Few British institutions divide opinion as much as the Last Night of the Proms. But, says PIERS FORD, this complex event is ultimately able to rise above the political tensions
The Last Night of the Proms is the musical equivalent of the swallow doing one final lap before it heads for warmer climes: a landmark of British culture, signalling the end of summer, already steeped in nostalgia for the ephemeral riches of the last eight weeks of concerts, before the season changes and other familiar signposts pop up on the horizon.
Soon, the Festival of Remembrance will move into its space in the Royal Albert Hall. Carols at King’s College, Cambridge will provide a comforting dose of warmth in the depths of winter, and eventually, the New Year will bring the distance promise of other familiar fixtures in the calendar. The FA Cup final, Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon fortnight: their regularity helps to give the year a reassuring framework. But none of them has the capacity to divide its audiences quite like the Last Night of the two-month concert series formally known as the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, presented by the BBC.
Depending on your point of view, it is a generous, outward-looking conclusion to an iconic festival of music, embodying the original vision of conductor Wood and impresario Robert Newman to reach new audiences with classical music presented in a less formal popular format; or it is a jingoistic, flag-waving celebration of Britain’s imperial history which dumbs down classical music and reduces the work of composers such as Elgar and Thomas Arne to a set of totem hits.
This clichéd view of the Last Night owes a great deal to its curiously detached status as a standalone television event, severed from the roots and context of an entire season of diverse classical music concerts, and creating the perception of a frivolous appendage to the serious business that has gone before.
Its familiar content has evolved over the years into the generally established package of Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1 (the source of Land of Hope and Glory), Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs (hornpipes aplenty), Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia! and Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem, which traditionally whips the Promenaders into a frenzy of patriotic community singing, fanned by a sea of Union flags, as they lift the roof off the hall.
The novelist E. M. Forster was alarmed by the concept of the Proms, fearing that it would turn high culture into a collision point for the classes, with classical music treated as a prize to be handed out for aspiration rather than something for which people should have a genuine passion. His worry that the Proms had a political rather than an artistic purpose would hardly be assuaged by a superficial look at the way the Last Night would evolve as a piece of television entertainment after its first, partial, broadcast in 1947.
As Paul Kildea noted in his essay, The Proms: An Industrious Revolution (published in The Proms, A New History, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of the BBC taking on responsibility for the season in 2007), ‘At its worst, [the Last Night] is a signal that Forster’s concerns for ‘his culture’ were justified. At its best, it is a reminder that all artistic endeavours evolve continuously, never more so than those with entrenched positions.’
Curmudgeonly and, frankly, snobbish highbrow attitudes have certainly contributed to the Last Night’s reputation as a popular tradition which mainly serves more pedestrian interests – as if Last Night promenaders were somehow different from the cultured audiences of the earlier concerts. But ask anyone who has managed to get a ticket for the most sought-after programme in the season every year, and they will tell you how superficial this dismissal is. Why, after all, shouldn’t the same people who have had the opportunity to savour work by virtually any composer of note from centuries of classical music during the last eight weeks, also welcome the chance to, as current Proms director, David Pickard says, ‘let their hair down a bit’?
‘The Proms is built on long standing traditions that were established by co-founder Henry Wood, and which are loved by people around the world – one of these traditions is the Last Night and some of the pieces within it – Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No.1 and Jerusalem for example,’ he says. ‘These are much-loved elements and take up less than half of the programme, which leaves plenty of space to reflect other aspects of the Proms.’
While some of those traditional elements retain the patina of what Paul Kildea calls ‘imperialistic celebration’, it might come as a surprise to discover that the Last Night was not noted specifically in a season prospectus until 1942, the year after Henry Wood gave his first last night conductor’s speech – 47 years after the Proms were founded. Jerusalem and Rule, Britannia! did not appear in the programme until they controversially replaced the Sea Songs in 1953. The integration of newly-evolved ‘traditions’ has vexed Woods’ successors ever since, as they have struggled to find ways to modernise the event without sacrificing these cornerstones of the programme.
By and large, the overwhelming trend has been to internationalise the programme, balancing the familiar with new work and pieces that help to align the Proms with broader cultural trends and anniversaries. This has always been the case with the other concerts in the season. In recent years the series has also broadened its horizons to embrace jazz, pop music and musical theatre – apparently with no detriment whatsoever to the values of Wood’s original vision.
The Last Night itself is complemented these days by Proms in the Park, which brings leading mainstream artists into the fold for a gig in Hyde Park, a big-screen telecast from the Albert Hall taking over at half time. But there are lessons dating back to the 1940s for any director who tries to tinker with the pieces at the heart of the format.
