“Nothing is so beautiful as spring” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins, and among those that agree with him is the nightingale, which returns to its northern home at this time of year.
Though not impressive in its appearance, this bird’s power of song has made it a theme of poets and bards for centuries. Hans Christian Anderson tells the story of an emperor who weeps at the beauty of the nightingale’s song, and then in his folly asks for a bejeweled mechanical bird to be made so he can enjoy its song on demand. The real nightingale returns to the wild, the mechanical one eventually breaks down from overuse, and some time after, the emperor becomes deathly ill. Hearing of this, the nightingale returns and sings so movingly that Death agrees to leave the palace:
“Thank you, thank you!” the emperor said. "Little bird from heaven, I know you of old. I banished you once from my land, and yet you have sung away the evil faces from my bed, and Death from my heart. How can I repay you?”
“You have already rewarded me," said the nightingale. “I brought tears to your eyes when first I sang for you. To the heart of a singer those are more precious than any precious stone… I cannot build my nest here, or live in a palace, so let me come as I will. Then I shall sit on the spray by your window, and sing things that will make you happy and thoughtful too. I'll sing about those who are glad, and those who are sorrowful. My songs will tell you of all the good and evil that you do not see.”
Pouring out its heart in song, the nightingale reminds us that what is most precious in life is – like spring itself – at once ancient and completely new. Mendelssohn’s setting of Goethe’s poem “The Nightingale” is so short and so sublime that you may find yourself listening to it over and over.
Die Nachtigall, die war entfernt,
der Frühling lockt sie wieder.
Was neues hat sie nicht gelernt,
Singt alte liebe Lieder.
The nightingale was far away,
Spring has lured her back.
She has learned nothing new:
She is singing her old beloved songs.
Sung by members of the Rundfunkchor Berlin in a 2008 performance:
Sung by the nightingale itself: