Ludwig Koch - Master of Nature's Music

by John Burton. (from the Autumn 1974 edition of Wildlife Sound)

Ludwig Koch recording
Koch field recording using a disc recorder

The death of Ludwig Koch on May 4th 1974 at the age of 92, marks the end of an era in wildlife sound recording. As the pioneer of this technique he opened up a whole new field of study, which, unfortunately, zoologists were slow to explore.

Ludwig was born on November 13th 1881 into a musical family and amongst the rich musical traditions of Frankfurt. As a small boy he met the great Franz Liszt and played in Clara Schumann's Music Room, where Brahms was a frequent visitor. Naturally, therefore, he was destined for a career as a musician, studying the violin under Edward Brockl and Hugo Heermann.

But it was as a concert singer that he first achieved success and a measure of fame. His tutors included Clara Sohn and Johannes Meeschaert from whom he learned the art of singing Lieder – an art which with the passing of such expert Liedersingers, Ludwig considered extinct. He discontinued his successful career as a concert singer at the outbreak of the first World War in which he served in German military intelligence, but afterwards continued his connection with music by organising musical and other cultural exhibitions in Frankfurt, notably the great international exhibition “Music in the life of Nations”. Then around 1928 he received an invitation from the German subsidiary of EMI to organise a cultural branch of the gramophone industry, which he accepted, becoming a director.

It was about this time that his childhood interest in animals, particularly birds, revived. As a boy of eight in 1889 his father presented him with an Edison phonograph and a box of wax cylinders, purchased at the Leipzig Fair, and it was not long before the young Ludwig began recording the voices of the numerous pets in his private menagerie. The first of these, a recording of his Indian or Common Shama, Copyschus Malabaricus made in 1889, still survives, and s preserved in the BBC Sound archives. It is believed to be the first recording ever made of a bird; although poor in quality it is, nevertheless of considerable historic interest. At the time, Ludwig also collected sound autographs with his novel ‘toy’, approaching several famous people, including Bismarck.

Now that he was responsible for the development of gramophone recording for educational purposes, he combined his interest in bird-watching with recording their voices, using the latest recording equipment. He had long before conceived of the notion of a sound book, which would illustrate the voices of animals with good recordings instead of, to use Ludwig’s own word “those musical notations and curves which mean nothing either to a scientist or to a bird-lover. The translation, too, into such words as tu, tu, tu or tse, tse, tse will never bring to the ears of the average listener the sweetness of the song of the Woodlark or the characteristic note of the Marsh-tit.” Now he was able to put it into practice, and within four years published three Sound-books on animals in collaboration with Dr Lutz Heck, then Director of the Berlin Zoo, and the renowned ornithologist, Dr Oscar Heinroth. With the latter he produced in 1935 the first sound-book of wild birds, Gefiederte Meistersänger (Feathered Mastersingers) covering 25 species which were recorded between 1927 and 1935.

By this time Germany was fully under the control of the Nazi Party. For someone of Ludwig Koch's outspoken temperament, life became increasingly intolerable, so that following a series of confrontations with party officials, he resolved to leave Germany.

Very soon after his arrival as a refugee in this country on the 17th February 1936, he was approached by the BBC who wished to use his bird-song recordings. But Ludwig, who had to leave many of his precious recordings behind, where he believes they were destroyed by the Nazis, declined as he wanted to first make new recordings of wild birds in Britain. Aided and encouraged by Sir Julian Huxley, he succeeded in interesting the well-known ornithologist Harry Witherby. Who was senior partner of the publishers of that name, in his project for a sound-book of British Birds. As it happened E.M. (Max) Nicholson had been commissioned by the firm to write a book on the songs of wild birds; he readily offered to collaborate with Ludwig and make it a sound-book. So before the end of the same year Songs of Wild Birds was published, illustrated by photographs and two double-sides, ten-inch gramophone records with the songs of 15 species. This was followed the next year, 1937, by its sequel, More Songs of Wild Birds, this time accompanied by three double-sided discs featuring the voices of 21 species. After that he produced, in collaboration with Sir Julian Huxley, Animal Language, which appeared in 1938. In the meantime, he accepted an invitation from King Leopold of the Belgians and his mother Queen Elizabeth, to make recordings of wild birds in the Royal Park of Laeken. This occupied much of his time up to the outbreak of the Second World War. But owing to the war it was more than 15 years before this sound-book saw the light of day in 1952, when it was distributed free to around 20000 Belgian schools.

