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His Delicious Voice So Liquid: The Complete May 1927 Nightingale Recordings

by Beatrice Harrison



The third of four daughters, Beatrice Harrison (b. Dec. 9, 1892; d. March 10, 1965) was born into an affluent military family in colonial British Himalayan India. She and her sisters Monica (a mezzo-soprano, b. 1879), May (who played violin, b. 1890), and Margaret (also a violinist, b. 1899) were required to study music from early childhood with the expectation that they would perform as an ensemble. Their father Col. John Harrison and mother Annie brought their family home to England when she was still an infant. Her father, an amateur flautist, was Principal of St. Thomas’s College of Sappers and Miners, a military engineering school at Oxford University.

She studied violin initially before moving to cello at the age of eight, winning a gold medal on the instrument at the age of ten. She entered the Royal College of Music in at the age of 11, and made her debut four years later while still in school. While the family lived in Berlin from 1908-10, she studied and concertized, playing Brahms, Schumann, and Dvorak while still a teenager, and won the Mendelssohn Prize. After the family returned to England in 1914, Beatrice and May were heard in concert by Frederick Delius (b. 1862; d. 1934) who subsequently wrote a double concerto dedicated to them. He went on to composer several more cello pieces for Beatrice.

Beatrice Harrison made her first trial disc in February 1914 and began recording in earnest two months later. She toured the U.S. during the First World War. In November 1920, she made the first recording of Sir Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the work with which she remains most closely associated apart from the eccentric technical project that she dreamed up a few years later.

In the Spring of 1923, at the age of 32, while practicing Rimsky Korsakov at night in the garden of the Harrison family home called Foyle Riding near the village of Oxted in Surrey, Beatrice Harrison thought she noticed that when she stopped playing she heard a bird “echo” the song. The next day, she asked the gardener what bird it was and was told it was a nightingale. The experience fired her imagination and motivated her on a project that took up much of the next several years of her life and became her greatest claim to fame.

In the Spring of 1924, she phoned Sir John Reith (b. July 20, 1889; d. June 16, 1971), the managing director of the BBC, and convinced him that there was an immediate and pressing need to broadcast the nightingales in her family’s garden on the radio, live, along with her cello-playing. Although reluctant at first, Reith took the project on in the spirit of public service and arranged for the BBC’s Assistant Chief Engineer, Captain Arthur Gilbert Dixon West to arrive on May 18 with a new Marconi-Sykes magnetophone (microphone), an amplifier, batteries, and cable. The two engineers installed the hardware in a small thatched gazebo and ran the electrical current of the sound on a private telephone line to London where it was sent by radio to relay stations around the nation. The broadcast that took place the following night is said to have been heard by a million listeners. The broadcast began at 9:30 and went on for about an hour and a half without a bird audible, but the climax was described in the Birmingham Gazette on May 20, 1924:
“Shortly before 11 o’clock the announcer [“Uncle” Rex Palmer] said ‘We are speaking from the woods of Oxted, one of the most beautiful spots in Surrey. In a few moments Miss Beatrice Harrison will be playing to the nightingale. Venus is rising in the West, and the moon is coming up as well.’
A moment later one heard the soft mellow tones of the ‘cello played by Miss Harrison, who, with her two sisters lives in an old house, adjoining which is a garden where the nightingales have taken up their quarters.
The ‘cello was immediately accompanied by the sweet, liquid trill of the nightingale whose clear note furnished the treble to the music. For several minutes the concert proceeded.
Mr. E. Kay Robinson, in a short talk, said that the nightingale would respond to almost any musical instrument which reproduced its preliminary notes. It sang best in the daytime, while at night the best time to hear it was when it was near the end of its song - about 1:30 AM.
As soon as he switched off the liquid notes were heard again. At times the delicate trilling swelled into a song.
One bird sent out a message, and it was promptly taken up by another a semi-tone higher. Then the ‘cello was once more heard.
The nightingale responded to the challenge made by the beautiful music, softly played, until there was a festival of song.
It was a triumph for the BBC. A triumph that will be repeated in a week’s time.”

