One of my earliest teaching positions was at Repton School in the UK. I recently donated a letter to the school’s archives that I found silted up in my ancient piles of correspondence. It’s one I received from the tenor Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten’s companion, whilst I was a young master at the school; in it he mentions that his great uncle, Steuart Adolphus Pears, had been Head Master of Repton from 1854 to 1874, a distinguished connection that had somehow grown hazy in the mists of time. The reason for the visits in 1955 and 1960 by Britten and Pears to perform in the Repton School Subscription Concerts, sparsely documented in the annals, becomes clearer. Some of you may recognise the name Repton from the tune which is sung to the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. An erstwhile Director of Music at Repton had figured that a particular tune from Parry’s oratorio Judith was a bit of a cracker, and so in it went to the school’s hymn book supplement in 1924, subsequently baptised ‘Repton’.
But what has this got to do with the subject of this week’s blog—nightingales? Not a lot, except that I was intrigued to discover another musical connection with Repton shortly after taking up my post there. One of my favourite songs had always been A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (8.120663), and I learned that the lyrics were written by Eric Maschwitz, a Repton Old Boy. So, this week, I’d like to develop that seed and present a number of works that have an association with the nightingale, beginning with that perennial favourite of mine by Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin.
The next two pieces (and there are many more) were inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, The Nightingale, in which an emperor takes more pleasure from the sounds of a mechanical bird than the song of a real nightingale. Favole(8.555267) by Elisabetta Brusa is a suite the composer dedicated to her godson on the occasion of his birth. The second movement, The Real Nightingale and the Mechanical One, is described by Brusa as follows:
“[Note] the difference between the lyrical melody of the real nightingale (flute) and the more rhythmical and less emotional melody…of the mechanical bird played by the piccolo and the glockenspiel; all of a sudden the mechanical nightingale breaks down, onomatopoeically expressed by the glissandi of the strings and by the sound of the rattle at the end of the last carillon-like section, so the real nightingale is able to triumph with its lyrical singing.”
Stravinsky’s The Nightingale (8.557501) was first performed in Paris in 1914; it’s a one-act opera in three scenes. Here’s how Robert Craft, the distinguished authority on Stravinsky, described the work’s orchestration:
“Stravinsky’s orchestral palette…is never more exotically colourful than in The Nightingale, which is a virtual catalogue of avian imitations: tremolos, trills, appogiaturas, grupetti string harmonics, pizzicato glissandos, flautando and ponticello effects, harp and piano arpeggios, harp harmonics and the retuning of cello strings to produce harmonics on unusual pitches.”
You can have fun hunting these down for yourself. Meanwhile, here’s an extract from Scene 2 (The Porcelain Palace of the Chinese Emperor): Song of the Nightingale.
The Spanish composer Enrique Granados wrote two books of Goyescas, piano pieces that were inspired by his compatriot Francisco Goya and his ability to depict what Granados saw as the essence of the Spanish character. One of the Goyescas is titled The Maiden and the Nightingale (8.554403). The piece is basically a set of variations, but it ends with a cadenza that imitates the song of a nightingale.
What are singers? Nothing but vanity, stupidity, ignorance and dilettantism. I hate them, every one of them. ‘Also your wife?’, one will ask, but I answer: ‘I am sorry, but she is lucky enough not to be a singer.’
Hopefully, Grieg would have reconsidered his opinion after hearing this performance of part of his song, The Nightingale’s Secret (8.553781), which tells of a nightingale’s discretion in witnessing the amorous encounter of two lovers.
Finally, a charming snatch that’s worth 60 seconds of anyone’s time: The Nightingale from Boris Tchaikovsky’s Swineherd Suite (8.572400), again based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells of the efforts of a lovesick Prince to gain the attentions of a Princess, which include the offering of two special gifts: one is an uncommonly beautiful rose; the other a silver-throated nightingale whose beguiling song is captured on the piccolo against a backdrop of harp and strings