It’s a bird! . . . no, maybe it’s Maude

One of the most memorable music broadcasts of all time – a rendition of the “Londonderry Air” (“Oh, Danny Boy”) played by cellist Beatrice Harrison, accompanied by a nightingale’s bird-calls – was faked, the BBC now admits, nearly a century after the fact.

The 1924 radio transmission – the BBC’s first from an outdoor location, the garden of Harrison’s home in Surrey – “was a magical nocturnal event that captivated the nation, inspiring a million listeners, tens of thousands of fan letters and repeat broadcasts every year until 1942,” Dalya Alberge writes in The Guardian.

“Nightingales may have been scared off by the crew trampling around the garden with heavy recording equipment. As this was live, the back-up plan was an understudy – thought to have been Maude Gould, a whistler or siffleur known as Madame Saberon on variety bills.”

While birds are known to sing along with music, believed to respond to musical sounds as “competition,” ornithologists and bird-fanciers have wondered for years whether the cellist’s broadcast featured a real nightingale, Alberge reports:

Harrison (1892-1965) worked closely with Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, John Ireland and other British composers of her time. She was especially well-known for her performances of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, and recorded the piece twice: a 1920 acoustical recording of an abridged version and a 1928 electrical recording, the first of the full concerto, both with the composer conducting.

After the 1924 broadcast, Harrison issued recordings of the “Londonderry Air,” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Chant Hindu” and Dvořák’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” with nightingale accompaniment. Alberge’s article does not address the authenticity of the bird-calls on those discs.

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