in the twenties was “lavishly expressed” in the blues’ (McLuhan and Fiore, 1968, p 7).

Figure 10

Image of the twittering machine. A watercolour pen and ink work of art depicting nature mechanical music and radio

Zwitscher-Maschine (Twittering Machine) by Paul Klee, 1922

In identifying matching visual indicators of cultural expressions of grief which relate to birdsong, a conspicuous example is Twittering Machine (1922), a watercolour and pen and ink oil transfer on paper by Swiss-German painter Paul Klee. Whilst interpretations of this work vary widely, essentially it depicts a painful confusion of nature, mechanical music, and perhaps an anticipation of radio. The different angles of the four birds’ heads indicate a directionality of sound, and an auditory expression of space, with the relative heights of their heads often interpreted as representing musical notes or ranges of sound frequency, as in a vocal quartet. The birds appear shackled to the crankshaft as if ‘caged’ or ‘tinned’. They are sentenced to ‘chirp under compulsion’, cursed, like the sad Greek myth of Philomela, which tells a human story behind the nightingale’s song. If the birds fall off the crankshaft, they disappear into a rectangular pit below.   

Twittering Machine indicates how, in nature, birdsong can be an inescapable ‘noise’, but by gramophone, birdsong becomes controllable, switched on or off at will. As with a wind-up phonograph or gramophone, the crank handle indicates how haptic human participation is required for the Twittering Machine to work. Before the arrival of mechanical music, reaching the sounds of nature or hearing music for most would be difficult and complex, perhaps requiring a journey over space to a natural setting, concert, music hall or theatre; or learning how to play an instrument and read music.  

With mechanical music (and electronic sound recording technologies), such effects are easier to achieve, and in this sense the listener is not challenged anymore. They now have all the trappings of success but have lost their inspiration and are just ‘turning the handle on the machine’, as it were.  ‘Listening’ has become ‘just listening’, with each listening experience resembling the one before it. There is music without musicians, and twittering without birds.

Whilst Twittering Machine can thus be interpreted as an artistic statement of the pain and misery that result from new technology, like the euphoric reaction to the Nightingale broadcast, it would become one of Klee’s most celebrated works, inspiring several musical compositions and becoming a popular work to hang in children's bedrooms (Larson, 1987, p 96).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/005