Get On Up

Sam Kinchin-Smith · Nightingales

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The common nightingale shows up in the south-east of England in April and is gone by early June. The BBC’s first live outside broadcast, in May 1924, saw Elgar’s favourite cellist, Beatrice Harrison, duet with a nightingale in her back garden. Ninety years later, the musician and song collector Sam Lee programmed the first in a series of special concerts inspired by Harrison's example. A tiny audience was invited to a Sussex woodland after dusk, where Lee and other musicians performed ballads featuring nightingales, accompanied by real English nightingales. He’s playing another round of shows this month.

I went to one last year. It began with a conversation around a campfire. There’s actually no such thing as an English nightingale: for most of the year they inhabit the forests of Central Africa. But between six and seven thousand breeding pairs make it across the Channel each year – a tiny proportion of the several million which fly to Europe.

The English birds have essentially overshot, which makes life difficult for males seeking a mate. The romantic interpretation is that they have to sing twice as powerfully, twice as beautifully, to attract a female. The biological case for this is sketchy, but there are anecdotal accounts of birders from Berlin, where nightingales are as common as pigeons, coming to Kent to listen to the English contingent’s superior pipes.

There’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence of the practical role the nightingale’s singing once played in human relations as well as avian ones. According to Lee, a lonely English nightingale, audible from some distance away, was an unmoving target for late night rendezvous in pre-electric societies, during a season when more-liberal-than-usual interaction between the sexes was encouraged by, for example, fertility festivals.

In Hardy’s Woodlanders, Doctor Fitzpiers chases Suke Damson through a forest before catching up with her on a haycock, after one such celebration. Sure enough, a nightingale is mentioned, as a way of contextualising their night together as both within and without the usual framework of such things:

Besides this not a sound of any kind reached their ears, the time of nightingales being now past, and Hintock lying at a distance of two miles at least. In the opposite direction the hay-field stretched away into remoteness till it was lost to the eye in a soft mist.

Fitzpiers is able to follow Suke because she is singing ‘snatches of a local ballad in the smallest voice she could assume’.

When real nightingales aren’t available, English folk music tries to reproduce the sound of their song with instruments like the fiddle, which never sound remotely like the bird's real-life crystalline babble (in the words of R.F. Langley: 'one note, five times, louder each/time, followed, after a fraught/pause, by a soft cuckle of/wet pebbles, which I could call/a glottal rattle'). Lee’s show presented an opportunity to focus, fully, on what a nightingale actually sounds like, miles from the nearest road. Much to my surprise, its stop-starting, self-counterpointing quality reminded me of nothing so much as James Brown’s ‘get on up’ scat.

Its site-specificity also evoked a sense of landscape and community in which a vibrant folk culture could still thrive. Lee is a tireless collector of songs in danger of disappearing – he spends his leisure time wandering into Roma camps, asking if they have any old ballads for him. And the song of the nightingale is rooted in the pre-industrial past: many more breeding pairs came to England in the centuries before intensive farming.

But it persists. Nicholas Spice wrote in the LRB about the crowd that gathered night after night in some allotments in Leicester in 1889 to listen to a nightingale ‘singing in a thorn bush above the mouth of a railway tunnel on the Midland mainline’. It was reported in the Pall Mall Gazette:

The emblematic potential of the scene – the ‘immortal bird’ of poetry perched pluckily on the fiery snout of the dragon of technological progress – is not lost on the newspaper reporter, who makes a point of the nightingale’s imperturbability in the face of the noise and smoke and steam of the trains that burst intermittently from the tunnel. For Ruskin, on the other hand, the events speak simply of the power of melody: the bird sings, the people listen.

A highlight of this summer’s Aldeburgh Festival is a performance of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’oiseaux in four concerts, staged in settings ranging from the River Alde to the RSBP Minsmerebird reserve and timed, from sunrise to midnight, to coincide with spikes of birdsong. Catalogue d’oiseaux doesn’t find room for the nightingale, transcribing instead the sounds of such birds as the Alpine chough, the golden oriole and the blue rock thrush. Presumably this is because nightingales are two a penny in the Jura Mountains, where Messiaen did his birding; a source of background chatter, rather than the heroic solos of their lonely English relations.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Nicholas Spice: Music and Silence · 18 May 2000

Tim Dee: Twitching · 11 March 2010

Kathleen Jamie: The Cult of the Wild · 6 March 2008

R.F. Langley: 'To a Nightingale' · 18 November 2010


  • 6 May 2016 at 4:25pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    I remember hearing my first nightingale at Cliffe Pools, Kent when I was around 9 or 10. Ever since then i've thought of it as a herald of summer; optimistic and full of promise. Sadly their numbers are decreasing rapidly in Britain but, if anything, that makes hearing that sharp crescendo at the end of their call all the more special. Or as Langley so eloquently puts it:

    I am
    empty, stopped at nothing, as
    I wait for this song to shoot.

  • 7 May 2016 at 5:54pm
    Tim Dee says:
    Early June is a little early for the exit; they fall silent then but hang around a while longer. Nor are they overshoots: little bitterns are and bee-eaters - birds whose summer home is further south and who forgot to stop, the nightingales that are here mean to be here, they are just at the limit, the north-western edge, of their range. Coleridge's bird in his poem from 1797 in the Lyrical Ballads was the first published record for Somerset. And they are not now where they were then: there are none now where he heard them. Ted Hughes has a marvellous letter (to Marina Warner) about never hearing nightingales. If you live north of Birmingham you'll have to work at it.