The Cello and The Nightingale
August 16, 2014 6:22 AM   Subscribe

In 1924 the BBC transmitted its first live outside broadcast: a duet between cellist Beatrice Harrison and the nightingales nesting in the garden of her Surrey home. Capturing the song of the Nightingale.

The nightingale concerts became a yearly fixture on BBC Radio. 1942's recording captured the sound of Wellington and Lancaster bombers departing on a raid; the BBC cut the transmission to avoid broadcasting an early warning to Germany. In 2012 Vikram Seth chose the wartime recording as his favorite Desert Island Disc. [segment starts at 14:20]

Eighty years after the 1924 broadcast doubts were raised: was that night's reluctant nightingale actually the work of a talented siffleur?
What really happened in that garden in Surrey was that an extremely well known bird impressionist - Maude Gould, sometimes known as Madame Saberon - was contracted by the BBC as a 'backup' to things not working. The trampling around of all the technical staff and all the heavy equipment scared any birds off and the recording is actually that of Maude Gould whistling to Ms Harrison's playing.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (10 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

BBC: Bogus Bird Calls
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:31 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Human/animal musical interaction is an area which I find interesting, though. A good amount of untapped potential there, I think. Here's something I did in duet with a cicada.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:37 AM on August 16 [2 favorites]

Hail to thee, blithe spirit! / Bird thou never wert.

(O.K. Shelley was hailing a Skylark, but "bird thou never wert" has never been more apt. Though come to think of it, Keats's "The fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do, deceiving elf" is pretty much on topic, too.)
posted by yoink at 11:06 AM on August 16 [4 favorites]

Also; was anyone else sadly disappointed when they finally got to hear what a nightingale sounded like? I grew up where there were no nightingales but I kept reading about their astonishingly melodious song and reading all the poems addressed to them and hearing the term "nightingale" applied to particularly masterful human singers etc. And then I finally get to hear what they actually sound like's bird calls. Pretty much like any number of other bird calls you'll hear all over the world. I mean, you know, nice and all--but it is completely mystifiying, to me, why this chirpy-chirpy bird call got picked over all other very similar chirpy-chirpy bird calls as the most ravishing and inventive of all nature's melodists. The nightingale I'd invented in my mind was so infinitely more enrapturing and mellifluous and musical than the real thing...I can still only laugh when I hear recordings of the real bird.
posted by yoink at 11:33 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

No, it's not just bird calls. Just as a caterwaul is not just a cat-call, the nightingale sound comes up out of nowhere and can fill a room with a sound that's various and liquid and, in the right moment around dusk - for some reason - can take your brain apart for just long enough that you can wonder at it and how you ever thought it could go back together.

I heard one of these recording between cello and 'bird' a long time ago and have thought about it frequently. The impulse is exactly right - a desire to interact with this astonishing music to be a part of it incorporated into it in some way...

And but no.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:55 PM on August 16 [2 favorites]

ohshitohshitohshit but that nightingale and bombers recording … listen to it through headphones, with the video hidden in another tab. That's the real thing.
posted by scruss at 3:40 PM on August 16 [2 favorites]

the nightingale sound comes up out of nowhere and can fill a room with a sound that's various and liquid and, in the right moment around dusk - for some reason - can take your brain apart for just long enough that you can wonder at it and how you ever thought it could go back together.

Well, that's very lovely in a "half in love with easeful death" sort of way--but doesn't really answer the question of why this astonishingly ravishing music seems to be impossible to get down on a tape recorder. I've listened to a lot of recordings of nightingales (I teach a lot of Romantic poetry and like to give my students a frame of reference for the call), and none of them are anything but "oh, that's a cute, cheerful little chirpy birdy."
posted by yoink at 4:28 PM on August 16

I read an anecdote once about the great British composer Ethel Smyth. With the deafness encroaching that ended her career, a friend (in my mind I believe this was Virginia Woolf, or at least one of the Bloomsbury Group) arranged for her to come and sit in her garden at dusk so that she could hear the nightingales one last time. In the story, a bird flew down and sat close to her, singing. It sounds a bit mythic to be true, but it's beautiful nevertheless and I choose to believe it.
posted by jokeefe at 4:57 PM on August 16

Ha! I know exactly what you mean yoink, with the addition that my mother was homesick and imbued her memories of stuff like birdsong or the taste of strawberries with a proper golden glow. And no, I couldn't fathom what all the fuss was about either once I'd experienced them.

It's a bird. It makes bird noises.
posted by glasseyes at 10:47 AM on August 17

It is just a bird and I've heard it lots of times and not thought twice about it but then, probably once a year, everything (whatever everything is - humidity? Temperature? My own mood at whatever given time of day? FuckifIknow) comes together just right and the sound is otherworldly. Go figure.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:56 AM on August 18

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