Patricia Cleveland-Peck offers her rebuttal of recent claims that Beatrice Harrison’s historic 1924 duet with a nightingale was faked
On 9 April 2022 the Guardian published an article under the headline, The Cello and the Nightingale: 1924 duet was faked, BBC admits, after years of suspicion. It then went on to assert that the BBC has acknowledged that the duet was faked using a bird impressionist. The BBC said the ‘true story’ would explored in a BBC Radio 3 programme Private Passions on 17 April.
As the editor of the autobiography of the cellist in question, Beatrice Harrison, and the writer of a radio play based on the famous broadcast, I was very interested know what exactly the BBC were about to admit.
On 19 April 1924 Beatrice Harrison, already a well-respected cellist, persuaded the BBC to accept an invitation to her Oxted garden to broadcast her playing her cello in a duet with the resident nightingales. It was the first-ever BBC broadcast of birdsong and the unique duet was so wildly popular that it became an annual event for the next 12 years. Around a million people ‘listened in’ to Beatrice making that historic broadcast and she received thousands of fan letters from all round the world. As well as the radio broadcasts, HMV came and made several 10-inch discs of the duet which sold in great numbers.
The story that on this occasion the real nightingale had been replaced by a bird impressionist was not new. In 1992 the Mail on Sunday published an article in which descendants of a professional variety artist, Maude Gould (also known as Madame Saberon or Sobornoff) claimed that she had been called in by the BBC as backup in case the nightingale failed to make an appearance. This was discounted by Beatrice’s sister Margaret Harrison, as well as by the elderly Laurence Bellingham who, as a boy, was present in the garden in 1924, helping to lay cables. He vehemently rejected this allegation. He saw no woman hidden in the bushes.
Still, I wanted to know, was there after all, some factual basis for this story?
Private Passions is presented by acclaimed composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley, son of composer Sir Lennox Berkeley. This edition featured Professor Tim Birkhead FRS who turned out to made several vague and ill-judged statements. These included: ’research by various colleagues of mine has demonstrated that Maude Gould had been employed by the BBC to stand in in case the nightingale did not sing.’
‘I played the recording to good birdwatchers, without telling them why. Half of them said: “yes, it’s a nightingale”, the other half said: “not sure, something funny about that song”. But I’m convinced that it was Madame Saberon.’
I can imagine a situation in which a frustrated BBC engineer could have had a Plan B, but I cannot believe that founding father of the BBC, John Reith would have countenanced such a deception. I am certain that Beatrice and the Harrison family knew nothing of it. Further, Beatrice with her musician’s ear and her familiarity with the nightingales in her garden would sure have noticed something different about the bird’s song. Finally, if the original broadcast was such a nerve-wracking fiasco, why was the originally sceptical BBC willing to repeat it the following week?
To give Professor Birkhead’s theory any credence, some proof is needed by way of pay slips, a contact or a letter from the BBC. Did the programme reveal anything of the sort? It did not.
Professor Birkhead relied on the views of fellow ornithologists who listened and found something they believed to be dubious about the song of the nightingale they heard. The premise was somewhat marred (as Professor Birkhead has since admitted) by the wrong recording being played on the programme. A short undated recording made at Oxted in the British Library was assumed to be the original but what was played on the Private Passions programme was a record of Beatrice playing the Londonderry Air (with a genuine nightingale joining in) made by HMV in 1927.
Even more erroneous and something which finally annihilates Professor Birkhead’s argument is the fact that the short undated recording did not date from 1924 either. Distinguished cellist and host of the website www.musicianscience.org, Adrian Bradbury has listened to both and is convinced it is an excerpt from another HMV record in which Beatrice is playing Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me which was made in 1928.
In 1924 nearly all broadcasting went out live. Radio recording was in its infancy. If a repeat of some music or a talk was required it had to be done all over again. It is difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist but I am convinced there is no recording of the original broadcast.
Professor Birkhead quoted Jeremy Mynott’s book Birdscapes which also features the Maude Gould story (which Mynott first encountered reading Richard Mabey’s Book of the Nightingale). Mynott, listened to what he thought was the BBC’s original recording and at some stage learnt from Gould’s great grandson, ‘that she was contacted by the BBC as a backup’. Mynott wrote that he ‘had no reason to disbelieve him’ and adds that he had heard the 1927 recording but that the ‘original BBC recording of the event on 19 April 1924 is quite different and now I listen to it again with (the great grandson’s) letter in mind, I do wonder if it is a nightingale at all.’
Once again he had not listened to the original broadcast as no recording has been found to exist.
I have difficulty in accepting is that a newspaper can headline an unsubstantiated story as ‘fake’ simply for the sake of sensationalism, as well as promise revelations which don’t materialise. Nor can I accept that Professor Birkhead, Fellow of the Royal Society, (the motto of which ironically, is nullius in verbal – take no-one’s word for it) has broadcast to the nation and beyond, further unsubstantiated statements based on the words of others which show a complete failure of professional rigour.
The unique Cello and the Nightingale duet is far more than just a musician and a bird. It was first broadcast at time of sadness after the Great War, often to lonely people who were uplifted by the undreamed of magic of radio. It was used again in the Second World War, its spring time melodies symbolising hope for the future. Hope is something so badly needed today in times of conflict (to say nothing of the rapidly declining populations of nightingales). What I found most sad however, was hearing Michael Berkeley say of the duet, ‘I’ll never listen to it in the same way again’. That something so lovely should be demolished so thoughtlessly is difficult to forgive.