Go back to article: Capturing the song of the nightingale

The nightingales during the Second World War

After the Harrisons moved away in 1933, broadcasts and recordings were made of the nightingales singing alone, and of the dawn chorus in the garden.  On 19 May 1942, BBC engineers had set up their recording equipment for one of these broadcasts when 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers on their way to Mannheim could be heard approaching in the distance. The broadcast had to be cancelled for fear that Nazi spies listening in would be able to pinpoint the bombers’ position. With lines to the BBC still open, the recording went ahead. The original recording still exists today. The first side records the departing aircraft; the second captures their return – eleven fewer. 

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Recording of nightingale birdsong from a garden in Surrey, England on 19 May 1942 as 197 Wellington and Lancaster bombers fly overhead on a bombing raid to Germany

The coincidence of these two things being heard, broadcast, and recorded so close together resembled a divine intervention; a triumph of light over darkness; Nature’s defiance of the affairs of Man. Rothenberg wrote:

…this strange soundscape of menacing bombers and incessant nightingales, singing as they always do, even in the midst of human destruction and the violence that comes with civilization. Even airplanes could not silence the nightingale. Here is a bird who cares nothing for the whims of men or the great noises we produce. Does he know his place extends far beyond the disasters of history? (Rothenberg, 2005, p 143)

Borrowing from Arnheim’s method of understanding dramatic devices in radio plays, we can characterise the event as a parallelism between action and sound. The opposition of bass [bomber] and tenor [nightingale] voices corresponds to an opposition in the action (Arnheim, 1936, p 49). Harrison’s original broadcasts with the nightingale differed from the event with the bombers in the sense that originally it was not a parallel but a contrast between plot and sound. The opposition of voices contrasted with similarity in the action. Bass (cello) and tenor (nightingale) were allies.  

The BBC broadcast and recording interrupted by the bombers in 1942 inspired a fictionalised scene in the British wartime (1943) propaganda film The Demi-Paradise (directed by Anthony Asquith, starring Laurence Olivier as Ivan Kouznetsoff, a Russian engineer visiting Britain). About one hour, thirteen minutes into the film, there is a short sequence of a forthright Ms Harrison as herself playing her cello with the nightingales in the midst of a German bombing raid on Britain, with the BBC engineers putting it out on radio. Russia had joined the Allies in 1941, and a purpose of the film was to stimulate a collaborative spirit between Britain and Russia.

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The Demi-Paradise (1949): 'A short sequence of a forthright Ms Harrison as herself playing her cello with the nightingales in the midst of a German bombing raid on Britain, with the BBC engineers putting it out on radio'

Olivier’s (Russian) character upon hearing the nightingales singing outside, recites a passage from one of English Romantic poet John Keats’ best known works, Ode to a Nightingale, ‘Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird[s]’, indicating his Russian appreciation of the British way of life. The quotation also symbolises resilience, Ode to a Nightingale describes the conflict between ideal and reality.  

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

The inclusion in the film of the broadcast by Harrison, and Olivier’s reference to Keats’ poem, suggests what the filmmakers’ motives may have been to stir emotion by recreating the past – a reassuring ‘feeling’, as well as the more obvious goal to improve understanding of the British values being fought for. Following the first Nightingale broadcast, author George Birmingham had written in the Radio Times, ‘certain sounds have the power of awakening emotion, so intense that the very memory of them afterwards re-creates the emotion. The nightingale’s song is one of these sounds. Keats’ Ode is a splendid example of the emotions awakened’ (Birmingham, 1924).

The interval between the ideal (the way we want things to be) and reality (the way things are), while often painful to address, is an opportunity for enhanced perception, including introspection. ‘The poet is bothered that the paean of the nightingale is not for us. In melancholy he soon forgets the bird and turns within, to his own problems’ (Rothenberg, 2005, p 22). He argues that the Romantic poets took up bird music as a symbol of inner feeling. Poets became the Romantic era’s most prominent guides to our wonder, intoxication, and frustration with the revelation of beautiful bird sound and the emotions it might lead us to (Rothenberg, 2005, p 22). Through his places in nature, life and poetry, the nightingale was a powerful national symbol. Commenting on the first 1924 Nightingale broadcast, a correspondent in the Manchester Guardian opined, ‘down all the ages no bird has been more celebrated for its music than the nightingale, and the works of our own British poets alone would suggest that its song was a national possession’ (‘Auntie Philomel’, 1924).  

It was the process of the Nightingale broadcasts, not just the song of the nightingale, presented in The Demi-Paradise as an antidote or counter-environment for the effects of war – retrieving the sadness and the sense of loss which had been associated with The Great War, and repurposing it as a symbol of continued British resilience during the Second World War. The versatility of the broadcasts themselves as a symbol exemplifies Rothenberg’s observations, as well as McLuhan and McLuhan’s reference to the acoustic ‘message of the birds’ – ‘that the output of any process, biological or psychic, always differs qualitatively from the input’ (McLuhan and McLuhan, 2011, p 40).

