The Cello and the Nightingales: Beatrice Harrison and How the World’s First Fake News United Humanity in Our First Collective Empathy for Nature
An improbable celebration of the three most interesting things in life, the things that make it worth living: nature, human nature, and their cross-pollination in music.
By Maria Popova
In the high summer of 1977, 100 years after Thomas Edison devised the first technology for recording and reproducing sound, the Voyager reached the poetic gesture of its Golden Record into the cosmos, carrying the universal language of our species — a Navajo night chant and a Bach fugue, a millennia-old Chinese song and a Beethoven string quartet, Senegalese percussion and a shepherd’s song from my native Bulgaria — encoded with the hope that some other life-form in some other corner of the universe might have the consciousness to hear it and fathom who we are.
Half a century earlier, a young cellist in a forest achieved what the Golden Record is yet to achieve, making contact with another consciousness through music — right here on Earth, in this wilderness of wonder already rife with alien minds. In the process, Beatrice Harrison (December 9, 1892–March 10, 1965) linked human consciousnesses around the world into a kind of planetary übermind vibrating with an unprecedented collective experience — an experience rooted in our relationship to nature, which is also our relationship to each other. In the haunting interlude between two World Wars — decades before the Moon landing, years before the birth of television, a quarter century before Alan Turing pioneered digital music — a voice wild and free spilled its liquid rapture from the waves of a young medium, slaking the ancient thirst for harmony in the human soul, singing the history of the future.
With the era of collective grief and collective joy still behind the horizon of technologies unimagined by their makers, here was the world’s first nature broadcast, transmitting the sound of a wild creature in its habitat — the creature serenaded by Keats in one of his most beloved poems — into the indoor habitats of humans the world over, who heard the song of Milton’s “Sweet Bird that shunn’st the noise of folly, most musicall, most melancholy” for the very first time. Here was the first interspecies creative collaboration (not counting evolution itself).
Very possibly, it was also the world’s first planet-wide fake news. Most certainly, its authenticity matters not one bit to what it accomplished, which might just be our best blueprint for a more possible future.
What happened between the cello, the nightingale, and the world that spring night in 1924 was the improbable dream of a woman not ahead of her time but beyond it. A visionary furnishing the proof of a medium through the poetry of its message, finding what is most beautiful in human nature through its harmonic resonance with the rest of nature. A musician making not just music but meaning — the meaning of connection and kinship, of enchantment and empathy. She had managed to persuade the bosses of the newborn BBC to take a grudging risk on her dream — a risk the bosses of the centenarian BBC would confess ninety-eight springs later very possibly ended in failure broadcast as symphonic success.
This was the dawn of mass media, the incubus of social media, the beginning of the end of truth, when the cathedral of commerce began bending humanity to its knees the corporations that made a business of culture first began choosing what is profitable over what is right. The men in charge, these knighted men of power and insecurity, had invested too much to fail in public. A Plan B was hatched in preparation to fake success if need be: As the broadcast experiment neared, nervous that all the commotion of cables and microphones would frighten the birds, they hired (it is claimed nearly a century later) an understudy — the professional whistler and bird imitator Maude Gould, who performed in variety shows as Madame Saberon.
The morning of May 19, 1924, Beatrice Harrison watched “all the paraphernalia of the BBC” spill into her garden. About a hundred yards from where the nightingale sang with her each solitary night, they set up a sensitive microphone and hooked it up to an amplifier. Headphone cables and telephone landlines criss-crossed the sea of bluebells.
When nightfall came, Beatrice crept up with her cello, crooking her chair halfway into the most opportune ditch, knowing that “the exquisite voice was there, under a thicket of oak leaves, ready to sing to his little wife.” She proceeded to play for two hours, hearing all kinds of curious noises — insects buzzing, rabbits nibbling on the wires, her donkey whinnying at the chaos of strangers — but the nightingale was nowhere in the symphony of night.
And then, suddenly, an hour before midnight, the world heard the exquisite voice singing to the cello. For nearly a century, it would be taken for the voice of the nightingale. But in 2022, the BBC would reveal that the impatient producers may have summoned Madame Saberon to sing the part.
This was a live broadcast and there is no surviving recording to be analyzed. All that is known is that Madame Saberon may have been hired, that she was an excellent bird imitator — an artistic triumph in its own right — and that on the other side of thousands of radio receivers, the world fell in love with the nightingale.
