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Singing with Nightingales: folk singer Sam Lee on the majesty of duetting with nature

Folk singer, song collector and environmental activist Sam Lee heads into the woods at night to hold an intimate concert involving voice, cello… and nightingale

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We’ve been asked to follow in silence. It’s 11pm in Sussex woods. I’m in a line of people walking single-file following folk singer Sam Lee for a rare musical encounter. There’s a clear night sky and half-moon bringing a silvery burnish to the silhouetted trees. Walking this route about three hours ago before dusk, it was noisy with birdsong – dozens of calls including robin, song thrush, garden warbler, blackcap and cuckoo. Now it’s silent except for the occasional distant owl hoot.

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The path narrows and becomes muddy, squelching with each step. The wood thins out into a coppiced area which is more open. That’s when we start to hear the nightingales in the distance. It’s only males that sing in their own territory, primarily to attract a mate.

After about 15 minutes, we stop beneath a line of trees. A nightingale is singing incredibly loudly, perhaps a metre above our heads. You feel you could touch it. But looking up, all you can see are the stars in the sky and the branches of the thicket on either side. The bird is invisible.  A nightingale isn’t much to look at anyway – it’s a ‘little brown jobbie’ as birders say. But in the imagination it’s like a bright indication of spring: the sap rising from the earth, into the bluebells which are flowering, up the tree trunks and into the leaves and then bursting out in the darkness in a silvery torrent of song. Sam Lee calls the nightingale a ‘decorator of silence’.

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Folk singer and collector Sam Lee. Credit: John Millar

Although it’s famed for its song more than any other bird, it’s not a mellifluous outpouring of melody. The phrases come in short bursts. It’s as if it has two voices: one that is high, pure and melodic; the other low, guttural and raspy that interjects at random. The syrinx, which produces the song, has two separate voice boxes, each attached to a different lung-like wind sack.

After listening to the bird for many minutes, sometimes dialoguing with a more distant one, we hear a low drone on a cello – a warm sonic bed over which the nightingale sounds even more sparkly. But then the cellist, Matthew Barley, raises his pitch and starts imitating what the nightingale is doing. This is no mean feat given the quicksilver unpredictability of the song. But this strange musical meeting has a precedent.

Those who have seen The Dig, the Netflix film with Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan about the Sutton Hoo excavations just before World War II, may remember a passing reference to the cellist Beatrice Harrison duetting with a nightingale in her garden. This did indeed happen – and was one of the first ever live outside broadcasts by BBC Radio in May 1924. (Incidentally, the entire cast watched a Singing with Nightingales webcast by Sam Lee in April last year when the movie was in production.)

Although Lord Reith was sceptical at first, the nightingale broadcast was hugely popular and was repeated for the next 12 years. Reith became a convert and wrote in his book Broadcast Over Britain: ‘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.’

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Cellist Matthew Barley. Credit: John Millar

Beatrice Harrison: The Nightingale Lady

Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) – who received 50,000 fan letters, some just addressed to The Nightingale Lady – was clearly quite a character. She made the first recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, conducted by the composer, and premiered Delius’s Cello Concerto which was composed for her. Sam Lee says: ‘I like to think that with Beatrice Harrison, who was such a radical, alive spirit, the birds just adored her presence and she was on their wavelength. Sometimes a cat will always come to a certain person. It’s exactly the same with nightingales.’

British cellist Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) poses in a forest. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
British cellist Beatrice Harrison. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Hearing Matthew Barley duetting with the nightingale is a truly extraordinary experience. First of all, the bird is much louder than the cello, but then there’s the way he manages to imitate it at all – in a spectral zone right at the top of the A string. Anyone can imitate a cuckoo – two notes, a minor third apart, and you’re done. But emulating a nightingale is like catching a shooting star (and we’re also seeing those tonight). The species is said to have 250 different phrases and over 1,500 sounds in total.

One convenient thing about the nightingale song is that it tends to come in bursts of different lengths, with pauses in between. This makes it quite easy to dialogue with them, if you can imitate the sound, which Barley does. But then he starts taking the lead and doing something different. And I’m convinced the nightingale alters its song to imitate the pattern the cello has played – a phrase it hadn’t sung before.

‘We’re in that zone where it’s anybody’s guess and you don’t know what the nightingale would have done had there not been a cellist playing,’ says Barley. ‘To a human ear, what I’m doing on the cello sounds very similar to the nightingale. But maybe the nightingale is thinking “WTF is that?”. It really feels like a conversation, but I’m also acutely aware that we’re very good at fooling ourselves in such matters. But I certainly like to think that’s what’s happening.’

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Cellist Matthew Barley. Credit: John Millar

Sam Lee: Singing with Nightingales

Sam Lee has been running Singing with Nightingales events for seven years, from mid-April to the end of May. They have proved incredibly popular. There’s dinner round a campfire between the dusk walk and the nightingale encounter. As well as being an extraordinary musical experience, it also opens your ears to nature in a completely new way.

And it has led Sam Lee to write his first book, The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird. In the book he makes a comparison between Britain’s traditional folk singers and the nightingales. Both are fast disappearing – ‘endlings’ he calls them. In Britain, the nightingale is pretty much confined to southeast England and is on the UK’s Red List of Threatened Species: according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, only 6,700 breeding males are left. But Lee also identified with the unaccompanied vocals. ‘This bird singing unadorned in the raptured quiet of the night, so similar to my core practice when performing without any instrumentation, challenged me,’ he writes. ‘The nightingale exemplified the daring possibilities that many artists aspire to. This was a guide to musicality; a masterclass in melodic exploration.’

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After Matthew Barley has concluded his duetting with the nightingale, he returns to his earthly cello drone.  Sam Lee takes over and starts singing one of the best-known songs involving a nightingale, called, yes, ‘The Nightingale’, first collected in 1905 and now accompanied by the bird itself: ‘One morning, one morning, one morning in May I spied a young couple, they were making their way…’

Nightingales in folk songs

There are apparently 570 folksongs with ‘Nightingale’ in the title noted in the Roud Folk Song Index of 25,000 songs, including every instance of a song being noted, collected, recorded and published across the English-speaking world. This compares with 377 larks, 124 hawks and 73 turtle doves. And it’s the bird’s association with Spring and that rising sap that English folksong has picked up on – the song of the nightingale has become a folk metaphor for sex. ‘The Nightingale’ continues with the lad admitting that he’s married with ‘children twice three’ and heading for the army: ‘Then with kisses and compliments he took her round the middle, And out of his knapsack he dragged forth a fiddle. And he played her such a fine tune as made the groves and valleys ring, “Hark, hark,” says the fair maid. “How the nightingales sing.”’

‘There’s a great embracing of the joy of sex in that sense,’ says Lee, generally a fierce enthusiast for English song. ‘But the pain of love and longing that you get associated with the nightingale in other cultures is such a higher order of emotion that I wonder why we dwell on the ribaldry that we do in England. It’s such a massive debasing of the power and potency of the nightingale song. But that’s what we did in England, because we were so fearful of expressing these things.’

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Credit: John Millar

While the nightingale has no reputation for song in sub-Saharan Africa where it winters, it is famous in the northern hemisphere from England in the west to Mongolia in the East. So much so that spectacular singers are dubbed ‘nightingales’ right across the region, from ‘the Swedish nightingale’ Jenny Lind (1820-87) to ‘the nightingale of India’ MS Subbulakshmi (1916-2004), plus Bulbul (‘Nightingale’), a celebrated Azeri singer, and several others named as such in the Turkic-, Persian- and Arabic-speaking worlds. In Persian poetry and song, the bulbul sings a song of longing for the rose and suffers without complaint the pricks of its thorns. It’s widely seen as a Sufi metaphor for man’s infinite love of God and our willingness to suffer for it.

‘In no way will I say that anthropomorphising in this realm is a bad thing,’ says Lee. ‘To say it’s wrong to project humanness onto birds is to separate us and to say that we’ve nothing in common. Our musicality has been inspired and evolved in accordance with birdsong.’

As we emerge from our nightingale encounter, I can feel perceptions have been changed by experiencing nature as a concert hall. It’s something that’s been having its effect on Lee for years. ‘I’m aware that as a musician I don’t really practise,’ he says; ‘I’m not somebody who gets up and does my scales. Being out in nature is my practice. And what I get from being in meditation with nightingales has really helped me. There’s something a little bit human about them. And there’s a little bit of nightingale in us.’

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Folk singer Sam Lee and cellist Matthew Barley. Credit: John Millar

A musical guide to the nightingale

Latin name: Luscinia megarhynchos

Size: c16.5cm

Eats: Berries, plus insects including beetles, ants and flies

How to find a nightingale and listen to their song

Nightingales arrive in the UK in mid-April, remaining until late-summer. Most common in the southeast of England, they can be found in an area stretching from Devon in the south west to the Humber Estuary in the north. They are widespread in southern Europe, where they are also less shy than in the UK.

Nightingales in classical music

Nightingales have often made appearances in classical music over the centuries. A famous instance is Stravinsky’s 1914 opera, Le Rossignol (‘The Nightingale’), based on an 1840s tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Unsurprisingly, there are songs aplenty featuring the nightingale, including by Tchaikovsky (The Nightingale), Rimsky-Korsakov (The Nightingale and The Rose), Brahms (An die Nachtigall) and Howells (King David).

For an instrumental nightingale, meanwhile, try Handel’s Cuckoo and the Nightingale Organ Concerto, HWV 295, whose second movement depicts the two birds of its title. Or, for the real thing, head for Respighi’s Pines of Rome, whose large-scale orchestration includes a recording of the bird itself.

Images by: John Millar

Sam Lee’s book The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird is available now, published by Century. 

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