The following week, The Guardian reported:
“The song of the nightingales in the garden in Oxted (Surrey) which was the scene of last week’s experiment, was again heard by listeners-in throughout the country late last night. The experiment was even more successful than the first and for many minutes the trill of the bird nearest to the microphone, with the answering song of a more distant nightingale coulee be heard. When for a moment or two the birds were silent Miss Beatrice Harrison could be heard playing softly an old Irish air [“Londonderry Air”] on the ‘cello, and soon afterwards the nightingale took up its song again.”
Four decades later, Harrison wrote in her autobiography, “It was a miracle to have caught his song and to know that it was going, with the cello, to the ends of the earth. My excitement was intense. My greatest wish was accomplished.”

The broadcasts captured the public imagination. 50,000 letters were said to have been received afterward and the event was publicized across the English-speaking world. The Buffalo Enquirer (New York) reported on May 20th:
“A nightingale sang in a moonlit Surrey thicket last night and all England heard the song.
More than a million radio fans in all parts of the country ‘listened in’ as the clear notes of the feathered songster, entirely unaware of its share in the most remarkable radio concert ever held were caught by land lines to London, whence they were broadcast […]
A police cordon was thrown about the thicket to keep back a curious crowd that gathered. A microphone had been concealed in a bush.
Tip toeing softly about the garden near where the little songsters were nesting, Miss Beatrice Harrison played several soft notes on a ‘cello. Suddenly the nightingale’s clear song burst on the moonlit air. The ‘cello accompanied it for a few minutes then ceased and the nightingale sang on alone.
Jazz bands were stilled throughout the country and all other broadcasting stations ceased operating while every one tuned in to catch the song.”

Sequels to the event were broadcast in May of both 1925 and 1926, but the public was disappointed. Birds failed to sing for either event. In 1925, the BBC brought two magnetophones, hoping to capture more than one bird and to develop cross-fading effects, but all for naught. On May 1, 1926, Harrison performed for three hours without coaxing the nightingales with “Ave Maria” or Saint-Saen’s “The Swan.” High winds and barking dogs were blamed on both occasions. These abject failures seem to nullify recent reports that the nightingales heard on the 1924 broadcast were, in fact, “faked” by having a professional whistler (supposedly one Madame Saberon nee Maude Gould) stand in for the birds. This hypothesis is, after one reads the the contemporary documentation, clearly wrong. The BBC went so far as to issue an apology this year - madness! If a siffleuse had been required for the first broadcasts, why wouldn’t there have been one on stand-by for the subsequent ones?

