Music and Mechanics: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale”

“Your imperial majesty,” said he, “cannot believe everything contained in books; sometimes they are only fiction, or what is called the black art.”

In the early 1840s, fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen had already published his first collections of short stories, as well as two popular, well reviewed novels. Emboldened by these early successes, he had begun to turn from creating delicate literary versions of the oral stories he had heard as a child, to creating his own stories. These new tales were part fairy tales, part social criticism. Among these was “The Nightingale,” first published in New Fairy Tales in 1843, a story of music, near death, and mechanics—one of the closest things Andersen ever wrote to a steampunk tale, and one that he wrote swiftly, assuredly, over just two days.

“The Nightingale” is set in a very imaginary China of “a great many years ago.” Everything in this imaginary China is fabulous: a palace built not from stone, brick or wood, but porcelain; a garden that seemingly has no boundaries. It all, I must say, sounds terribly impractical—as Andersen himself admits, the palace is brittle and can only be touched very carefully. I had visions of invaders easily killing every resident of the palace by just breaking the rooftops with a few well aimed stones. Not to mention: how do you determine how far out to send the gardeners, and do the gardeners ever work outside the garden by mistake since nobody really knows where the line between “emperor’s garden” and “not” is? But that is not really the point.

The point is that despite all of this human-created and human-shaped beauty, the loveliest thing in the garden, and indeed in China, is the song of a living nightingale, heard only at the boundary of this seemingly boundless garden, in the forest beside the sea. Even fishermen, Andersen assures us, would stop their busy lives to listen to the bird. (Or maybe they were just exhausted, Andersen, did you ever think of that?) Eventually, the emperor of China learns from the emperor of Japan that he has a fabulous nightingale in his garden, one he has never seen or heard. He sends a courtier out to look for her—Andersen takes a moment to mock the courtiers and their complete lack of musical skill and taste—and bring her back to the palace.

The nightingale is an immediate and major hit—too popular for her own good. The bird does not seem particularly moved, or even interested, in the various court ladies who respond to her arrival by trying to make their voices sound like a nightingale’s (it involves holding water in their mouths, a technique Andersen may have observed in some aristocratic households), or the city gossip about her, or the twelve servants she’s given. The important part is that she’s now in a cage, allowed out three times a day, tied to those twelve servants by silk string.

Not to mention that—alarmingly enough—the courtier sent to find her immediately compares her voice to that of a human-manufactured product, bells.

Eventually, the emperor of Japan responds to all of this by sending a marvelous mechanical bird, coated in jewels. The two birds do not sing together well, and gradually, the artificial bird eclipses the real one in popularity—allowing the real bird to slip away back to the gardens. Until the artificial bird collapses from overuse—unable to sing for the emperor as he is dying, five years later. The real nightingale returns to the palace, and Death is so moved by the nightingale’s song that he allows the Emperor to live.

Andersen’s tale, written in 1843, can partly be seen as a response to the incoming Industrial Revolution. Automated music was not a new thing. Watches that played tiny, tinny melodies could be purchased as early as the 1760s, and Andersen had presumably at least heard of, if not personally seen, the “singing birds”—early music boxes featuring mechanical birds that slowly revolved and flapped their wings. He may also have seen and heard the various clockwork-run music boxes, busily produced in Switzerland throughout the early 19th century, capable of producing complex melodies, popular in middle class and aristocratic households.

More immediate inspirations seem to have come from a concert by Swedish soprano Jenny Lind and a visit to Copenhagen’s famed Tivoli Gardens. Like Andersen’s living nightingale, Jenny Lind’s voice was first “discovered” by a maid, who introduced the girl to an opera dancer who then helped the girl to stage roles. Like Andersen’s mechanical nightingale, Lind was in danger of losing her voice from overuse, spending several months not singing until her vocal cords recovered. Andersen, among many others, fell in love with Lind, who did not return his feelings. The story has been read as both Andersen’s acknowledgement that Lind, like the nightingale in the story, could not be held by him, and would fly away, and his hope that she might yet return to him in his moments of greatest need, as well as a graceful acknowledgement of the beauty of her voice. Contemporaries later gave Lind the nickname of “The Nightingale,” thanks partly to the tale.

Andersen, however, credited another inspiration: Tivoli Gardens. Open only a few months at the time of Andersen’s visit, the amusement park featured various buildings loosely inspired (very loosely) by art from China and Japan, as well as gardens and various amusement park rides. Following the park’s lead, Andersen made no attempt to create a realistic or accurate China in his tale, but the Chinese and Japanese inspired buildings did help to put that setting in his mind—as did the experience of listening to music while wandering through the gardens. He later claimed that he started to write the tale in Tivoli.

Which perhaps explains why so much of the story is about amusement and pleasure. Nearly every character in Andersen’s story, even Death, is concerned with pleasure, from the emperor to the music master to kitchen maid to the fishermen to even the nightingale herself, who sings to the emperor at the end because of the reward of seeing the emperor’s tears. This delightful assurance that real artists are more interested in pleasing/affecting others than in earning material awards—that is, money—fit in well with the growing notion that would later be termed “arts for art’s sake” by Oscar Wilde.

It’s an idea, however, that’s also immediately undercut in the story by the reality that the nightingale originally did stay in the luxurious palace, despite the ribbons, leaving only after the arrival of her jeweled, artificial replacement, and by a moment, later on in the story, when the real nightingale asks for—and receives—a golden sword, a rich banner, and a crown. Certainly, these are all objects that Death has taken from the emperor, and the implication is that the nightingale will be returning all three to the emperor, but it still indicates the reality that yes, art can and is paid for.

To be fair, other parts of the tale reinforce the gap between money and art. For instance, other than Death and the emperor, the main characters in the story to appreciate the real nightingale’s song, rather notably, are a poor kitchen maid and an equally poor fisherman. The wealthier courtiers, as it turns out, know nothing about music: they initially mistake moos from cows and croaks from frogs as the song of a nightingale. (In their slight defense, nightingales are very loud birds, and some frogs are very loud amphibians, so it’s the sort of mistake that can be made by volume alone.) The first response of one courtier to the real nightingale’s song is to compare it to the sounds made by human-manufactured bells, and marvel at the beating of the nightingale’s throat.

The rest of the tale can be read as a comparison between the real and the artificial, the mechanical and the living, and improvisation and repetition. On its surface, the story seems to arguing for the superiority of living things and mocking those who prefer the artificial mockeries of living creatures—even when the artificial creations are more brightly decorated. In the end, after all, the artificial bird breaks down, and is useless to save, or even help, the Emperor. For that, he needs the real, living bird again.

But I am not certain that the tale is all that against mechanical things, and clockwork, and repetition. Sure, only the true, living nightingale is able to drive off Death, but as she herself points out, the mechanical nightingale had served its purpose, and become genuinely popular. And its arrival had allowed her to escape back to the forest, where she could truly live, and have her freedom, and sing. I think, rather, that this is Andersen’s caution, that for all our love of mechanical things, and for everything they can bring, and for their very real function, we should not become too dependent on them—or forget real birds, and forests, and bird song.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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