Ludwig Koch setting up
Koch setting up the microphone

Soon after the war began Ludwig's recording activities were interrupted by a period of internment as an ‘enemy alien’ but he was released in August 1940. At Huxley’s suggestion he offered his services to the BBC where he found employment in the European Service, transferring later in the war to Home Services. Here he was able to illustrate his talks for Children’s Hour and the Talks department with his own recordings, which he still continued to make with the help of BBC engineers in spite of the limitations imposed by wartime conditions.

By the end of the war the voice of Ludwig Koch was a familiar one on the radio. Indeed, by then his popularity was so great that he was a household name, and his extraordinary and characteristic style of English, which naturally became a source of fun for the comedians of the time, was undoubtedly partly responsible for his success. He used to more or less sing the English language, while at the same time rarely departing from the German pronunciation of ‘w’ as ‘v’; ‘th’ as ‘s’ and ‘z’ like ‘ts’ so one heard, for example “Sur singing off-scales. Ant so sur stories off sailors who haf hurt veird ant eerie soudss came to life. Ant also sure age-long stories off sur mermaids sing-ing on sur rocks”.

Although largely unknown to the younger generation, the impact he made as a broadcaster in his hey-day in the 1940s and 1950s can be judged by the fact that years after he retired from regular broadcasting, his devotees still used to write to the BBC enquiring after him and his recordings, and by the impressive size of the congregation for his memorial service at a London church in July. He was particularly associated with radio natural history programmes emanating from Bristol. It was the desire to present his sound recordings to a regular audience that inspired Desmond Hawkins to start “The Naturalist” radio series in 1946, the forerunner of a whole spate of natural history programmes on radio and television which eventually led to the formation of the internationally renowned BBC Natural History Unit. Ludwig’s recording of the beautiful territorial call of the curlew was chosen as the signature tune of the series because it conjured up the atmosphere – the very spirit of wild places.

In March 1948, the BBC purchased Ludwig’s entire collection of animal recordings, and he became a permanent member of the staff, charged with the take of processing his recordings of permanent incorporation in the BBC sound archives. This was no mean task as there were thousands of unedited discs and it took him and his friend, Timothy Eckersley (who retired recently from his post as head of BBC Recording Services, Radio) three years to sort, edit, process and catalogue them. When the job was completed, his collection comprised more than 500 recordings of 138 species of birds, 60 mammals and a small number of recordings of other animals such as frogs and insects.

When he was not busy on this work, he was out in the field actively making new recordings and broadcasting regularly as a result of expeditions to various parts of the British Isles, such as the channel Islands, Dartmoor, the Norfolk Broads, Cornwall and the Scillies, Pembrokeshire island of Skomer, the Scottish Highlands and Shetland. Even after his retirement from the BBC he continued for some time to record birds. When he was 71 he undertook a more or less solitary expedition to Iceland to record, among other species of birds, the incredibly beautiful calls of the great northern diver.


Listen to Ludwig Koch talking about the tribulations of recording Great Northern Divers

The last recording he made for the BBC was of a nest of young swallows in Somerset in 1961, when he was in his 80th year. This and the Iceland trip were probably the only occasions when he was persuaded to use a tape recorder. Hitherto Ludwig had remained obstinately faithful to his weighty and rather cumbersome disc-cutting equipment even when his ‘pupils’ were exploiting the advantage of tape and such aids as parabolic reflectors to better effect. Even so, few excelled the artistic excellence of the bests of his work.

