Britain’s Sonic Therapy: listening to birdsong during and after the First World War

by Michael Guida

It was a quarter to eleven in the evening on Monday 19th of May 1924 when the pacey dance music of the BBC’s Savoy Orchestra was interrupted on the wireless by a duet between a human and bird. What radio listeners heard was Elgar’s favorite cellist, Beatrice Harrison, in her wooded Surrey garden playing The Londonderry Air to prompt a nightingale to pour forth its song. This live broadcast experiment was sanctioned by John Reith, the Managing Director of the BBC, and nobody was more relieved than him when the transmission crackled into homes across Britain. But what was Reith up to?

Broadcasting the Nightingale. Punch magazine, reproduced in Radio Times, 25 April 1924.

Broadcasting the Nightingale. Punch magazine, reproduced in Radio Times, 25 April 1924.

He had certainly pulled off a broadcasting coup with the BBC’s very first live outdoor broadcast. But this was no mere technical triumph. For Reith, this was art coaxing Britain’s natural heritage into song, by no means an entertainment gimmick. Furthermore, this unusual idea was a good fit with his vision for public service broadcasting, then just two years old, as an instrument of well-being and cultural uplift, underpinned by British moral and ethical ideals.

Reflecting on the broadcast, Reith saw a yet deeper spiritual purpose in relaying the ‘myriad delights’ of the sounds of nature to ‘men and women confined in the narrow streets of the great cities’ where so many Britons lived. [1] In a chapter called “In Touch with the Infinite” from his book Broadcast Over Britain, birdsong, as part of nature, was equated with the companionship of solitude, in Reith’s mind, as well as with peace and restoration. Of the nightingale broadcast, Reith said this:

Already we have broadcast a voice which few have opportunity of hearing for themselves. The song of the nightingale has been heard all over the country, on highland moors and in the tenements of great towns. Milton has said that when the nightingale sang, silence was pleased. So in the song of the nightingale we have broadcast something of the silence which all of us in this busy world unconsciously crave and urgently need. [2]

As many as a million people had heard the broadcast, and Harrison claimed she received tens of thousands of letters from fans. [3] Yet for many, the bird was clearly the star, not least because most would never have heard the song of a nightingale whose range did not extend beyond the Midlands and certainly not into cities. [4, 5] In a letter typical of many, WJ Daully wrote: ‘Will you please accept the very grateful thanks of a Liverpool postman and his mother for the great joy that you were instrumental in bringing to their ears last night’. The letter continued: ‘I am sending you our leading morning paper and you will see by the enclosed poster that Liverpool well for one day forgot tragedy, politics, cricket and horse racing.’ [6]

These sentiments were expressed at a time when the psychological shadow of the First World War was ever present in communities, and new technologies like the telephone, gramophone player, loudspeaker, and the radio itself created anxieties about the profusion of mediated sounds in everyday life. The cacophony of city living had for a long time been a concern for the medical community. The Glasgow doctor Dan McKenzie in his 1916 book The City of Din: A Tirade against Noise, wrote that ‘we continue to expose this poised and fragile instrument’ of the modern mind to overwhelming sonic stimuli. [7] While the minds of servicemen and women returning to civilian life after the War were especially fragile, neurologist Edwin Ash saw mental disorder not simply as a legacy of shell-shock but as a ‘national ailment’ affecting all ranks of society. [8] His recommendation was the ‘rest cure’ in an environment that could provide peace and quiet. [9]

The status of quietude in British society had gained new significance after the establishment of the Armistice remembrance ritual in 1919. So powerful did these two minutes of silence become that John Reith began lobbying the Home Office to transmit the silence of the Cenotaph service around the country, instead of asking listeners to simply switch off the wireless during its observance. [10] In 1928 the BBC began doing so, and a BBC representative explains the effect:

Its impressiveness is intensified by the fact that the silence is not a dead silence, for Big Ben strikes the hour, and then the bickering of sparrows, the crisp rustle of falling leaves, the creasing of pigeon wings as they take flight, uneasy at this strange hush, contrast with the traffic din of London some minutes before. [11]

Striking to note here is that nature is granted permission to inhabit even the most sacred of silences with its reassuring rhythms and continuities.

Many men writing in Flanders had found solace and comfort (as well as much sadness) in birds and their song. Diaries, letters and poems are full of observations about the joy of witnessing nature thrive or regenerate amid the mud and destruction. Throughout the war, the ornithological magazine British Birds published reports of bird news from the front line. So often, men found birds to be adaptable and resilient, if not indifferent, to the noise and devastation around them. Birds carried on. They sang through bombing raids [12]. Such behavior, seems to have inspired soldiers to believe that in spite of the folly of world conflict, the natural world, of which they were still a part, was durable and eternal. Survival was possible.

