The Cellist and Her Nightingales

Our guest author today is Dennis Brezina, who tells us a lovely story about the first time bird song was broadcast on radio, the song of nightingales in Great Britain singing with a renowned cellist.

I hope Dennis decides to publish his own blog; he is a Renaissance man with a powerful way with the pen. And quite a history himself, part of the team that established Earth Day back in 1970 while working for Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. Besides author of a book on Congress and many, many articles, he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and Harvard. He has even written about his experiences running a bed & breakfast! We plan to publish more of his articles here, and here is the first one:

Consider the fascinating story of British cellist Beatrice Harrison, who “moved to the Surrey countryside in the 1920’s and began practicing in her garden at night in the spring. Nightingales began to join along with her, and she heard them matching her arpeggios with carefully timed trills. After getting used to her they would burst into song whenever she began to play.”

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Nightingale singing away!

In 1924 she managed to convince Lord Reith, Director General of the BBC, that a performance of cello together with wild nightingales in her garden would be the perfect subject for the world’s first outdoor radio broadcast. Reith was initially hesitant: “Surely this would be too frivolous a use of our latest technology. What if the birds refuse to cooperate when we’re all set to go?” But he agreed to Harrison’s unique idea of broadcasting interspecies “music” in her backyard.

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Beatrice Harrison

The engineers and sound technicians set up the microphones near the nightingales usual singing post and Harrison sat with her cello in a muddy ditch nearby so that one microphone could pick up both of them. “For over an hour Harrison played and no bird sang. Suddenly, just after 10:45 P.M., fifteen minutes before the broadcast was set to end, the nightingales began to sing along with Dvorak’s ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me.'”

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BBC engineers prepare the Marconi-Sykes microphone for the 1924 broadcast, (A G D West at top right). The man in the flat cap pointing is the Harrisons’ gardener. (Copyright unknown)

Never before had a bird’s song or any other sound from the wild been sent over the airwaves. The program was heard as far away as Paris, Barcelona and Budapest, and many who had read about the fabled nightingale now heard one for the first time.

If you click on this link and click where it says to play, you will hear the original recording of bird song as Beatrice plays the Londonderry Air (Danny Boy).

Harrison received 50,000 letters of appreciation. After that late-night triumph she became one of the most sought after cellists of her time.

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Elgar’s music played by Beatrice Harrison

You can still buy recordings of her playing Elgar.

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Beatrice Harrison in her garden (copyright unknown)

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