The Birth of “The Nightingale”

by Lola Danielson, dramaturg

Hans Christen Andersen, as I stated in my last post, based many of his stories on events and people from his own life. The Nightingale is no different. The Nightingale (Nattergalen in Danish) was first published in 1844 and tells the story of a Chinese emperor who trades his real nightingale for a mechanical one. The emperor begins to die and longs to hear the nightingale, but the mechanical bird has broken. As Death attempts to take the emperor, the real nightingale returns and sings to save the emperor from Death.

The Chinese motif for the story came from Andersen’s time in the Tivioli Gardens that were opened in Copenhagen in August 1843. Andersen had never traveled further than Istanbul and stayed mostly in Europe during his travels abroad; so, his knowledge of China came from the decorative styles that were popular in Europe at that time. Andersen visited Tivioli Gardens again in October and wrote in his datebook that night that he had begun writing his Chinese fairytale. He finished the story in two days.

The Pagoda at Tivioli Gardens in Copenhagen, August 2012.

The Pagoda at Tivioli Gardens in Copenhagen, August 2012.

Many believe that Andersen’s model for the nightingale was Jenny Lind, a famous Swedish opera soprano. Andersen first met Lind in 1840 and developed an unrequited love for her. Due to Andersen’s belief that he was not interesting or attractive to the opposite sex, he had great difficulty when it came to expressing his affection. He was very shy and found it difficult to propose to Lind. Andersen finally managed his proposal through a letter he handed to Lind while she was boarding a train to an opera concert. Lind did not return his affections but often wrote to Andersen that she wished him well, as a sister to a brother.

Jenny Lind was approximately 20 years old when Andersen, 35, first met her. This is a rendering of Lind in 1840, the year Andersen met her.

Jenny Lind was approximately 20 years old when Andersen, 35, first met her. This is a rendering of Lind in 1840, the year she and Andersen met.

After Andersen published The Nightingale, Lind was given the title of “Swedish Nightingale.” Her voice, like the nightingale, is said to sing so sweetly about good and evil that even death was affected by her voice. So, given the rumored healing power of Lind’s vocal ability, it has become a common belief that Andersen based the nightingale in his story on Lind and the love of the emperor for the bird speaks of his feelings for Lind.

While Andersen was often in love, he never married. His disposition was of such a nature that he felt everything so deeply. Perhaps that is why there is so much feeling in his stories and why we read them – to see beyond the ordinary and to feel something extraordinary.

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