Totally convinced that her playing could effect the singing of the nightingales said, “When I play my ‘cello, the birds come nearer and nearer to me from the apple trees. They often take up the notes of the music I am playing and carry on a duet. I find they respond most readily to plaintive airs, and the pieces with which I have had most success is Elgar’s ‘cello concerto.” Harrison, meanwhile, devised another scheme to replicate her great success. She described the process in the Saffron Walden Weekly News (Saffron Walden, Essex) May 27, 1927 in an article titled “All-the-Year-Round Nightingales: How I Caught Their Song:”
“Any hostess who has tried to make a bashful guest sing must feel she knows something of her victim’s nature. I once heard a hostess describing such a guest; and the description was fairly comprehensive. So perhaps I may be allowed to think I know something of nightingales, for I have spent many an hour trying to coax the little creatures into song.
The discovery that nightingales like music came upon me quite accidentally some few years ago. At that time the bird was a rarity, and my sisters and I were all excitement when one took up its abode by a neighboring stream. Our friends and relations used to come down to Oxted to hear the wonder; and then one evening he sulked. A well-known dramatist who was present began to shiver and scoff; and the opinion expressed that the bird I had heard was probably a dodo.
After a long wait I brought out my ‘cello and began to play to my guests. And, lo! within five minutes the nightingale burst into song. When he stopped I again played the ‘cell, and again the bird began to sing. This occurred so often that at last there could be no question of the coincidence. And the result was the famous concerts over the wireless. These were successful as far as they went; but they were painfully evanescent. What we need was soughing which would enable the song to be retained for ever and repeated at the will of the listener.
The only hope for this sort of thing, of course, by means of a gramophone record. I had done a good deal of this sort of work, but at that time the idea of recording outside a studio savored of romance. Even the introduction of the electrical process of recording did not help much, for that in the case of wild birds one needed more than that.
A few weeks ago, by good luck, I happened to be making a record for His Master’s Voice at Hayes [Middlesex], when the King [sister to Harrison’s friend and collaborator Princess Victoria - ed.] and Queen, quite unexpectedly, entered the studio. Their Majesties, who are keen gramophonists, were, I found, studying the latest developments in the gramophone industry, and this this object were making an informal tour of the works.
When they had left the studio, and I had finished my recording, I saw them enter a large motor van in the factory yard. This van, I was told in a whisper, was a secret. But, incidentally, my informant told me all about it. The van, he said, was really an up-to-date recording room, and, being on a motor chassis it could be taken to any part of the country at a moment’s notice.
‘Just the very thing I have been longing for!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why, who we can catch the song of my nightingales!’
And that was how it happened that my nightingales were one of the first choirs to be recorded by the new device. The Gramophone Company rushed it off to York to make records of the Minster’s 1,300th anniversary music, and then dashed back to my garden, where each year the nightingales are becoming more and more common.
This season I have heard 15 different birds. Only the cock birds sing, so there are at least fifteen pairs. As a matter of fact, I believe that there are 25 nests in the neighbourhood; and as the average clutch of eggs is usually five - if the horrible egg collectors leave them alone - there will be over 100 nightingales in or near my garden.
The making of the gramophone records was great fun - it was all so secret. We went about like a lot of burglars. And people who saw the mystery van had to be told that it was merely a baker delivering bread. We were so afraid of frightening the birds; and also we did not wish to put temptation in the way of egg collectors.
Even with all these precautions the nightingales were often very shy. On one occasion, when the night was wet and cold, I sat for six hours in a ditch trying to make the birds enthusiastic. They would sing intermittently, but that was not enough for the recording of His Master’s Voice.
During the fortnight’s work, however, we obtained some wonderful results. One sweet bird gave an exquisite obligato to my playing of the Londonderry Air. And at another time, just at dawn, we got a record of the songs of the birds at the moment when they begin their day. It is a wonderful recording containing not only the song of nightingales but also that of thrushes, blackbirds and other feathered songsters. it is amazing in its tone truth; and the crowing of a distant cock is so atmospheric that it is difficult for a listener not to be deceived.
Recently we have been trying to catch the faint and beautiful trill with which the cock nightingale is supposed to herald the hatching of the eggs, and I hope His Master’s Voice will release the fragments of the song recorded - though the recorders are hard to please. A number of daylight recording sessions have also taken place - for it is wrong to think that nightingales sing only at night. They sing at any time. that is to say, during their song season, which in England lasts only from April to June or thereabouts. But in future - thanks to this new device - we shall be able to have nightingales singing in September evenings or even during our Christmas dinner.”

Preceding the release of three discs on the HMV label in the first week of June 1927 at three shillings (roughly $7 today) each, the fact of the recording sessions were reported widely. The May 20, 1927 Sevenoaks Chronicle, Westernham Courier and Kentish Advertiser gave one of the most detailed accounts:
“A luxurious trap - which has cost £10,000 to construct and catches nothing but sound - is being used by His Master’s Voice Gramophone Company to capture the song of nightingales in Surrey. The device consists of a complete recording room, mounted on a powerful motor chassis and capable of being used to any part of the countryside at a moment’s notice. On its arrival at a suitable spot, microphones connected to the can by electric cables are hung from branches near which the birds sing.
The trappers, as represented by the recording staff, are at present working at Oxted in the old-world garden of Colonel and Mrs. Harrison whose daughter Beatrice with her ‘cello once charmed nightingales into song for the wireless public. If the birds this year show any reluctance to put their song into permanent form on a gramophone record, Miss Harrison will again coax them.
This summer there are more nightingales than ever. ‘The other night,’ Miss Harrison told me, ‘we counted fifteen different singers; and we believe there are now twenty-five pairs in the neighborhood. When the eggs hatch out - the average clutch of eggs is five - we shall have well over a hundred nightingales in the garden.
Two years ago egg-collectors stole into the garden and took away a nest. It was feared that the old birds would never return to Oxted; but the cock is back again and in good song. Anyhow, great secrecy is now maintained in the household. One rule forbids a member of the family disclosing the whereabouts of a nest even to another member of the family, and this law applies also to the garden staff.
The Oxted nightingales are so punctual in their habits that the villagers are able to foretell to within a few hours of time of the birds’ return. They arrive each year on the 14th, 15th, and 16th day of April, and they leave for the sunny south when the world of the August Bank Holiday rush is over. The eggs, usually olive-colored green, are deposited in nests of grass and oak leaves; and it is interesting to note that birds are never found in oarless countries.
Only the cock sings, and his delicious voice, so liquid in its quality can be heard almost continuously through these Oxted nights. But it is wrong to think that he sings only at night, for he can be distinguished even in the day-time - though he is then merely one among our feathered choristers. The still English night is certainly the best time for an audience.
During the past week the gramophone people have been trying hard to get a front seat at these concerts. It has meant infinite patience and a vast amount of skill, but the recorders believe that at last they have succeeded in catching the glad song of Philomel. The famous trill with which the cock bird is said to hail the hatching of the eggs will next receive attention, the sound-trappers hoping during the coming week-end to capture even this faint note of ecstasy.
The nightingales are this year so full of song that the services of Miss Beatrice Harrison and her ‘cello have not been called upon so much as formerly, but once or twice her vigils have been long and cold. never once, however, has she failed eventually to get a response.
She comes of a family with musical traditions which must be surely unique. Her grandfather - the father of Colonel Harrison - fought at Waterloo, and carried on the battlefield a guitar. This guitar is to-day greatly prized by Miss Harrison and her sisters.”