Altogether Ludwig Koch recorded some 171 species of birds, 65 mammals and 10 other animal species. At the time of writing[ed: 1974], his collection still forms about a sixth of the entire BBC collection. Along with the rest of the BBC recordings they are frequently consulted by biologists in the course of their research as well as receiving a regular airing in radio and television programmes. Many of them are now on sale to the public in The Wildlife Series of gramophone records produced by BBC records. His autobiography "Memoirs of a Birdman" was published in 1955.

A long cherished dream of Ludwig’s was the establishment of a sound institute devoted to the permanent preservation of the sounds of wildlife, music, folklore, famous voices of the past, languages, dialects etc from all over the world. He tried successively to establish one in Germany before Hitler came to power,, in Belgium with the help of the Belgian Royal family, but this was frustrated by the war, and in Britain, but it never got off the ground because of a lack of funds. In many ways the BBC Sound Archives and the British Institute of Recorded Sound fulfil this need, and Ludwig welcomed the creation of the latter in 1955, but neither quite satisfied his idea[1] of “an institute with branches as readily accessible to the general public as their municipal libraries”. Nevertheless, it was a consolation to him to know that copies of all his recordings are preserved for posterity not only in the BBC Sound Archives but also in the BIRS’s British Library of Wildlife sounds, together with all his original unedited discs.

Although not himself a scientific naturalist, being more artistic in his approach, Ludwig Koch pioneered the technique of recording wildlife out of doors, thus making it possible at an early date for scientists to study and analyse their vocalisations in a way never before possible. That they were slow to do so was something of a disappointment to him. However, over the past fifteen or so years bioacoustics has become increasingly important area of research which owes much to the lonely, sometimes difficult path he signposted.

To the listening public Ludwig was the master of nature’s music, bringing an awareness of the sounds of wildlife and the countryside into their houses, even in the centre of great urban concourses, in a way which had never been possible before. Coupled with that, his magnetic radio personality and voice played no small role in spearheading the British public’s growing appreciation of nature and the need for its conservation, of which the abundance of wildlife’s radio and television programmes today are both a symptom and a cause.

His many radio listeners were only too ready to offer hospitality or to lend a helping hand when he appeared imperiously in their midst characteristically wearing his familiar black beret. And with all that equipment to transport to often far from accessible places he certainly needed help. Once in the early post-war years he even commandeered a party of German prisoners-of-war when other help was unavailable, ordering them about in their native tongue. Recording bird and other animals was an obsession. He was fanatical in his single minded determination to achieve the desired results, to an extent which few of this companions could endure, happily forgetting all about food or sleep. In Iceland in 1953 his local guide ‘marooned’ with him on an island in the middle of Lake Myvatn from 10 am one day to 8pm the next, without provisions, while Ludwig waited for a long-tailed duck to come within range, could bear it no longer and suddenly burst out “I am a human being! And I need food!” He left for the desired refreshment the moment the boatman returned, but Ludwig obstinately stayed on until 2 o’clock the following morning.

But Ludwig also possessed a great sense of fun and good humour. He delighted in his own brand of ‘leg-pulls’ which often made effective use of his linguistic fluency in several languages. Right to the end of this life his gaiety never deserted him, often expressing itself in song. He was certainly one of the happiest men I have ever met who looked back over his long life with joy.

In 1960 Ludwig Koch’s services to broadcasting and natural history were recognised by the award of an MBE. His wife Nellie Sylvia Herz, whom he married in 1912, dies a few years before him. They are survived by a son and a daughter.

John Burton


Listen to the author John Burton talking about Ludwig Koch's legacy to the science of ornithology

This article was printed in the Autumn 1974 edition of Wildlife Sound, the Journal of the Wildife Sound Recording Society. Ludwig Koch was the first president of the WSRS from its inauguration in March 30th 1968

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  1. Koch's dream has now been realised with the work of the National Sound Archive, part of the collection is available online [return]

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