Say the word ‘tennis’ to most people in this country and – unless they avidly follow the sport from Grand Slam to Grand Slam – chances are the first thing that springs to mind will be a certain leafy London suburb. Forget the Davis Cup or the US Open; for the majority of Brits, tennis means the Wimbledon fortnight, probably the only time all year they watch tennis – almost as if it’s the only time all year that the sport is actually played, with the world’s leading players cryogenically frozen in suspended animation for the other 50 weeks. Similarly, say the word ‘The Proms’ to most people in this country and images of the Last Night will immediately appear – all that patriotic bluster, flag-waving, jingoistic chanting and…oh, hold on a minute; isn’t that what we get outside the Palace of Westminster 24/7 these days? Why do we need to rent the Albert Hall for it?
It’s only natural, I suppose, that the large swathes of the population with little (or no) interest in ‘Classical’ music associate the oldest and most prestigious musical festival these islands can boast with its annual finale. For one thing, it’s the only evening of an event that spans two months to receive live coverage on the nation’s most mainstream of TV channels, BBC1. BBC4 and – especially – Radio 3 are there from day one, but come the Last Night, the home of ‘Homes under the Hammer’ gatecrashes the party and takes credit for it. No wonder so many imagine the Last Night is all there is to The Proms when their sole exposure to it comes via the platform they lack the curiosity to look beyond.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Wood, prominent Victorian conductor and co-founder of The Proms in 1895. Inspired by a visit to the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, Wood joined forces with Robert Newman, manager of London’s newest and most impressive concert venue, the Queen’s Hall, to stage a ten-week season of ‘promenades’. Such events had their roots in outdoor performances given in locations such as the notoriously decadent Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, combining serious works with more lightweight popular material. By the late 19th century, indoor acoustics were regarded as superior and purpose-built arenas were also less likely to attract the kind of miscreants prone to wandering in and out of pleasure gardens. The intention, however, was never to make music elitist, but to keep it accessible to all; playing it indoors simply placed it in a more civilised and conducive environment.
Amazingly, Wood continued to be the main conductor and organiser of The Proms until just a few weeks before his death in 1944. By then, coverage on BBC Radio (since 1927) had expanded the audience for (and awareness of) The Proms so that its popularity enabled it to soldier on during WWII. At the height of the Blitz, the home of the event from its inception, the Queen’s Hall, was bombed beyond repair and Wood was forced to relocate operations to the Royal Albert Hall. The famous bust of him that is regularly seen on the Last Night was retrieved from the ruins of the Queen’s Hall. Despite the panicky BBC withdrawing its financial support (and orchestras) at the outbreak of hostilities, music – along with all of the Arts – was quickly recognised as a vital morale-booster, and the retention of cultural pursuits was promoted as one of the factors we were fighting for. The founding of the BBC Third Programme in 1946 was motivated by similar laudable aims.
After the War, gradual television coverage widened the audience of the event further, as did the arrival of the charismatic Malcolm Sargent as Proms Chief Conductor in 1947, a man who held the post for two decades. Traditionally, the Proms programme was to devote a different day of the week to a different venerated composer; under Sargent and William Glock (in the newly-created post of ‘Proms Controller’), the remit expanded to eventually embrace more avant-garde works in what was a contentious era for Classical as younger composers went off on something of a tonal tangent. By the end of the 60s, even the revolution in pop culture received the official seal of approval when experimental Jazz Rockers Soft Machine played, the first such act from outside the orchestral world to appear on the programme. The reputation of the event was by now international and it attracted most of the leading solo musicians, orchestras, composers and conductors of the post-war era; in the process, The Proms stayed true to its original aim, as TV and radio broadcasts gave far more members of the public than could be crammed into the Albert Hall the opportunity to see and hear the maestros and musical mavericks of the age.
I remember as a child that the front cover of the Radio Times was always given over to a painting of the Albert Hall either in the week the festival opened or closed; it was the latter, however, that served as a Proms introduction for those of us for whom Classical music was not part of the educational syllabus. And in a way, this was unfortunate, for the Last Night is an aberration in the Proms’ calendar, bearing little relation to the rest of the schedule comprising the previous couple of months. If the only time your average punter is exposed to The Proms is the Last Night, the impression given is not that of an inclusive, egalitarian celebration of the world’s greatest Classical works, but quite the opposite. I admit I was one of those punters once, recoiling from something that resembled a privileged, public school ball, midway between the Henley Regatta and the Tory Party Conference – lots of pissed-up posh people looking smug and begging for a punch.
I didn’t connect my early love of Holst’s ‘The Planets’ to The Proms because all I’d seen of it for years was the Last Night. It wasn’t until around 1999, when a bout of bored channel-surfing was interrupted by stumbling upon a performance of ‘Mars’, that I actually sat and watched a concert halfway through the Proms season. ‘Oh, there’s more to this than those chinless wonders bouncing up and down to Land of Hope and Glory, then?’ Damn right. Thereafter – and ever since – I’ve regularly tuned in to The Proms from July to September and witnessed some memorable musical moments along the way; the 2012 season in which Daniel Barenboim conducted all nine Beethoven symphonies stands out as a particular landmark, but there have been just as many individual soloists that have caught my ears and eyes – and I have to admit the clad-in-black female members of orchestras do have a habit of looking especially alluring on such evenings.
For some, the end of summer is marked by the final crack of leather-on-willow; for others, it comes when the clocks go back in October; for me, autumn officially begins when the Proms ends. You know summer’s over then. Tomorrow’s Last Night threatens to put an additional boot in by opening with a ‘Woke’ symphony. But for all the recent innovations of trying to broaden the event’s appeal by staging complementary concerts featuring non-Classical acts under the ‘Proms’ banner, for me it’s still the joy of seeing and hearing both familiar and fresh non-vocal masterpieces on a nightly basis for eight glorious weeks at the Albert Hall that defines this most special of Great British institutions. And, as the veteran music journalist David Hepworth recently pointed out, the price of tickets for many of the Proms concerts in the season is staggeringly cheap, certainly when compared to the astronomical cost of watching a leading rock or pop act going through the motions at the nearest soulless aircraft-hanger named after a corporation. Makes one wonder if Sir Henry Wood was right; could be Classical really is the ‘people’s’ music after all.
© The Editor