If the large mammal did impersonate the part of the tiny feathered dinosaur, she was so impeccable that even Beatrice, who had been listening to the real bird night after night, didn’t seem to realize it. This is what she recounts happened when the song unspooled into the night:
[The nightingale’s] voice seemed to come from the Heavens… I shall never forget his voice that night, or his trills, nor the way he followed the cello so blissfully. 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.
Perhaps she was just too exhausted from two hours of continuous playing; perhaps it was the real bird after all. But she did overhear the producers making plans to return the following spring, with two microphones and double the caution — the vindication of her dream, which they had all declared impossible. (I am thinking again of Bach, who an epoch of unimaginable realities earlier had scribbled in the margin of a composition “Everything that is possible is real.”)
And they did come back the next year, this time careful not to frighten the birds. And the year after that, and the year after, and so for twelve years. And the nightingales sang each spring, the real nightingales, their song reaching past borders and barricades, into human homes and hearts across this indivisible Pale Blue Dot. A mother of ten children told Beatrice that she felt like the nightingale was singing for them alone. An old man in New Zealand, who had left England as a boy, exulted in a letter that hearing the sound of the nightingale once more felt “like a prayer answered.”
After the global sensation of the first broadcast, the King requested to meet her. Before she could even curtsey, he beamed a smile at her and said:
You have done something I have not been able to do. You have drawn the Empire closer together through the song of the nightingale and your cello.
Beatrice Harrison had not done it for purposes of empire, of course, but for purposes of empathy. She had heard the nightingale — the migratory wonder that makes its voyage from sub-Saharan Africa each May, capable of singing more than a thousand different sounds composed into hundreds of complex musical phrases — and she had fallen under its spell. With her bottomless love of music, which is at bottom a love of nature, and of the woods and the garden and the songbirds, she had intuited how, in the century of the self, we would come to forget the cosmos of otherness. She had intuited what Rachel Carson would warn about in Silent Spring in the final years of Beatrice Harrison’s life: that “our origins are of the earth, and so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”
Since Beatrice Harrison’s birth, Earth has grown impoverished of a million nightingales, most of them lost in the decades since her death, when imperialism became industry became indifference.
Somewhere in the marrow of her being, she sensed what was coming and used her power and her passion to try to stop it.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” Margery Williams would write in The Velveteen Rabbit on the other side of the next World War. “It’s a thing that happens to you.” The first nightingale on the radio may have been made by humans, but the bird was suddenly rendered real for humanity — real and beloved, radiant with Iris Murdoch’s splendid definition of love as “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real,” the version of love we need to rediscover in order to treat this miraculous world not as a resource but as a reliquary of life.
If Beatrice Harrison knew about the hoax, if there was a hoax at all, I imagine this is why she went along with it. Sometimes, compromise is an act of courage.Always, making room for nuance in even the simplest story is an act of kindness and resistance. It takes an uncommon person to stand for the truth behind the lie in order to subvert the forces of commerce behind it in her aim of revealing a truth large and eternal. Beatrice Harrison was a most uncommon person.
This is her story. This is also our story — a story about what is best in us and what is worst, about what it takes to amplify one and quiet the other. A story about the three most interesting things in life, the things that make it worth living: nature, human nature, and their cross-pollination in music.
The second of what would be four daughters, Beatrice was born in the foothills of the Himalayas in India to a mother full of creative force and Celtic fire — Beatrice would remember her as “someone apart from this world,” endowed with “quenchless vitality” — and an English mathematician father who had gone to India to teach engineering at a local school for miners, had fallen in love with the culture, had learned several Indian languages, and had decided to stay, living among the local men who cherished him as one of their own. Beatrice would remember him as a man of sublime nature, “combining gentleness with born leadership,” “great patience,” and a “sense of justice.” Having met her mother at a music party on his first visit to England after eighteen years in India, he soon returned to the country he loved with the woman he loved and her grand piano, which would become her great solace as she found herself lonelier and lonelier in India. Music had always been her salvation — orphaned and raised by two aunts, she had entered the Royal College of Music with her talent, only to be told that a girl of her background could never be professional singer; defiantly, she had founded a choir in London’s impoverished East End; residents had so relished the performances that the Queen had eventually gone to hear them.
In the lonesome shadow of the Himalayas, Beatrice’s mother sang and played daily — first to herself, then to her newborn infant curled up in her lap, and then to a new set of tiny hands and hammers and cortices forming in the womb facing the piano strings.
