Go back to article: Capturing the song of the nightingale

The role of the artist

Harrison’s status as an established artist holds significance, as it was she, and not a broadcast professional, who championed the nightingale concept for the BBC. She had suggested it to Rex Palmer, who was the announcer at a performance she was giving of Elgar’s cello concerto, with the composer himself conducting. The BBC had never made a live outdoor broadcast before and when informed of the idea, Reith was concerned that the birds would be ‘prima donnas’ and remain silent.  

In addition to being responsible for protecting the reputation of the BBC, Reith was a man deeply concerned with his own personal legacy. In reviewing various contemporary and scholarly accounts of Reith’s attitudes and policies, one of Street’s findings included the discovery of an article in The Times Personal Columns entitled ‘LORD REITH SEEKS ADVICE’ (Street, 2006, p 17). The article asks for public responses regarding the publication of his diaries. Street suggests that, ‘the tone of the words is that of a man who is pleading for an assurance that his place in history is secure’.

In her autobiography, Harrison writes:  

I must confess I had a hard tussle, as the BBC would not believe that such a thing was possible, and thought that it would be a waste of their time, a wild goose chase to come down to Surrey! But I knew that the good God wished the world to hear the duet of the cello and the nightingale. For nights I had crawled to find whence the most thrilling notes might ring out. (Beatrice Harrison edited by Cleveland-Peck, 1985, p 131)

Four years earlier, it had been the Australian prima donna, Dame Nellie Melba, who persuaded the Marconi Company to broadcast what would become known as the world's first major live performance on radio by a professional musician. Briggs rightly claims that ‘the Melba broadcast was a turning point in the public response to radio. It caught people’s imagination’ (Briggs, 1995, p 43; Street, 2006, p 39).

McLuhan and Fiore argued that artists are often the most courageous ‘pioneers’ in a new communication technology, collaborating with technical people to explore the possibilities of new forms of expression. ‘The artist is the only person who does not shrink from this challenge. He [or she] exults in the novelties of perception afforded by innovation. The pain that the ordinary person feels in perceiving the confusion is charged with thrills for the artist in the discovery of new boundaries and territories for the human spirit’ (McLuhan and Fiore, 1968, p 12).  

The medium of radio broadcasting paralleled the natural motivations of the Nightingale – leading to the opportunity for a rather unique situation where content and medium would be deeply resonant with each other. Arnheim generalises, ‘Every art translates all content into the means of expression most suitable to the medium of representation’ (Arnheim, 1936, p 177), but here we can see the content is most suitable indeed. The Nightingale’s song signals the beginning of spring (like a new medium of expression, a new musical form), his search for a mate (the listener), and marking new territory (suggesting an abstract or non-visual perception of space).

The broadcasts’ simultaneous use of music and natural sound retrieved the ancient sounds of a far more primitive age Arnheim would describe as, ‘long before the invention of actual human speech, [when] the mating- and warning-cries of living beings were understood only as sounds and only in virtue of their expressiveness’ (Arnheim, 1936, p 28). Harrison had created a new form of art. ‘Even the surrealist had this ambition – to attain a fresh vision of the world by the juxtaposition of ordinary things’ (McLuhan and McLuhan, 2011, p 55).  

Oscar Wilde recognised how art ‘is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds that no woodland possesses’ (Wilde, 1894, p 30), but there was a sympathetic tone to the broadcasts which reflected the audience. The first Nightingale broadcast was conducted a mere six years after The Great War. Britain was still reeling, recovering from years of difficulty, with a shared sense of loss. Guida observes, ‘many men writing in Flanders had found solace and comfort (as well as much sadness) in birds and their song’ (Guida, 2015). Harrison’s contemporaneous repertoire served an audience in mourning.  

Referring to radio drama, Arnheim suggests, ‘the sound of mourning, more directly than the word of mourning, transmits sorrow to the hearer. And all natural and artificial sounds of mourning, which are soft and long-drawn-out and in a minor mode, are appropriate for increasing the effect of a mourning-chorus’ (Arnheim, 1936, p 30).

Communication is described by Peters as ‘a registry of modern longings’. ‘The term evokes a utopia where nothing is misunderstood, hearts are open, and expression is uninhibited. Desire being most intense when the object is absent, longings for communication also index a deep sense of dereliction in social relationships’ (Peters, 1999, p 2). The social and participative nightingale festivals at Foyle Riding were, it can be argued, partly inspired by such longings.

Returning to the idea of a new musical form, Harrison, a member of the highbrow orchestral establishment, had discovered with her ‘duet’ with the nightingale what can be considered a new sort of ‘jazz’. The word ‘jazz’ comes from the French jaser, to chatter. Jazz is a form of dialogue. It was jazz music from the London Savoy Hotel which preceded the first (19 May 1924) and second (26 May 1924) Nightingale broadcasts. In the first, jazz was heard from 9.45 to 11.00, with the ‘Song of the Nightingale from Surrey Woods at intervals from 10.30’, and in the second, from 10.00 to 11.00 it was officially recorded as ‘Savoy Hotel Bands, and Song of the Nightingale from Surrey Woods’, (BBC Programme Records, pp 65–66). A press review of the 26 May broadcast noted, ‘the sudden change from the jazz music of the Savoy bands to the music of Miss Harrison’s instrument in a plaintive melody of Rimsky Korsakoff produced with rather remarkable suddenness the suggestion of romance which is the proper environment for the singing of the nightingale’ (‘Broadcasting the Nightingale’, 1924). This juxtaposition of previously separate forms achieved harmony in the radio environment, in how the broadcasts involved the listener in ‘a conversation’, and a process to close the interval. Both jazz and the Nightingale broadcast required intimate listener involvement in the activity of ‘completing an image’, musically, intellectually, and emotionally.

Conductor-composer Constant Lambert, in his 1934 book Music Ho! ‘provided an account of the blues that preceded the jazz which followed The Great War. Lambert concluded “that the great flowering of jazz in the twenties was a popular response to the highbrow richness and orchestral subtlety of the Debussy-Delius period. Jazz would seem to be an effective bridge between highbrow and lowbrow music…”’ (Lambert, 1985, p 181; McLuhan, 1964, p 296). Jazz transcended class boundaries, as did radio, as did the Nightingale broadcasts.


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/007