Ludwig Koch – a giant amongst men. In his day, he was as big as David Attenborough is today and his shows were the equivalent of the, then, Planet Earth. Except it was only sound; he was a field recordist.
He was a political refugee too – He worked for the German government until 1925. In 1928, he was commissioned by the German subsidiary of Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) to start a cultural branch of the gramophone industry; this coincided with a revival of his childhood interest in animals. Thus from 1929, he began recording of animal sounds again using up-to-date equipment. He invented the sound-book: attaching gramophone records to an illustrated book.
In January 1936, Koch went on a lecture tour in Switzerland. His return flight ticket was given to him by Hermann Göring, who, as a bird and animal lover, was a fan of Koch’s work. After Koch’s last lecture, he was approached by a man who told him he was the Third Reich’s representative in Switzerland and that he had followed Koch’s lectures and written a very good report about them. It turned out the man was Wilhelm Gustloff and he was assassinated the following day.
Since Koch had been seen speaking to Gustloff just hours beforehand, he became concerned about his return to Germany, that he would be accused of being involved in the assassination. He called the director of his recording company, a Nazi, who told him, “Just stay where you are. The air in Switzerland is much better than in Germany.” Koch then fled to Great Britain.
Sir Julian Huxley helped him to interest the ornithologist and publisher Harry Witherby in a sound-book of British wild birds. In 1936, Songs of Wild Birds was published, followed by two other sound-books by 1938 (More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937 & Animal Language in 1938). In 1937 he made recordings of the birds in the Parc of the royal castle in La(e)ken (Belgium) with the aid of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. These recordings were published only in 1952, due to the circumstances of war and the Kings Question.
Early in World War II, Huxley introduced Koch to the British Broadcasting Corporation, and his distinctive, yet attractive and rather musical, voice accompanying his sound recordings soon became familiar to listeners. His sound recordings were acquired by the BBC and established the BBC’s library of natural history sound. He never lost his strong German accent.
His work was parodied by Peter Sellers. But that Koch retired in 1951, but continued to make expeditions to record wildlife sounds, visiting Iceland when he was seventy-one. He was the subject of a 2009 BBC Radio 4 documentary, “Ludwig Koch and the Music of Nature”. His recordings and manuscript papers are preserved in the British Library Sound Archive and the following is his discography –
- Der Wald Erschallt (Verlag Knorr & Hirth, 1934)
- Im gleichen Schritt und Tritt (Verlag Knorr & Hirth, 1934)
- Stolz weht die Flagge (Verlag Knorr & Hirth, 1934)
- Gefiederte Meistersänger – 1st edition (Brühlscher Verlag Giessen, 1935)
- Songs of Wild Birds (H.F. & G. Witherby, 1936)
- More Songs of Wild Birds (H.F. & G. Witherby, 1937)
- Hunting by Ear – 1st edition (H.F. & G. Witherby, 1937)
- Animal Language (Country Life / Parlophone, 1938)
- Les Oiseaux Chanteurs de Laeken (Parlophone, 1952)
- Songs of British Birds (HMV, 1953)
- Ludwig Koch Remembers: 1 (BBC, 1957)
- Ludwig Koch Remembers: 2 (BBC, 1957)
- Hunting by Ear – 2nd edition (H.F. & G. Witherby, 1960)