From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

BBC reveals that famous nightingale and cello duet was faked

The historic duet performance in 1924 by cellist Beatrice Harrison with a nightingale in her garden actually involved a bird impressionist.

A singing nightingale perched on a branch.
Published: April 12, 2022 at 9:30 am

One of the most famous of the BBC’s first live outside broadcasts aired on 19 May 1924, when the cellist Beatrice Harrison performed a duet with a singing nightingale in her garden in Surrey.

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It captivated listeners and was repeated every year until 1942.

However, the BBC has admitted that the nightingale featured in the broadcast was actually someone imitating a bird.

The original plan had been to feature a live nightingale with the famous cellist, who had played a duet with a nightingale previously.

“I began the Chant Hindu by Rimsky-Korsakov and, after playing for some time, I stopped,” said Beatrice Harrison. “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 … It seemed a miracle.”

However, it is thought that on the night of the live broadcast, the nightingale was scared off, perhaps by the crew setting up their recording equipment in the garden. And the back-up plan was initiated – understudy and whistler Maude Gould, also known as Madame Saberon.

Learn more about the “true story” in BBC Radio 3’s programme, Private Passions, on 17 April. The programme features ornithologist and author Professor Tim Birkhead talking about birdsong.

Birkhead told the Guardian: “It would [have been] a terrible admission, even later, to say that they’d wheeled in Madame Saberon. The temptation to not say anything must’ve been immense. Today, that would be unacceptable but, in 1924, it was probably perfectly acceptable.”

In the following years, a real nightingale did sing along with Beatrice Harrison's playing.

“When Harrison repeated the performance in subsequent years, the BBC were a bit more careful about trampling through a garden and it was a real nightingale,” he said. “That was the essence of it, that they’d scared it away.”

Nightingales are now much rarer birds and continue to decline due to a number of factors, including climate change and habitat loss.

On 13 April, folk singer and author Sam Lee will air a livestream of his duet with nightingales from a secret location in Sussex.

BTO Bird ID - Nightingale and Other Night Singers


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A singing nightingale. © Roger Tidman/Getty

Authors

Megan ShersbyEditorial and digital co-ordinator at BBC Wildlife Magazine, and countryfile.com
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