05 March 2014
In Times of War
On 13 May 1940 The Times published a letter from the famed wildlife sound recordist and broadcaster, Ludwig Koch. Koch had settled in Britain four years earlier, “unknown and penniless”, and had quickly established himself as a leading figure in the world of natural history sound recording. He was responsible for the country’s first birdsong recordings, publishing these in the form of sound books such as the popular ‘Songs of Wild Birds’. This book and two-disc set attracted enormous media attention, effectively making him an overnight star in the UK. For the first time, people could listen to the songs and calls of Britain’s most common birds in the comfort of their own homes. Such was the success that a second volume quickly followed the following year.
Koch’s letter to The Times centred around a wild Blackbird that could mimic the song of a Green Woodpecker. Interesting enough you might say but it’s Koch’s opening paragraph that really deserves attention. Look again at the year of publication. 1940. By now Britain was in the grips of a war that was to see the world torn apart. Thousands of British troops were already fighting on the battlefields of France and the evacuation of allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk was only two weeks away. In the midst of this bloody conflict, Koch encouraged readers to find solace in the beauty of birdsong:
War or no war, bird life is going on and even the armed power of the three dictators cannot prevent it. I would like to advise everybody in a position to do so, to relax his nerves, in listening to the songs, now so beautiful, of the British birds. If one watches carefully, one can be sure of surprises.
Koch himself was no stranger to the oppression of dictatorship. Forced to flee his native Germany in 1936, when pressures from the growing Nazi regime became too dangerous to bear, Koch had no choice but to abandon his precious recordings, painstakingly collected during the first years of the 20th century.
All these recordings on wax cylinder and wax discs, including my collection of nearly fifty birds recorded between 1927 and 1932, were deliberately destroyed by the Nazis, together with the bulk of my unique collection of gramophone records (Extract from Memoirs of a Birdman, 1955)
Koch’s 1940 salutation to the power of birdsong sits in stark contrast to other letters that filled the column. The darkness of war was rapidly descending, with debates over munition supplies and urgent pleas for funds from the Red Cross appearing alongside Koch’s appeal. One hopes that his indefatigable belief in the ability of birdsong to calm and de-stress listeners, reached beyond the page and helped at least some readers find comfort, during such harrowing times, in the sonorous beauty of the natural world.
The Times Digital Archive 1785-1985 is available in the British Library’s Reading Rooms. Visit the Early Wildlife Recordings collection on British Library Sounds to hear more wildlife recordings from Ludwig Koch.