Music seemed to be stringing the helix of Beatrice’s being from the moment she was born. All four girls would share this genetic gift that their parents so fiercely nurtured — May, the eldest, had started accompanying her mother on the piano at the age of three and could sing in tune before she could talk; Margaret, the youngest, could play Schumann on her violin before she was two. For all four, music would be the great love of their lives — none of the sisters ever married. But in Beatrice, the gift was mixed with something else — some supravital energy, some uncommon spiritual fire.
When she was eighteen months old, her parents smuggled her into her first concert — the Band of the Royal Engineers, her father’s regiment, was performing at Queen’s Hall. That is when she first caught sight of a cello and was instantly spellbound. For weeks after the concert, she teetered around the house, proclaiming “Baba play tello!” (“Baba” was her Indian name — the name her family would always use, the name in which she would sign her most personal letters, eventually compacting it to just “Ba.”)
When the family returned to England — as much as her father loved India, he loved his wife more and couldn’t bear to watch her spirit wither there — the wish was granted. One day, the door to the nursery opened and in walked her mother carrying something that sent Baba into “a flying leap.” Gazing at the cello, she touched the strings and heard that same spellbinding tone her small body had already encoded. What followed were days of “sheer bliss,” spilling into months, into years, never to remit for a lifetime.
Her talent too took a flying leap at the instrument. She practiced voraciously, proudly tallying the hours in her diary. The world was smaller then, and its music community smaller still, so word of her uncommon gift began spreading. At the age of nine, she was invited to perform for Pablo Casals — the greatest cellist of the time and, if one were to ask Yo-Yo Ma, the greatest cellist of all time — who encouraged her to unravel “the eternal song” hidden in the cello. And so she did. At ten, she won the gold medal in a prestigious music competition with thousands of contestants of all ages. At eleven, she entered the Royal College of Music. When a wealthy widow with a love of music heard Beatrice play Beethoven, she sent her a bust that had once belonged to Jenny Lind — the greatest singer of the nineteenth century, known as “the Swedish Nightingale,” who had inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved fairy tale.
It became clear to the girls’ parents that by some blessed stroke of genetics and chance, they had produced creatures of uncommon talent, and their task was now to nurture its bloom into genius. Colonel Harrison left the army and devoted himself wholly to supporting his wife’s devotion to their daughters, even though his own staunch parents considered music “the work of the devil” and were, in Beatrice’s recollection, “terribly against it.” As much as he loved his parents, he loved his daughters more. The family moved where the best teachers were.
When Beatrice made her great London debut at the age of twenty, the Morning Post declared her one of the world’s “most artistically satisfying violoncellists,” exulting that “music seems to be part of her and her realisation of the composer she interprets is so complete that her share as an intermediary is forgotten and the music becomes a living thing.” The London Times, taken with “some undefinable quality in her playing,” heralded her as exceeding even Casals. Everyone who loved her could see that music was her great love affair. Her sister remembers how often “a faraway look” came over Beatrice in the middle of a party and she suddenly vanished, the sound of her cello sighing moments later from behind the closed door.
Perhaps because her love of music felt so elemental, Beatrice came to see it as a basic human right, not a privilege to be withheld from some people and lavished on others. Although her family was far from royalty, she never lost sight of her many privileges, genetic or social. Still in their twenties, she and Margaret set out to bring the universal solace and rapture of music to people without access to it, playing cello sonatas to mill-workers and miners in a series of “sixpenny concerts.” Those were the early days of broadcasting and recorded music, when the technology was both too primitive and too expensive to make the joy of music as ambient as air; the days before we made our Faustian deal with the technocrats who made music cheap and musicians poor so that we could stream it anytime anywhere with no recompense or thought of the souls from which the stream pours.
By the 1920s, Beatrice Harrison was celebrated as England’s finest cellist. Composers were writing music for her, honored to have her interpret their gift with hers. “Please alter anything you like in the figures of my Concerto,” the venerated Frederick Delius told her. A family friend marveled that she seemed to “think and feel in music.” And beneath all of this, holding all of this, was — in the words of another friend — “the gentlest and kindest of human beings, without personal vanity and unfailingly considerate.”
All of this — her genius and her gentleness, the uncommon mind from which the music sprang — comes aglow in the out-of-print gem The Cello and the Nightingales: The Autobiography of Beatrice Harrison (public library), in which she recounts the series of improbable events and intuitions that led to the nightingale experiment and it quiet revolution.
