The Cello and the Nightingale: 1924 duet was faked, BBC admits | BBC
On May 19, 1924, cellist Beatrice Harrison performed an extraordinary duet with a singing nightingale in her Surrey garden during one of the BBC’s first live outdoor broadcasts. It was a magical nighttime event that captivated the nation, inspiring a million listeners, tens of thousands of fan letters and repeat broadcasts every year until 1942.
But now society recognizes that the original historical event was actually faked using an impressionistic bird – someone imitating a nightingale so precisely that people believed a real one was responding to an interpretation of Londonderry Air.
The nightingales may have been spooked by the crew stomping around the garden with heavy recording equipment. As it was live, the back-up shot was a stunt double – thought to be Maude Gould, a whistler or whistler known as Madame Saberon on variety bills.
The BBC says the “true story” will be explored in an upcoming Radio 3 show, Private Passions, which will air on April 17.
It will feature Professor Tim Birkhead, one of the world’s leading bird experts, who told the Guardian: “It would be [have been] a terrible confession, even later, to say that they had brought Madame Saberon back. The temptation to say nothing must have been immense. Today that would be unacceptable, but in 1924 it was probably perfectly acceptable.
Harrison was one of the leading cellists of her generation, inspiring Elgar and Delius. She liked to practice in the open air and remembers her first duet with a nightingale: “I started Rimsky-Korsakov’s Hindu Song and, after playing for a while, I stopped. Suddenly a glorious note echoed the notes of the cello. I then trilled up and down the instrument, up and down… The bird’s voice followed me… It seemed like a miracle.
She persuaded Lord Reith, the director general of the BBC, to broadcast such a performance. Initially reluctant, he later admitted that the nightingale “swept the country…with a wave of something akin to emotionality.”
Harrison, nicknamed “The Lady of the Nightingales”, recalled that after a long wait “suddenly, at about quarter to 11, the nightingale began to sing as I continued to play”. For audiences, she realized, it “sounded a chord in their love of music, nature and beauty”.
Birkhead, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at the University of Sheffield, is an award-winning scientist whose books include Birds and Us, a 12,000-year history of our relationship with birds.
He said the nightingale song had “incredible volume and long, intricate phrases,” and that playing any instrument outside was likely to draw a response: “I keep canaries. If I put on the radio, they all start singing because there is ‘a competitor’. It doesn’t matter that it’s not another canary. It’s just ‘who the hell is that? Let’s sing them better.’
He acknowledged research into the 1924 recording by Jeremy Mynott, who wrote in his 2009 book, Birdscapes: “I wonder if it’s really a nightingale.”
Birkhead said Mynott played the recording to other experts: “One said it sounded very weird and the other said it sounded good. But when they looked at the ultrasound, the sound image, they noticed that it contained some unusual elements…
“I also played it to good birdwatchers, without telling them why. Half of them said, “yes, it’s a nightingale”, the other half said, “not sure, something funny in this song”. But I’m convinced it was Madame Saberon.
Robert Seatter, the head of BBC History, told the Guardian: “The duo’s extraordinary story…has captivated people for decades…This revelation that a ‘whistleblower’ may have sung the The Nightingale’s role in the first original broadcast is testament to how precarious live broadcasts were almost a century ago… This version of events brings a new chapter to this much-loved story.
Birkhead said: “When Harrison rehearsed the performance in later years the BBC was a bit more careful not to trample a garden and it was a real nightingale. That was the main thing, that they had scared him.
Nightingales are in such decline, due to the climate crisis and habitat loss, that Harrison and the BBC today would have to wait forever for a nightingale to show up. Birkhead said: “The loss of birds is immense: 600 million fewer birds in Europe since 1980.”
In Private Passions, he celebrates the song of birds, choosing recordings ranging from the old Catalan “Chant des Oiseaux” to the Dawn Chorus.
The nightingale’s quest for love and survival
Ask anyone to name the bird with the most beautiful song, and most will say the nightingale. Although they are a small, brown, unassuming bird, their haunting air has made them the subject of countless poems and other works of art over the years.
The song of a nightingale seems complex because it is composed of many more sounds than those of its competitors. They can make over 1,000 different sounds, compared to just 340 for larks and around 100 for blackbirds. Their search for love is also well known, with the males singing at the top of their voices to find a mate.
They are often found near calm water, which they cross singing on spring nights: the water carries their voice well, and they seem to like the effect.
In Victorian times, when much of the poetry about captivating little birds was written, many dreamed up the idea of having their own nightingale, kept in a cage, ready and willing to sing for them. But they have such a strong migratory need that in the fall the trapped bird would inevitably rush against the bars, dying in the process.
While we no longer inflict this torture on nightingales, they suffer in this country for other reasons. The birds have faced a decline in England of at least 50% since 1995. In 2015 it became a red-listed species for the first time, making it a bird of conservation concern in the UK. -United.
This is thought to be because the small bramble bushy areas they like to sing and nest in have been ‘cleaned up’ over the decades.
Populations have been found to recover when thoughtful landowners prune antlers, to create the low bushes and small trees that birds love.
The Knepp Estate in Sussex is a good example of this – they managed to bring back a small population by creating the perfect habitat. Other places you can hear their song on a spring evening include Blean Woods in Kent, Fingringhoe Wick in Essex and the RSPB Center at Highnam Woods in Gloucestershire.