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Hans Christian Andersen:  "The Nightingale" Toronto | WTBD 2005
Did the emperor suffer
from tuberculosis?

World TB Day 2005 brings us back to the times
of Hans Christian Andersen and Jenny Lind

by Cecilia Jorgensen, Icons of Europe

In Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Nightingale", the Chinese emperor saw 'Death sitting on his chest'.  Drawing by Vilhelm Pedersen (1872).

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 … He could hardly breathe; there seemed to be something sitting on his chest … it was Death".

Sources of inspiration

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875);  detail of painting by Christian Albrecht Jensen.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: "… the victims 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.

Jenny Lind

Jenny Lind (1820-1887),  lithograph (today on the SKR 50 banknote).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 de génie".

"The last moments", painting of Fryderyk Chopin by Teofil Kwiatkowski (1849-1850 or later). 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 meaning.

Cecilia Jorgensen

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.

Toronto events
H.C. Andersen


The media and public institutions may reproduce this essay provided that the following reference is included:

Copyright © 2005 Icons of Europe, B-1380 Brussels, with permission by Cecilia Jorgensen.

HCA's nightingale story:
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World TB Day 2005 (24 March) reminds us that tuberculosis has today re-emerged as a global epidemic that continues to kill about two million people each year. TB is a bacterial infection that usually attacks the lungs. Spread by coughing and sneezing, the disease is curable with appropriate treatment.

However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), drug resistance, a TB/HIV interface, migrants and stigma have created a particularly dangerous and complex situation in both low- and high-income countries.

A BBC News headline said on 15 February 2005: "Foreigners wanting to work in the UK will have to undergo mandatory health tests for TB and HIV, under plans unveiled by the Conservatives."