The Harrison family had ended up in the land of nightingales the same way that Virginia Woolf had ended up in the country garden where she made her room of one’s own: Their landlord suddenly needed his house back, so they had to move. One afternoon, driving through the paradisal countryside of Surrey in the biting cold, they had spotted a cottage for sale. It was entirely too small for the family, but in the setting sun it was radiant with a kind spirit-warmth. With the full force of her Celtic fire and passionate intuition, Beatrice’s mother declared: “This will be our home.”
Within a year, they built a music room where cows had once grazed and transformed the barren field around the cottage into a garden of blooming roses and delphiniums — a fitting tribute to the history of the place, rented by its first tenants in the thirteenth century for the annual fee of a bulb of gillyflower. Beatrice watched her mother, already ailing with the illness that would kill her a decade later, “put her heart and soul into the garden.” (It may have been the garden that helped her live another decade — epochs ahead of modern medicine, her contemporary Florence Nightingale had spent half a century making the case for the healing power of nature.)
That is when Beatrice met her partner in humanity’s first triumph of interspecies creative collaboration through music and mind. She recounts:
Spring was glorious… The wood was filled with bluebells and primroses and all the lovely flowers of springtime. As the nights began to feel warmer I had a sudden longing to go out into the woods surrounding the garden and play my cello and gaze on the beauty of it all as the moon peeped out through the trees. I sat on an old seat which surrounded an ivy-clad tree. I began to play, very lazily, all the melodies I loved best and to improvise on them… 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.
Beatrice rose early the next day and ran to the local gardener to find out what that miraculous bird had been. The old man “nearly fell over with joy and delight.” It was the nightingale, he told her, gone and now returned — beckoned, it seemed, by the cello. “Don’t ye let him go again.” She gave her word to keep the bird with nightly serenades:
Every night I wandered through the wood playing and listening to the heavenly bird, my only audience being the rabbits and once a tiny shrew which came and sat on my foot. Alas, the month of June came and the nightingale left us for a whole year, but the cello never forgot the voice of the nightingale.
A year later, she thrilled at the bloom of the first flowers and their promise of reunion with the transcendent voice:
Spring was coming, and what a spring! Once more my heart turned to the beauty of the garden. Would the beloved nightingale come back? All the blossoms from the seeds we had planted in the blue garden were full of colour. It was like heaven! … Our wood went straight from the garden through a little gate where the bluebells were bluer and every tree, every shrub seemed more brilliant. At night, the moon gave the wood a fairy look and as I sat on the old seat surrounding the oak tree, where I had sat before and began to play, the heavenly voice responded once more.
But as her nightly concerts went on, Beatrice felt the ecstasy of this miraculous duet was too great to keep to herself. She longed for others to savor it — people who, like her until that first spring in Surrey, had “never heard the most exquisite bird sing.”
One morning after playing for the nightingale, she headed to London for a long-awaited performance that was to be recorded and broadcast nationwide. Radio was young then and television unimaginable. The BBC had been broadcasting for a couple of years, from the seventh floor of the old Marconi factory where the inventor of the radio-wave wireless telegraph system had first begun turning his invention into a commercial reality. “The recording of sound and above all the broadcasting of it so that millions of people can enjoy it,” Beatrice reflected, “has impressed me very deeply as one of the miracles of the modern age.”
Miracle collided with miracle in the laboratory of the mind, where ideas are constantly fusing with one another in the combinatorial wonder we call creativity: If all of humanity couldn’t come to hear the nightingale, she realized, the radio could bring the nightingale to humanity.
No wild bird had ever before been broadcast from its natural habitat. The engineers thought it impossible. The bosses thought it a waste of time and money. After a “hard tussle,” Beatrice prevailed over the head of the BBC and persuaded him send his producers to Surrey so they could capture her duet with “the most exquisite bird” and convey it to other humans. Decades before fiber optic cable spanned the bottom of the ocean to link continents, the airborne voice of a spring songbird did. People without radio sets phoned friends and asked them to press the receiver against their loudspeakers. It made its way around the world, reaching an estimated one million people — humans going wild for this improbable communion with another consciousness. Redeemed in her vision, Beatrice exulted:
The experiment touched a chord in their love of music, nature, and loveliness.
