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EnvironmentNature Studies July 24 - Bach and the Nightingale

Nature Studies July 24 – Bach and the Nightingale

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This month Marshwood, being in its online format, is able to present in Nature Studies something extraordinary—the blending of two of the most beautiful sounds in the world, which you can hear by accessing the link below.

One will be recognised instantly by birders—it is the song of the nightingale, the most famous of all bird vocalisations, celebrated across Europe as the quintessence of birdsong for at least 3,000 years.

The other will be similarly recognised by lovers of classical music and especially of Johann Sebastian Bach—it is his lovely Prelude No. 17 in A flat major. And you may have your own view on hearing them together, but personally I find it magical. Each sets off remarkably the beauty of the other.

The blend is a Dorset creation. Both bird and Bach were recorded (though not simultaneously) by the Dorset-based poet and songwriter Virginia Astley, whose own love for music is matched by her enthusiasm for wildlife. The nightingale was singing at Alner’s Gorse, the Butterfly Conservation reserve near Hazelbury Bryan, one of the shrinking number of sites in the county where the birds can still be heard; the piano was being played by Virginia’s musician daughter Florence in their house at Maiden Newton. And the mix was brought to my attention by Nigel Spring, the well-known conservationist who is the Alner’s Gorse reserve warden.

The stunning combination is typical of Virginia’s imaginative creativity: she has published a book of poems and matching photographs of The Thames, and another book of poems on West Dorset church porches, accompanied by sketches of the porches by her sister Alison Bunning—because it was a covid lockdown project, when the porches were usually the only parts of the churches that were open.

But even Virginia would not claim that the inspiration to pair a nightingale with classical music is her own. That takes its origin in a remarkable event whose centenary we have just witnessed—the BBC outside broadcast of May 19, 1924, when the famous cellist Beatrice Harrison played her instrument while a nightingale sang along with her in her garden in Oxted in Surrey. That broadcast was a national sensation, so much so that the BBC repeated the event every year until the Second World War.

Nightingales, alas, have crashed in numbers in England since then—they have dropped by more than ninety per cent in the last fifty years, so Alner’s Gorse is a beloved site for enthusiasts. Although it might be hard to get a live recording of a nightingale and a piano, Florence Astley is a harpist as well as a pianist, and she and her mother took her harp to the reserve this spring to try and record a live duet with one of the birds, as it were. They were frustrated by the rain—as was I when I went with Nigel Spring to hear them myself—although lots of other people were successful.

But you can hear one of them here—one of the world’s greatest songbirds, paired with the work of one of the world’s greatest composers. Click on this link and listen to the magic.

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