Friday, 16 May 2014

Those innovatory nightingales

Ninety years ago, in 1924, the Nightingale contributed to two major technological innovations. 

The first development was the brainchild of a British cellist, Beatrice Harrison, who enjoyed practising outdoors during balmy evenings. In spring 1923, after moving to a house in woodland in Surrey, she was astonished to hear a bird join in with her alfresco performance. Her gardener was able to identify her accompanist as a Nightingale. 

The next year, after her debut broadcast for the BBC, Beatrice hatched the idea of broadcasting a duet with the bird. Lord Reith, the founder of the BBC, took some persuading, but at 10.45pm on 19 May 1924 the world’s first live outside broadcast was made from Beatrice’s garden. 

The audience for this BBC breakthrough was estimated at more than a million, and the broadcast attracted 50,000 letters. 

However, it now seems that the broadcast actually featured a well-known bird impressionist called Maude Gould. She had secretly been booked as a back-up in case the BBC equipment and crew scared off the real bird, which they clearly did. But analysis of later broadcasts, which continued for some years, shows that they did feature genuine Nightingales. 

In 1927 a gramophone record made from BBC recordings was another innovation — the world’s first commercial recording of any animal in the wild. 

In 1942 the BBC planned a new broadcast on the 18th anniversary of the first. But at the last minute the sound engineer heard a group of nearly 200 RAF bombers setting off for a raid on Mannheim, Germany. Realising that a live broadcast might help the enemy, he stopped the broadcast but asked for a recording. This was later issued as a gramophone record sold in aid of the RAF Benevolent Fund.  

(The incident also inspired a 1975 album, Nightingales & Bombers, by Manfred Mann's Earth Band.)

Sadly, the BBC has been reluctant to commit to a 90th anniversary broadcast of live Nightingales. But the RSPB, inspired by the hundreds who signed a petition aimed at the BBC, is setting up a live broadcast of Nightingales from 8pm on Sunday 18 May from Northward Hill in north Kent (a site threatened by a nearby housing development that could  drive away these timid birds). You should find the broadcast here: 

And what about the other 1924 nightingale innovation? The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi was inspired to include a recording of a singing Nightingale in the score of his patriotic suite “The pines of Rome”. Its premiere on 14 December 1924 was the first use of an electronic recording as part of a live performance of a musical work. Since then, of course, recorded sound has increasingly been used to complement and enhance music written for otherwise live ensembles.