Monday 20 May 2013

It Was The Nightingale... Was It?

Despite my tendency to wake early, I've missed most of the 5.58am broadcasts of Radio 4's Tweet of the Day (perhaps because Farming Today, the programme that precedes it, is the most reliably soporific thing on radio). But yesterday I caught the repeat broadcast of the nightingale Tweet, which featured one of the legendary recordings made by the cellist Beatrice Harrison in her Surrey garden, in which she duetted with the local nightingales. All very lovely - but, Attenborough (for it was he) remarked casually, 'there is a story' that the nightingale song might have been the work not of birds but of one Maude Gould, a talented  'whistler' or siffleuse. He made no further comment.
  This came as a bit of a shock, I must admit, though on reflection it seems unlikely that, with the primitive recording equipment then available, such perfect results would have been obtained, every time. The 'whistler' story comes up in Jeremy Mynott's Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience - a book I must read. Mynott's researches suggest that, live recording being what it was at the time, Maude Gould (stage name Madame Saberon) was indeed on stand-by in case of a nightingale no-show. In all probability, the setting-up of cumbersome recording equipment in Beatrice Harrison's garden scared off the nervous nightingales, and the first broadcast features Madame Saberon rather than Monsieur Rossignol. Whether La Harrison was in on it or not remains unknown, as does Maude Gould's role in later broadcasts. 'A very satisfactory state of uncertainty,' Manott concludes, 'in which to leave the topic of nightingales.'

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