The skylark, whose ascending flight had been prophetically hymned by Vaughan Williams early in 1914, was a powerful natural symbol of the war. The bird and its cascading, energetic trilling stood for escape, for the fields of home. It turned eyes upwards. Ted Wilson, a 29-year-old teacher, wrote to his mother about a scene near a trench: ‘Piled earth with groundsel and great flaming dandelions, and chickweed, and pimpernels, running riot over it… and over everything the larks’. [13] Sergeant John Streets heard a lark and wrote that suddenly: ‘My soul rushed singing to the ether sky’. He was killed in the trenches in 1916. Isaac Rosenberg had a brief moment of joy in 1918: ‘Heights of night ringing with unseen larks: / Music showering on our upturned listening faces’. [14] From the air at night could come death or song, Rosenberg remarked in his poem Returning, We Hear the Larks.

From the wireless airwaves of early 1920s Britain, John Reith seemed to sense that the therapeutic power of the nightingale broadcast came from the bird’s symbolic resonances together with the lived experience of witnessing the lyric liquid song, even if it was conveyed through the machinery of the loudspeaker. The BBC, Reith understood, was born into what has been termed a ‘psychologizing age’, when the popularization of psychology infused a range of cultural mentalities. [15] Reith’s own inner world was informed by his readings of Freud as well as the scriptures. [16] It was also the post-war period described recently by Richard Overy as the ‘morbid age’, in which a mood of anxiety and pessimism drew strength from a number of shifts in social and intellectual life, not least that the violence of the War had undone a centuries-long civilizing process. [17]

Britain’s vigorous bird culture was put to use in the re-balancing of minds and outlooks that had been destabilized and exposed to psychological scrutiny. The nightingale’s mysterious nocturnal song had a strong presence in the British psyche through poetry and folklore; since the time of the Romantics it was the sound of love, of joy [18] and of healing through Hans Christian Andersen’s popular tale about the Chinese emperor who was rescued from death by the song. Just as important, birdsong was an evergreen emblem of British pastoral heritage that could connect listeners to feelings of national identity rooted in the land, in war and peacetime. Stanley Baldwin had solidified the English rural myth as part of national ideology when he said in 1924, ‘To me, England is the country, and the county is England’. [19] It was the senses that brought this England to life, he later said, ‘…the tinkle of the hammer on the anvil in the country smithy, the corncrake on a dewy morning, the sound of the scythe against the whetstone…’. [20]

The potency of the nightingale’s song to provoke feelings of nostalgia, belonging and delight kept radio listeners spellbound for the next 11 years: until 1935, the BBC continued to broadcast a nightingale in concert with Beatrice Harrison every May, often over several evenings. From 1936, continuing into the Second World War, the bird alone took the microphone for ten minutes between eleven and midnight, when the solace of birdsong was needed as much as ever.

To conclude then, during the First World War and its aftermath, birdsong was a keynote of nature that brought emotional well-being to soldiers and civilians alike. Such feelings stemmed from the enchantment of witnessing the charm and durability of birdsong first-hand, its cultural presence in Romantic and war poetry, together with its evocations of a long-gone but precious pastoral English identity. After the conflict, the BBC’s live annual broadcasts of the nightingale’s song to the nation became a revitalizing counterpoint to the noise and chaos of the modern world. For John Reith, these broadcasts helped to shape the idea of public service radio as an instrument of national uplift and enlightenment.

Michael Guida is a PhD researcher in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, UK, where he is exploring how the sounds, rhythms and quietude of nature have been used to afford psychological welfare in Britain, especially in relation to war, during 1914-1945 period.


[1] John Reith, Broadcast Over Britain (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924), p. 221.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Patricia Cleveland-Peck, The Cello and the Nightingales. An Autobiography of Beatrice Harrison (London: John Murray, 1985), p. 133.

[4] Richard Fitter, London’s Birds (London: Collins, 1949), p. 134.

[5] Richard Mabey, Whistling in the Dark. In Pursuit of the Nightingale (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993), p. 99.

[6] Royal College of Music, London, Harrison Sisters’ Collection, box 224.

[7] Dan McKenzie, City of Din: A Tirade Against Noise (London: Adlard & Son, 1916), p. 25.

[8] Edwin L Ash, Nerves and the Nervous, revised edition (London: Mills & Boon, 1921), p. 21.

[9] Edwin L Ash, The Problem of Nervous Breakdown (New York: Macmillan, 1920), p. 188-209.

[10] Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, A Social History of Broadcasting (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 29.

[11] From the Radio Times, quoted in Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory. Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford: Berg, 1994), p. 135.

[12] Richard Fitter, London’s Natural History (London: Collins, 1945), p. 228-230.

[13] Richard Mabey, A Brush with Nature (London: Random House, 2010).

[14] Simon Armitage and Tim Dee, The Poetry of Birds (London: Penguin, 2011), p. 147.

[15] David Hendy, The Great War and British Broadcasting: Emotional Life in the Creation of the BBC. New Formations 2014 82: 85.

[16] Ian McIntyre, The Expense of Glory. A Life of John Reith (London: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 112.

[17] Richard Overy, The Morbid Age. Britain Between the Wars (London: Allen Lane, 2009).

[18] Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), p. 342.

[19] Alun Howkins, The Discovery of Rural England, in Colls R and Dodd P (eds) Englishness: Politics and Culture 1880-1920 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 105.

[20] Judy Giles and Tim Middleton, Writing Englishness: An Introductory Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 101.

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