Harrison, Beatrice (1892–1965)

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Harrison, Beatrice (1892–1965)

Britain's premier cellist in the 1920s and 1930s who was world renowned as "The Lady of the Nightingales." Born in Roorkee, India, on December 9, 1892; died in Smallfield, Surrey, England, on March 10, 1965; daughter of Colonel John Harrison (an officer in the Royal Engineers) and Annie Harrison (a singer); sister of May Harrison (1891–1959), a violinist, Margaret Harrison, a pianist, and Monica Harrison.

First female cellist to play in Carnegie Hall; first woman and first cellist ever to win the Mendelssohn Medal (1907).

Beatrice Harrison liked wandering in the woods on the grounds of Foyle Riding, her country home in Oxted, Surrey, and giving openair concerts to an audience of none with her cello. One day to her amazement, a nightingale sang while she played, creating a beautiful duet. Harrison persuaded the British Broadcasting Company to bring recording equipment to Oxted in May 1924 to capture this performance. It was the first time a broadcast of outdoor birdsong had ever been recorded, and she received thousands of letters from throughout the world. During the nightingale season, visitors journeyed to Foyle Riding to hear the birds sing. The Harrisons built a music room and often had guests to listen to the birds until dawn. John Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft , Paul Robeson, and Princess Victoria (1868–1935) were among the many guests.

Born into a conventional family with a military background, Beatrice Harrison was the second of four daughters. When she was quite young, the family moved back to England from India where her father had served in the Anglo-Indian army. At 18 months, Beatrice was taken to a regimental band concert where she first heard the sound of a cello. Though she was heard to exclaim, "Baba wants 'tello,'" gratification was delayed until she was nine. The young Harrison made such great progress that by age 11 she had entered the Royal College of Music where she studied under W.E. Whitehouse. Throughout her life Harrison loved to work, spending hours a day practicing. In 1907, she went to the Continent and was the first woman to win the Mendelssohn Medal. She began to concertize with her sister, May Harrison , and the girls caused a sensation when they revived a seldom-heard Brahms Double Concerto. Beatrice made her American debut in 1913 and repeated her success. Many composers wrote music for her. Frederick Delius wrote the Cello Sonata, the Double Concerto, the Cello Concerto, and the Caprice and Elegy. John Ireland wrote a Sonata for her as well.

Some rank Beatrice Harrison's finest achievement as her performance with Sir Edward Elgar in 1919. When Guilhermina Suggia , the famous cellist, asked for too much money to play for the recording, Harrison was asked to play in her place. She responded with her soul, transforming a work to which few had previously paid much attention. Elgar began to ask her to play whenever the work was performed. In 1928, the Elgar Cello Concerto was re-recorded and this work alone established Harrison's reputation in the musical world.

Beatrice Harrison played often at London's popular Promenade Concerts and continued to play throughout the Second World War. Her last performance was on television in 1958, playing a cello solo Roger Quilter had written for her. Harrison's public was always devoted to her and to the liquid notes which came from her cello.


Cleveland-Peck, Patricia. "The Lady of the Nightingales," in The Strad. Vol. 103, no. 1232. December 1992, pp. 1174–1177.

Webber, Julian Lloyd. "A Pioneering Spirit of her Age," in The Strad. Vol. 103, no. 1232. December 1992, p.1172.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Harrison, Beatrice (1892–1965)

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Harrison, Beatrice (1892–1965)