And so the experiment went on. The following week, the engineers returned. In London, journalists gasped at how her duet with the nightingale had “swept the country,” how “a glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a life.” A decade before Aldous Huxley observed that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” the director of the BBC, who had so doubted Beatrice’s dream, boasted on the pages of the Radio Times:
Milton has said that when the nightingale sang, silence was pleased. So in the song of the nightingale, we have broadcast something of the silence which all of us in this busy world unconsciously crave and urgently need.
In his lovely book The Nightingale: Notes on a Songbird (public library), English folk musician, song collector, and environmental activist Sam Lee — who has been iterating on Beatrice Harrison’s experiment each spring since its ninetieth anniversary, beckoning the birds not with a cello but with his human voice — reflects on the magic beyond the sheer novelty of technology:
Perhaps the song tapped into a collective memory of those raised on the land, possibly even near nightingales, but now transported into urban centres and an aspirational metropolitan existence. The visceral burst of “woman with nature” into so many homes… was remarkable. This was a cultural moment not dissimilar to the moon landing forty-five years later, which made listeners stop and think about the changing world and what they had left behind.
That fateful summer of 1924 — the summer Beatrice Harrison became the first woman to play at Worcester Cathedral — people who heard the first broadcast journeyed to her garden by the hundreds, by the thousands, from China and Canada, Australia and America, China and Japan, arriving unannounced “every hour of the day and night.” No matter how absorbed Beatrice was in her cello, she always broke away from the music room to show them the garden, moved by their enthusiasm for this fragile bird and its living reality.
Letters from around the world flooded in — more than 50,000, many addressed simply to “The Lady of the Nightingales, England” or “The Garden of the Nightingales, England.” Reading the outpouring of gratitude, Beatrice swelled with it herself — grateful to her mother, for having given her this gift; grateful to the broadcasters, for having taken a chance on her wild idea, even if at first they had sullied that chance with their Plan B; grateful most of all to the nightingale, for the honor of making music together. Music — that triumph of consciousness, that unparalleled bridge between consciousnesses, that portal to regions of being unreachable by the rational mind. The crucible of empathy.
An epoch before the world wide web was even the glimmer of a dream in a prophet’s eye, Beatrice Harrison’s improbable idea had sparked the first collective global experience around an event, in thought and in feeling, across space and time, via the world’s first broadcast medium to bridge mind and matter.
Radio — and its progeny in podcasting — cast its civilizational spell not because it carried information — so had the telegraph — but because it carried emotion, and it was Beatrice Harrison who first saw this potential. It took a musician with a love of nature to remind us that we are creatures of feeling who feel most deeply with other creatures, and that in music — which is the deepest expression of nature — we find our language of feeling, the native tongue of human nature.
Here is the hoax about history: It is not a long hallway of time and truth stretching between the past and the present, but a hall of mirrors sparkling with what-ifs, arranged by their keepers. Move any one of them, break any one of them, and the light in the whole room changes — the room we call reality. We can’t know whether Beatrice Harrison’s nightingale concerts staved off the savagery to come as the world came unwolrded by the darkest forces of human nature. We do know that the forces behind the First World War fueled the Second. We do know that the best of human nature responds to, resonates with, is magnified by our connection with the rest of nature. “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” Thoreau wrote a century before the atomic bomb as he contemplated nature as a kind of prayer.
Here is but one of the numberless what-ifs: What if the Second World War had broken out sooner than 1939? How many more lives would have been vanquished, how many never even begun, if humanity had chosen to listen not to the voice of the nightingales all those springs but to that of the tyrant? Nina Simone and Oliver Sacks were born in 1933 — the final year of the interspecies duets before Beatrice Harrison had to leave Surrey. Jane Goodall and Leonard Cohen and Carl Sagan and one of my grandmothers in 1934. Emmy Noether and Mary Oliver in 1935. My other grandmother in 1936.
There are echoes here of the daring question Olivia Laing raised in her meditation on the many forms of resistance: “Can you plant a garden to stop a war? It depends how you think about time.” The underlying question, the eternal question, is how the best in human nature — whether we call it gardening or empathy or music — can curb the worst in us, which is always war — whether the war on nations or on notions, on persons or on philosophies of living. Curb the violent selfing against otherness in any of its forms. Curb it not permanently, for John Steinbeck was right in observing at the peak of the war that “all the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up.” But curb it long enough for another oasis of hope and possibility to spring up, in the sunlit waters of which the war-wearied human spirit refreshes to face its next battle with its own darkness. While the nightingales sing.
Published June 5, 2022