Beatrice Harrison 1892 - 1965

born in:
Roorkey, Uttarakhand, India

The second of four daughters, Beatrice Harrison was born into a musical family. All the children were taught to play an instrument so that they could form an ensemble. Sisters May (violin) and Margaret (piano) were both well known, as well as Beatrice. The British family lived in India for a period of time.

The family moved back to England in 1893 and the children’s musical education continued. Beatrice attended the Royal College of Music to study with William Whitehouse and completed her studies with Hugo Becker at the Hochschule für Musik (High School for Music) in Berlin. In 1910 Harrison won the Mendelssohn Prize aged 17 and made her debut at Bechstein Hall in Berlin. She became a professional musician and had a full schedule of performances, international travel, recordings and broadcasts.

One of Harrison’s most fruitful musical partnerships was with composer Frederik Delius, whom she met on 3 December 1914, after a Halle Orchestra concert in Manchester. He wrote a double concerto for both sisters in 1915, but it was not performed until 21 Feb 1920 by Queens Hall Orchestra, with Henry Wood conducting with sisters as soloists. Beatrice helped Delius with his composition process, particularly the cello parts of his works. Delius subsequently composed individual concertos for both violin and cello (1916 and 1921), as well as a Cello Sonata for Beatrice (1916), a Violin Sonata for May (1930), and a 'Caprice and Elegy' for Beatrice (1930).

In 1920, she made the first recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, with the composer himself conducting. She also gave the first festival performance of the piece outside London in 1921, reappearing at the Royal Philharmonic in 1925 to play the piece once again with Elgar conducting. Elgar insisted that Harrison be the soloist whenever he conducted the work.

Harrison met many famous and influential people during her world tours, including Gabriel Fauré, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Glazunov and Gustav Holst. She also was introduced to European royalty, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and King George V and his sister Princess Victoria. Beatrice became close friends with Princess Victoria, who paid for Harrison’s cello, ‘Pietro Guarnieri’. 

The family lived at Foyle Riding, Limpsfield in Surrey, where the old barn was made into a concert hall. The house had a large garden and was surrounded by woods, which was where Beatrice often played. She noticed that while playing the cello a nightingale would answer and then sometimes echo the notes. She persuaded the BBC it should be broadcast, and after a successful test the concert was broadcast 19 May 1924. This made it one of the earliest outside broadcasts by the BBC. The public loved it and it was repeated the next month, with the concert becoming a feature of the spring schedule for the next 12 years. Records of the performances were sold around the world, as well as records of the nightingales singing alone and the dawn chorus at Foyle Riding.

It was estimated that up to 1 million people listened to the first broadcast and she received 50,000 fan letters, some addressed to ‘The Lady of the Nightingale, England’. The nightingale became Harrison’s personal symbol and she had it printed on posters and programmes and embroidered on her concert dresses. The Harrison family often chartered buses to bring East End families to the site. They give them tea and beer until midnight, to allow as many people as possible to experience the birdsong. Harrison even named her memoir 'The Cello and the Nightingales'.

Harrison died in 1965 and was buried in St. Peter’s Church, Limpsfield, Surrey.