Nightingale and cello, or Beatrice and the bird

Poet Mark Roper on being inspired by cellist Beatrice Harrison’s BBC duets with a nightingale

In 1924, the BBC broadcast a live recording of the cellist Beatrice Harrison playing a duet with a nightingale. It was the first in a series of recordings which would be repeated annually until 1942. The duets became a worldwide sensation. They offered, in a most moving way, communication and communion between two species, human and bird. And not just any bird: the nightingale has long been regarded as having one of the most beautiful songs of all. Milton said that when the nightingale sang, silence was pleased; perhaps the greatest of Keats’s Odes was inspired by its song.

Beatrice Harrison had been drawn to the cello at a very early age. Her parents, despite having no great love for music, devoted themselves to her playing. At the age of nine she was invited to perform for Pablo Casals. She made her London debut at the age of 20, to widespread acclaim. The family, having returned from India, where her father had worked for the army as a mathematics teacher, fell in love with a small cottage in Surrey. They built a music room for Beatrice.

She also got into the habit of playing in the garden being created by her mother, enjoying doing so especially in the evenings. Here she encountered a nightingale: “After playing for some time I stopped. Suddenly a glorious note echoed the notes of the cello. I then trilled up and down the instrument, up to the top and down again: the voice of the bird followed me in thirds! I had never heard such a bird’s song before - to me it seemed a miracle.”

The nightingale sang to and with her playing, night after night. Wishing to share the experience as widely as she could, Beatrice managed to persuade the BBC to try an outside broadcast. It would be their first attempt at one – they had only been in existence for two years. The technology didn’t exist to pre-record – the programme would have to be transmitted live. The bird didn’t appear until the broadcast was nearly over, but when it did there was an immediate emotional reaction among listeners.


But here the story gets a bit murky. In a programme broadcast in April this year, the BBC acknowledged that the ‘singing’ of the nightingale in the first broadcast was in fact the work of a bird impressionist – a whistler, or siffleur, who imitated the bird with extreme accuracy. It being their first live broadcast, the BBC had filled Beatrice’s garden with cables and telephone landlines and microphones. And just in case the bird didn’t turn up, they brought along an understudy – a professional whistler and bird imitator called Maude Gould, who performed in variety shows under the name Madame Saberon. No direct evidence actually survives to validate this claim, which is strongly disputed by Beatrice Harrison’s biographer, Patricia Cleveland-Peck. No contract for Maude Gould survives; there’s no paper trail. But professional ornithologists had had doubts for some time.

When I first heard the story of the broadcasts, I was moved in particular by the idea of communication between two species, especially at such a glorious level. I started working on a poem about the story, but soon found that present-day concerns began to intrude. The nightingale population in England is in steep decline, part of the immense pattern of decline of so many species of birds across Europe - some 600 million birds lost since 1980. My poem became and would remain a lament.

The recordings continued until 1942 – after the first one, the nightingales were real! At a certain point, the Harrisons moved away from their cottage. But the BBC continued to air the programme annually, with the bird singing alone, such was the love for its song. In the final broadcast, in 1942, with almost unbearable poignancy, the drone of bomber planes begins to be heard, growing steadily louder. They were English bombers, on their way to Germany. The broadcast was stopped, in case it might jeopardize the mission.

The programmes had started in 1924, in the aftermath of the first World War. They continued into the second. They provided a deep emotional release for millions of people. And they offered a sense that we are not altogether alone – that it’s possible that the best of us, as expressed in music, might reach out to, and be responded to, by another species. Does it matter if the first recording was faked? I don’t think it matters at all. The nightingale had sung to Beatrice’s cello for evening after evening before the BBC had got involved, and would continue to do so in subsequent broadcasts. What matters is what the broadcasts accomplished.

The Long Loneliness is the title of an influential article by an American scientist, Loren Eisely. It was written in 1960, in the light of new research which was revealing that bottle-nosed dolphins possessed the ability to communicate – that they had a language of their own. In the article, Eisely laments our isolation from the natural world, the vast and ancient gulf between us and our “animal associates”. He entertains an optimism that the new research might begin to lessen that gap. “It is worth at least a wistful thought that someday the dolphin or porpoise may talk to us and we to him. It would break, perhaps, the long loneliness that has made man a frequent terror and abomination even to himself.”

In a period between the two world wars in which man was truly “a frequent terror and abomination even to himself”, the communication between cello and nightingale reminded us that we are creatures of the deepest feeling who can, through music, our most far-reaching art, communicate with another creature. In that way, however briefly, we might appear to be able to break the bonds of our destructive loneliness on this earth.

Nightingale and Cello

Late spring evenings she likes
to practise in the garden,
the rich sound of her cello
feeling its way through the dusk.
Deep inside dark leaves
a nightingale appears to respond.

The young BBC wants to try
a live outside broadcast.
She picks Elgar, a family friend –
his halting, heartbroken concerto.

At the last moment, just before
they have to go off air,
the nightingale arrives. Between them
cello and bird do what great art
has been said to do – harmonize
the sadness of the universe.

Sadness, once meaning simply how things are,
bittersweet taste of being here.
Now just Sorrow, as if hope
had bled from the word.

To learn ecology, said Aldo Leopold,
is to live alone in a world of wounds.
Nightingales in decline, no longer found
where that cello played.

In the final broadcast the bird, singing alone,
is joined by the drone of bombers.
The duet goes out across the airwaves,
ascends into space. Help us, it says –
though there is no help to be had.
Help us, for we cannot help ourselves.

from Beyond Stillness by Mark Roper, published by Dedalus Press