When the discs were issued, reviews were glowing, focusing not on Harrison’s playing but on the technical brilliance of HMV’s engineers and the clarity of the bird-song. The Devon and Exeter Gazette’s July 7, 1927 review quoted Harrison but neglected to mention her at all:
“I firmly assert that nothing approaching this has ever been accomplished by a gramophone company before […] The results are most realistic, and to close one’s eyes while listening to the record cannot fail to convey the impression that one is reclining in some peaceful sylvan glade. The nightingale’s song has been recorded perfectly, while on the other side the calls of the blackbird, thrush, sparrow, chaffinch, blue-tit, robin, moorhen, water wagtail, blackcap, and wren may be easily distinguished. nearly the end the lusty crow of a challenging cockerel can be heard in the distance, thus adding even more effect. The record gives one the very atmosphere of the countryside, and I heartily congratulate the Company on the successful termination of their experiments. Everyone should buy this record, for, to my mind, it is a veritable treasure, and the outcome of collaboration between nature and science.” The discs sold very well in the U.K.

Of the six sides produced in over a week of work, three included Harrison’s performances. Three more were “soundscapes,” the first ever recorded outdoors in England and among the first ever produced anywhere. If there is any fakery, my best guess is that the “Summer Idyll” side is, in fact, a composite of two separate recordings - one of birdsong and one of church bells - and is perhaps the second example on record of “overdubbing” (after Charles Kellogg’s recording “Bird Chorus” for Victor in 1919), although this remains speculation on my part. Only one disc, lacking Harrison entirely was issued in the U.S. in November, 1927, one month after she started a five-month U.S. tour sometimes publicized as the “nightingale charmer.” She did not try to repeat her broadcasts, but in 1933, she brought a paying public to hear her play with the nightingales on the nights of May 13 and 14 from 4PM until dawn under the patronage of Harrison’s long-time friend and collaborator H.R.H. Princess Victoria for the Royal Society of the Protection of Birds.


released June 7, 2022

Recordings made May 3-19, 1927 at Foyle Riding, Oxted, Surrey, England.

Transfers*, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Except *transfers of tracks 6&7 by George Blood for archive.org, restored by Ian Nagoski.

Cover photo: Beatrice Harrison ca. 1927

Further reading:

Iain Logie Baird, "Capturing the song of the nightingale," Science Museum Group Journal, Issue 04, Autumn 2015. journal.sciencemuseum.ac.uk/browse/issue-04/capturing-the-song-of-the-nightingale/
David Candlin, "Beatrice and the Nightingales," St. Peter's Limpsfield New, Autumn 2015. web.archive.org/web/20180615214706/http://lttm.org.uk/stpeters/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/limpsfield-parish-news-autumn-2015-final.pdf
Patricia Cleveland-Peck, "Defending the Duet: the Cello and the Nightingale," The Strad, May 11, 2022 www.thestrad.com/playing-hub/defending-the-duet-the-cello-and-the-nightingale/14876.article


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