In Modernism and Mass Politics: Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, Yeats, Tratner argues that modernism was, at root, an attempt to reform mass culture in an age marked by collectivist thinking across the political spectrum; it was ‘an effort to escape the limitations of nineteenth-century individualist conventions and write about distinctively “collectivist” phenomena’ (Tratner, 1995, p 3; Avery, 2006, p 107). Radio as the first broadcast medium would play a central role in this effort. The Nightingale broadcasts had three stages across this individualist-collective transition. One with Harrison and nightingale; then after 1933, only the nightingale himself was broadcast; and after 1942, broadcasts cease, the story seeming to have been absorbed, disappearing into a collective subconscious it helped to create.  

Harrison is an important symbol for women in this scene. Women were working in factories which were targets of the German bombs. Music was part of their daily lives. Baade observes, ‘Music played an important role in industrial psychology’s attempts to remedy the effects of mass production on the relations between workers and their environment, co-workers and management’ (Baade, 2012, pp 62–63). Harrison’s role was also not unlike the original challenges the BBC had faced in their debut of broadcast radio, in that war was a crisis altering or shattering relationships between humans and technology. McLuhan and Parker argue that: in wartime, or any age of accelerated change, the need to perceive the environment becomes urgent (McLuhan and Parker, 1968, p 252). ‘When the social environment is stirred up to exceptional intensity by technological change and becomes the focus of much attention, we apply the terms “war” and “revolution.” All the components of “war” are present in any environment whatever. The recognition of war depends upon their being stepped up to high definition’ (McLuhan and McLuhan, 2011, p 17).  

As the bombing raid carries on in the distance, Harrison continues playing. A similar incident three years earlier may have inspired Harrison’s role in the film. Baade notes how Melody Maker reported that Eddie Carroll ‘was the first bandleader to broadcast through an air raid, in an OB from the Hammersmith Palais de Dance for London after Dark, a series that was relayed to North America. “With fine irony, one of the numbers featured was A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” a song that described a quiet London night, transformed by love’ (‘Eddie Carroll Airs in Air-Raid’, 1940, p 2; Baade, 2012, p 90). Theatre and cinema closures, blackouts, and air raids had kept many citizens at home, meaning millions had turned to the BBC for entertainment. Harrison’s scene in The Demi-Paradise served as a reminder of the continued resilience of the BBC in wartime.

It is significant that in the film Harrison plays in the inner garden of a country house instead of in the woods. The country house and garden, like the nightingale, are entrenched symbols of the British identity. In 1918 the philosopher L T Hobhouse recalled sitting in his Highgate garden, reading Hegel and witnessing a bombing raid by three German aircraft. In the dedication to his book The Metaphysical Theory of the State, Hobhouse reminded his son, Lt R O Hobhouse of the Royal Flying Corps, that he was fighting against ‘the Hegelian theory of the god-state’ (Hobhouse, 1918, p 6; Colls, 2002, p 204). For Hobhouse, peace was an English garden. War, on the other hand, was Hegel’s bombing machines. In 1940 the god-state bombing machines returned. Picnicking in his garden, this time at Sissinghurst in Kent, English diplomat Harold Nicolson compared the battle in the air with the tranquillity beneath (Wright, 1988; Colls, 2002, p 204). Similarly, in The Demi-Paradise, the English garden serves as a metaphor for peace, contrasting with the bombing raid; however, it expands on Hobhouse’s recollection. Whilst it remains an environment for the action of individual characters, the British public, ‘us’, can now be included thanks to the action of radio.

Olivier’s role as the visiting Russian protagonist in The Demi-Paradise uses the language and cultural barrier to put the film’s audience in the role of the outsider to heighten perception of the British way of life. It was Jacques Ellul who in 1962 first argued that propaganda is not ideology (Ellul, 1965). It is rather the hidden, but complete image of a social way of life that is imbedded in the social technologies and social patterns just as it is imbedded in, say, the English language (McLuhan, 1967, p 164). The mother tongue is propaganda because it exercises an effect on all the senses at once. It shapes our entire outlook and all our ways of feeling. Like any other environment, its operation is imperceptible (McLuhan and Parker, 1968, p 252). Such an environment is naturally of low intensity or definition. That is why it escapes observation (McLuhan and McLuhan, 2011, p 17).  

An urgent need to perceive the environment brought forth the combined symbols of the nightingale, Beatrice Harrison, and the BBC for The Demi-Paradise, and ‘the artist provides us with anti-environments that enable us to perceive the environment’ (McLuhan and Parker, 1968, p 252). Anything that raises the environment to high intensity, whether it is a nightingale’s song or violent change resulting from a new technology, turns the environment into an object of attention. ‘When an environment becomes an object of attention it assumes the character of Anti-Environment or an art object’ (McLuhan and McLuhan, 2011, p 17). The scene of Harrison playing her cello dutifully as the bombs fall against a background of searchlights is such a landscape. Harrison’s defiant presence against the night sky in the scene is a triumph of light over darkness. There is a similar formal contrast between the sound of the bombers and Harrison’s cello. The same vocabulary is used in optics as in acoustics, if we think of Harrison’s cello as a light voice, and the unseen bombers as a dark voice.


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/009