With the television cameras came controllers who wanted more of a say in the programming, and attempted to reduce the traditional elements, considering the degree of audience participation too vulgar for consumption by their viewers. In 1950, a particularly populist programme apparently reduced the audience to what BBC Controller of the Light Programme Tom Chalmers lamented was a ‘frightening emotional orgy’. But the audience has always tended to prevail. Since a famous rebellion of the Promenaders following the Sea Songs debacle, the core components have been preserved – albeit subject to occasional changes of version, order and interpretation.
Chalmers himself was a difficult man to please. When Sibelius’s Symphony No 7 was included at the 1949 Last Night, he tutted that for his listeners, the Finn was ‘still a frightening composer’. David Pickard must be hoping that we have finally come to terms with those fears; Finlandia is on the programme this year, reflecting the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence alongside works that reference the 50th anniversaries of the deaths of previous Proms director Sir Malcolm Sargent and Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, and the 70th birthday of American composer John Adams.
Acknowledging these international influences has been a key aspect of the Last Night for many years and is the most reasonable way to nail the lie that it is basically an exercise in jingoism. In 2016, following the referendum, the EU was proudly represented in a sea of flags of all nations, and the evening passed in a spirit of unity despite the best efforts of some newspapers to turn it into a musical battle between Remain and Leave supporting Promenaders.
This year, however, another flag-gate moment occurred early in the season, when ushers asked for the removal of EU flags from barriers between the audience and the orchestra during the performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at Prom 21 on July 31. Beethoven’s piece – the official EU anthem – had already been the subject of controversy on the First Night, when pianist Igor Levit gave an impromptu rendition as his encore. Shrill accusations of pro-EU bias duly followed, mostly supplied by the Express. On the second night, conductor Daniel Barenboim poured a little more fuel on the flames and raised the hackles of critics who feel the Proms are better untainted by politics, with a pro-EU speech from the podium. Everybody else just got on with enjoying the music.
In the usual Twitter rush to polarised judgement, the request to take down the flags was interpreted either as an outrageous attempt to clamp down on freedom of expression for EU supporters or a long-overdue ban. ‘About time too,’ piped up Nigel Farage, his tweet decorated with a string of Union Jacks. In fact, it was neither. The flags had simply been too big, as a calm and little-reported statement from the Royal Albert Hall press office made clear.
‘For those who haven’t been to the Proms, it’s a celebration of classical music from all over the globe, featuring the world’s finest composers, conductors and musicians,’ read the release.
‘Flags are permitted at the Proms and are traditionally part of the Last Night celebrations. We have no objections to concertgoers bringing flags – including, of course, the EU flag – provided they do not interfere with the smooth running of the festival.’
For the musicians, singers and artists who are invited to perform at the Last Night, participation is more a matter of professional pride. This year, Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo says he will be focusing on four things to sustain him through a boisterous evening. ‘Eat well, drink a lot of liquids, prepare the music. And, of course, prepare a good speech! That’s my recipe,’ he says.
‘Conducting the Last Night of the Proms is a great honour and privilege for any conductor. As Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it is one of the main events of the year for both the players and myself. The event bears a great tradition which has been kept alive over the decades and I never find it difficult to get sucked into the atmosphere.’
He is delighted that the music of his country will play an important role in the programme in the year of such a significant anniversary.
‘I think it is very suitable, as a large part of Finnish identity is music,’ he says ‘In a time when official Finland is embracing different values, it is an important reminder that the investment in music and arts education that started in the 1970´s really has borne fruit.’
For another Finn, composer Lotta Wennäkoski, whose piece Flounce will receive its premiere at the start of the programme, it is just an honour to take part. ‘It’s overwhelming to think about such a huge number of listeners not just at the Royal Albert Hall (which I have never visited before) but also around the world,’ she says.
‘I’ve tried to imagine the moment when a concert like this starts – an occasion which is at the same time both cheerful and very festive – and find the character for my music through this image. I’m very proud and grateful for this opportunity – enabling me to be one of the Finns publicly marking the country’s important anniversary. Classical music is highly appreciated in Finland, and one of the reasons for this is the big character of Sibelius and the musical heritage which grew from his music.’
David Pickard probably speaks for the majority when he says that the Last Night is basically the culmination of the eight weeks of fantastic music-making that have preceded it. Efforts to replicate it inevitably fall short because they don’t have the ingredients which ultimately allow it to rise above the political tensions: an iconic venue; an audience of dedicated Promenaders for whom waving flags, and jumping up and down are merely a way to express their enthusiasm for the event – whatever it means to them personally; and a framework of traditional musical elements which lend the occasion the touch of eccentricity loved by millions of viewers around the globe.
Everything else that comes on the night is a bonus. If you’re a fan, this last hurrah of summer will give you nostalgic sustenance for the dark nights to come. And the clichés born of its complex history, and its capacity for appropriation by those who can’t see beyond the flag waving, won’t matter a bit.
Piers Ford is an arts writer and journalist. His music blog is cry-me-a-torch-song.com
The Last Night of the Proms, Saturday September 9, BBC1 and BBC Radio 3