|Brussels, 17 March. - In the 19th century,
tuberculosis (TB) was a rampant epidemic and feared in all layers of society in Europe.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), whose 200-year birthday on 2 April is being
celebrated all over the world, writes in his famous story The Nightingale (1843):
"The Chinese emperor was lying cold and pale in his splendid bed
hardly breathe; there seemed to be something sitting on his chest
Sources of inspiration
The vast amount of information about the life and
work of the Danish storyteller does not seem to refer to the nature of the Chinese
emperor's illness. The national Arkiv for Dansk Litteratur sees several sources of
inspiration for the various elements of the story. That is, Hans Christian
Andersen's desire to pay tribute to Swedish soprano Jenny Lind (1820-1887);
Chinese-looking buildings in the Tivoli garden of Copenhagen; and a clockwork-making
town in Switzerland.
However, the white plague (i.e. TB) may also have been at the back of
Hans Christian Andersen's mind, when he wrote The Nightingale. Although
often fatal, TB tended to be romanticized in the 19th century: "
slowly fading away, their immortal soul shining through". TB cut short the life
of such cultural icons as John Keats, Fryderyk Chopin, Franz Kafka and George Orwell.
Andersen's own father died of TB in 1816.
Ode to a Nightingale (1819), the poem Keats wrote in anguish
over his brother Tom's death of consumption (i.e. TB), could have been a direct source of
inspiration for Hans Christian Andersen. Keats even evokes an emperor:
"Though was not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry generations treat thee
down / The Voice I hear this passing night was heard / In ancient days by emperor and
clown". Suffering from an unhappy love story with Fanny Brawne, which perhaps
further weakened his health, John Keats died of TB in 1821, only 25 years old. He is
buried in Rome, a city that continued to fascinate and inspire Hans Christian Andersen
long after his first visit in 1833.
Whether the Chinese emperor had TB or not, he was cured by the
singing of the nightingale. The story made Jenny Lind known as The Swedish
Nightingale well before she became a megastar in Europe and the United States. Hans
Christian Andersen says in The True Story of My Life (published in 1847, the same
year he met her again in London):
"Through Jenny Lind I first became sensible of the holiness of Art.
Through her I learned that one must forget one's self in the service of the
Supreme. No books, no persons, have had a more ennobling influence upon me as a poet
than Jenny Lind". In London in 1848, Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin writes to
a friend: "J'ai fais la connaissance de Mlle Lind - Elle est charmante et chanteuse
Strangely enough, the nightingale story became a reality for Jenny Lind in
1848-1849, when she fell in love with Chopin. His letters reveal that he felt
"better" when she sang for him, and Jenny Lind, a great philanthropist, arranged
a concert in London to raise funds for a TB hospital. According to new research, she
even planned, with the knowledge of Queen Victoria, to marry Chopin - in vain. He
died of TB in Paris on 17 October 1849, which Jenny Lind never got over. She wrote
to Hans Christian Andersen from Florence on 23 November 1871: "I would have
been happy to die for this my first and last, deepest, purest love
World TB Day 2005
Today, on the occasion of World TB Day 2005, Chopin and Jenny Lind's
relationship is enacted in a new historically correct musical drama, Chopin and The
Nightingale that builds on quotes from Chopin's letters and Hans Christian Andersen's
story. Supported by Toronto Public Health, The Glenn Gould School of the Royal
Conservatory of Music will perform the first-ever public premiere at the Royal Ontario
Museum on 24 April 2005.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen says on the official website
of HCA 2005: "Every one,
children as well as adults, can find something of value in Hans Christian Andersen's
fairytales". - Today, the story about the nightingale has indeed taken on a new
Cecilia Jorgensen is co-founder and general manager of Icons of Europe,
Brussels. She is co-author of a research paper
and biography on Chopin and Jenny Lind's relationship in 1848-1849, which musicologists
and historians of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, Warsaw and the Universities of Edinburgh
and St Andrews have acknowledged in 2005.