Beatrice Harrison, cello and nightingale duet 19 May 1924

Wednesday 19 May 2010, 10:32

Robert Seatter Robert Seatter

BBC anniversaries come thick and fast in the BBC calendar. In this year alone, we have 25 doof-doof years of EastEnders, 60 years of sequinned Come Dancing, and, on a darker note, 70 years of French pride since General De Gaulle gave his stirring address from Broadcasting House to rally the Resistance against a German-occupied France.

Beatrice Harrison playing the cello.jpg

But I must confess to being partial - and one of my favourite BBC anniversaries crops up today. It's the quirky and idiosyncratic story of a nightingale and a cello. Once upon a time...

On 19th May 1924, BBC radio listeners heard for the first time an extraordinary duet live from a Surrey garden. The cellist was Beatrice Harrison, who had recently performed the British debut of Delius's Cello Concerto, which had been written for her. The nightingales were the birds in the woods around Harrison's home in Oxted, who were attracted by the sound of her cello.

Harrison first became aware of the birds one summer evening as she practised her instrument in the garden. As she played she heard a nightingale answer and then echo the notes of the cello. When this duet was repeated night after night Harrison somehow managed to persuade the BBC that it should be broadcast. Engineers carried out a successful test and the following night the live broadcast took place. Harrison played and the nightingales, eventually, joined in.

The public reaction was such that the experiment was repeated the next month and then every spring for the following 12 years. Harrison and the nightingales became internationally renowned and she received 50,000 fan letters. Writing in the Radio Times before the second broadcast, BBC Managing Director John Reith said the nightingale "has swept the country...with a wave of something closely akin to emotionalism, and a glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a life". What a great prose style that man had!

And why does the 'glamour of romance' still touch me? I suppose it's partly for the same reason that Springwatch works its charm on audiences today. It's the belief that, even in this post-industrial age, we still have some relationship with our 'natural' neighbours. Nature touches us - and even more extraordinary, does not ignore us: a nightingale may answer a cello.


More information at BBC History.

Robert Seatter is Head of BBC History


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    Comment number 1.

    Hello there,
    I am a cellist too!Beatrice Harrison is one of my 'inspirational idols'.I perform the Rhapsodic Ballad which was dedicated to her but I undertand that she never performed it.I must also say what a lovely photograph of her.
    I also love the recording of Beatrice Harrison in the garden with the nightingale,performing 'Londonderry Air', wasn't it? Or,(Oh Danny Boy) to those unfamiliar with the proper title.
    I do not wish to pour cold water onto a lovely story, but my late mother knowing that Beatrice Harrison was one of my 'inspirational idols'sent me a newspaper article, maybe ten or more years ago.My mother was equally disgusted and disappointed at the implications of the article. The journalist wrote it with a cynical and disbelieving attitude about the recording of the cello and the nightingale. However, fortuneatly for us,May Harrison,Beatrice's sister who was at the time of the cynical article, a very elderly lady,was also a superb violinist in the same era as Beatrice.She was present at the time of the recording in the garden and her input to the cynical journalist sent a broadside,and we learnt from May, that 'of course the nightingale sang!'In other no impersonaters were present.
    The true story is wonderful with elements of 'otherworldliness' about it. We see not only Beatrice Harrison's humanity,but we can hear the beauty of her playing and poignantly we are complelled to reflect on the rareness of us hearing these beautiful song birds today, due to the vast reduction of suitable nesting habitats for them in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Dear Clare

    Many thanks for yr message. I agree, it's an absolutely touching and otherworldly story!
    And fascinating to have it totally validated by Beatrice's sister, so thanks for yr insights there, though having read the longsuffering reports from the BBC engineers who waited for the moment of nightingale song, I had no doubts as to the story's veracity...

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