Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library


Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

27 April 2016

The Story of the Tiger Hunt

The Story of the Tiger Hunt' was part of a short-lived series of educational records for children, produced between 1919-1921 by the Emerson Phonograph Company under license from the Talking Book Corporation of New York. The majority of these records had an animal theme and were presented as colourful, die cut illustrations with a small record attached to the centre. The disc contained a short story or rhyme while the back of the cardboard carrier contained further information about the featured animal and a transcript of the record. The entire package was placed directly on the turntable when played.

Tiger on turntable

The series was announced in the May 1919 issue of Talking Machine World and proudly stated that these animal records "have an educational value that can hardly be overestimated." Clarity was of the utmost importance so only voice actors with the very best diction were used:

"Elocutionists of note and merit make these talking records, so that the child's ear is attuned to perfection of sound from infancy".

Almost a century later, the clear style of delivery from the un-named actor can still be heard beneath the crackle of time. The "educational value" of 'The Story of the Tiger Hunt' is hard to understand however, yet encapsulates the attitudes towards this species at the turn of the 20th century.

The Story of the Tiger Hunt, Talking Book Corporation 1919

Crouched in tall jungle grass,
Above the rocky pass,
Lashing his snaky tail
The Tiger guards his trail.

The distant hunters come - 
Hark to the tom-tom's drum!
What mighty beasts they ride
With tough and leather hide!
Who trumpets there I wonder?
The elephants deep thunder!

Close to his lair they go,
Beware! He crouches low;
Hear his fierce purring growl!
List how the natives howl!
Ready with gun and spear!
Strike, when The Stripes appear!
Look out! The monster springs!
Quick! Fire! Each rifle rings!
Hear that victorious cry!
Ah! See him fall and die!

In 1919, tiger hunting was still a popular form of big game hunting in south Asia. Hunts were carried out on foot, with horses and on the back of elephants, as referenced in the second verse of the tiger hunt rhyme. Tigers were also a common occurrence, with an estimated 40,000 or so individuals existing in India alone. The general consensus was that the hunting of and killing of these majestic animals was still an acceptable and prestigious activity, and that this resource was seemingly limitless. By the 1970s however, numbers had plummeted to just under 2000 individuals. This dramatic decline kick-started  a conservation plan which began with a well-overdue national ban on tiger hunting.

Tiger Front

'The Story of the Tiger Hunt', as well as illustrating the attitudes of the time, leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. The piece appears to contain recordings of a roaring tiger and trumpeting elephant, yet where did these recordings come from? They almost certainly were not recorded in the wilds of India so captive animals must have been used. But who recorded these animals and where? Or are these merely the work of talented foley artists working at the Emerson Phonograph Company? For now, these answers elude us. 

24 April 2016

The 1916 Easter Rising: Sound and Memory

The Easter Rising, which began on 24th April 1916 and lasted for six days, is remembered both positively and negatively as the revolt which gave rise to the Irish Republic and modern Irish Republicanism. It saw some hundreds of nationalists and socialists attempt through armed insurrection to secure an Irish Republic separate from the British Empire. 2016 sees the 100th anniversary of the Rising.

T117Like other centenarian commemorations, several notable anniversaries have preceded them and by chance during preservation digitisation this year, I came across a radio documentary in the British Library’s collections, broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 21st April 1966 and recorded to tape, off-air, featuring a compilation of stories and insights of the survivors and associates of the rising, narrated by Robin Holmes for the occasion of the 50th anniversary.

The broadcast opens with the same declaration as the rising began - the Proclamation of the Irish Republic - from the text as read by Patrick Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland…’

Proclamation of the Irish Republic (extract)

The Rising is explained through such personalities as Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke and Constance Markiewicz. They represent an amazing contrast of characters, described as nationalists, socialists, trade unionists, and suffragists, but united by ‘purity of intent’ in freeing Ireland.

The general impression conveyed through the recording is a heroic though poorly planned attempt, lacking weapons, coordination and almost any military strategy. The Irish celebrations of 1966 attempted to cement the struggle as a myth of origin for Ireland. The positive echoes this received in Britain via the broadcast of the documentary on the BBC are interesting when looked at historically. The memory of terrorism and violence had gone by 1966: it was acceptable for both Ireland and Britain to view the uprising as a heroic foundation for Ireland; Ireland having large national celebrations.

The change was with the beginning of the Troubles in 1969. Thereafter Irish Republicanism became associated with violence, sectarianism and terrorism. It was from the fires of the Rising that the Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, and Irish Republican Brotherhood formed as the Irish Republican Army and with the enduring desire for a unified Irish Republic. This is how the majority in Britain connected these events after 1969, as did many in the Irish establishment and therefore wanted no connection with them, even going as far as cancelling the 60th celebrations.

This recording stands as a point between the changing narratives, and silence, of British and Irish memories of the Rising, and can be used to understand the reasons for these shifts. What happened on Easter 1916 and how it has shaped Irish development is not a case of plain facts but how it has been remembered and interpreted and by who changes the narrative and will continue to change with new generations and interpretations.

John Berry, Preservation Assistant, Sound & Vision Technical Services


18 April 2016

Shakespeare and the Nightingale

The works of Shakespeare contain many references to the sounds of the natural world, whether that be the ominous notes of a Raven in Henry VI or the "tu-whit, to-who" of a Tawny Owl in Love's Labour's Lost

One bird that appears in several of Shakespeare's plays and poems is the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). A source of inspiration for writers and poets across the ages, this small, plain-looking bird is best known for its exquisite voice that can often be heard just as other birds are starting to fall silent for the night. The Nightingale was once a common summer visitor to the British countryside, so it's likely that its beautiful song would have been a familiar sound to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fairy queen Titania commands her subjects to sing her to sleep before commencing their nocturnal duties. The fairies call on the Philomel, a colloquial name for the Nightingale, to use his sweet tunes to send their queen to sleep:

Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good night, with lullaby.

A Midsummer Night's Dream ( 2:2 663-669)

Once asleep, the fairy king Oberon squeezes the juice of a magical flower onto Titania's closed eyelids that will make her fall in love with the first living thing she sees upon waking, which just so happens to be the donkey-headed Bottom. 

Oberon and Titania

Charles Mottram, 1807–1876, Oberon and Titania - "Midsummer Night's Dream", Act II, Scene II, Engraving, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

In the Taming of the Shrew, the fortune-seeking Petruchio is determined to win over the strong-willed Kate by countering her insults with compliments:

I’ll attend her here
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.

Taming of the Shrew (2:1 1013-1016)


Taming of the Shrew, Katherine and Petruchio, graphic, J.D.L. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

The Nightingale makes another appearance in Shakespeare's romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The morning after their secret marriage, Juliet tries to persuade Romeo not to leave by saying that the birdsong they heard came from a Nightingale and not a lark announcing the break of day:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

Romeo and Juliet (3:5 2098-2102) 

Romeo_Juliet poster

Poster advertising Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet. Signed J.L. Lith. Library of Congress.

Just as the writers of the past endeavored to celebrate the magnificent song of this little bird through the written word, so the sound recordists of today try to do the same with sound.  Here is just one of our many recordings of a singing Nightingale, recorded in an English forest in the early hours of an April morning in 2008 by Phil Riddett. A sweet lullaby indeed. 

Nightingale song recorded in Kent 2008 by Phil Riddett


The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.