Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Jenny Lind competes with American birds (1851)

During the Connecticut small birds debate, in the deliberation about the brown thrasher ("long-tailed thrush"), William W. Boardman made the following comment: "even the Swedish Nightingale herself has listened to him with perfect admiration and despair." This was a reference to Jenny Lind, the first professionally promoted (courtesy of P.T. Barnum) music superstar, who toured the U.S. between 1850 and 1852 amid heavy press coverage.

Lind was bird lover, famously crediting her singing style to the study of birdsong:
I sing after no one's method--only as far as I am able, after that of the birds; for their Master was the only one who came up to my demands for truth, clearness and expression.
A staple of her repertoire, in fact, was a song by William Taubert (Ich muss nun einmal singen [I must sing]), known in English as the "Bird Song." The song contained passages that allowed her to show off her famous "shake" (trill) and her skill in the whistle register. Here is a later recording of the piece that provides a taste of what listeners in 1850 might have heard:

This song was an audience favorite (Emily Dickson made note of it). Vera Brodsky Lawrence's (1995) account of the New York music scene of the 1850s indicates that it was the moment in the performance when the "nightingale" fully emerged.
To George W. Curtis it was a "bird's warble of delight--a melodious sweep and shower of sparkling sound--the lark's love lyric to the sun as she soars to meet him." The "scenery" Lind created for this song…was perfect. "We saw the bird wheeling and tumbling in the air--we rose with him…in the sun-ecstasy, and for the time it was only a bird warbling in the blue, of which we were conscious" ….Even [Henry C.] Watson [a Lind critic] had to admit that in this music Lind had no equal--there seemed to be "a whole aviary of mocking-birds in her throat," all struggling to be heard...(p 77)
The nightingale and mockingbird have similar singing styles--endlessly inventive, combining long strings of varied elements. Indeed, the mockingbird had been long considered the nightingale's New World counterpart. Which bird was the superior singer was a long-standing debate between British and American ornithologists (Audubon, for one, thought the mockingbird superior) underpinned, perhaps, by not a little nationalistic chauvinism.

Stories emerged about Lind's (the nightingale's) encounters with local American birds. The New York Mirror, for example, told the following apocryphal tale:
There was a mocking-bird in Jenny Lind's apartment at Boston, which imitated some of her most brilliant passages so truly and exquisitely that Barnum turned pale, being certain that, as the owner of the bird was very rich, he could not purchase the treasure that already rivaled the Nightingale. The latter, however, smiled at his fears, sprang to the piano and struck off her Swedish echo song. The mocking-bird listened, and then essayed an imitation, but, unable to follow the notes of the human warbler, died convulsed in the effort. 
The most famous story was an encounter in the woods near Utica, NY.   George William Curtis first reported the story in the pages of the New-York Tribune in 1851 (reprinted in his 1852 collection, Lotus-eating). The story itself was second-hand; Curtis had been told the story by his carriage boy, who related it as follows:
As we came back, we passed a little wood, and Jenny Lind stopped the carriage and stepped out with the rest of the party and went into the wood. It was toward sunset, and the wood was beautiful. She walked about a little and picked up flowers, and sang like to herself, as if it were pleasant. By-and-by she stopped, a little bird came and sat upon a bough close by us. And when Jenny Lind had done, he began to sing and shout away like she did. While he was singing, she looked delighted, and when he stopped she sang again, and oh! it was beautiful, sir. But the little bird wouldn't give it up, and he sang again, but not until she had done. Then Jenny Lind sang as well as ever she could. Her voice seemed to fill the woods all up with music, and, when it was over, the little bird was still awhile, but tried it again in a few moments. He couldn't do it, sir. He sang very bad, and then the foreign gentlemen with Jenny laughed, and they all came back to the carriage.
Curtis's commentary pointed to the ancient tale behind both contemporary accounts:
It was pleasant to hear the boy's story….I had not dreamed that the romance of the Poet's Lute and the Nightingale [in which the nightingale expires trying to imitate the poet] should be native to Oneida County no less than to Greece, and that its poet should be my callow charioteer, who may one day be President. When I sat at my window afterward, and in the fading twilight looked over the maple woods, and heard the murmur of Trenton Falls, I wondered if the bird ever reached its nest, or was found dead in the woods without a gun-shot wound.
Boardman, of course, had remembered the story wrong. Jenny Lind had "won" this singing competition, not the native bird. Moreover, the brown thrasher is more a bird of shrub-lands than forests, so it seems a little out of place in this story. But, during this era, the mockingbird was still considered a southern bird, even though it was frequently caged and exported north and overseas. The brown thrasher was its northern counterpart, with a similarly inventive singing style. So the bird fit the story paradigm best. One wonders if Boardman's faulty memory was informed by a projection of regional bias. 

It is worth noting that Jenny Lind's "nightingale" tag inspired localized American tags, including Eliza Biscaccianti, the "American Thrush," and Emma Bostwick Gillingham, "our native bobolink." (See Lawrence 1995). 

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