Last Night Fever

David Cannadine on the history of the Proms

Like many ostensibly ancient British rituals, the Promenade Concerts were founded towards the close of the 19th century, shortly after the Queen’s Hall opened as a new musical venue in 1893. As such, they may be regarded as a classic instance of what is sometimes called ‘invented tradition’, where venerable antiquity is less in evidence than is often popularly supposed; and where change and adaptation are at least as important as continuity and survival, even though the former are often disguised or mistakenly perceived as the latter. Thus regarded, the history of the Proms is an intricate and many stranded subject, which has recently been brilliantly treated in a collection of essays edited by Jenny Doctor, David Wright and Nicholas Kenyon.[*] In terms (for instance) of its performing space, the crucial dates were 1893 and 1941 (when the Queen’s Hall was destroyed and the concerts moved to the Albert Hall); in terms of sponsorship and organisation, the key years were 1927 (when the BBC first became involved) and 1942-44 (when the corporation’s commitment was reaffirmed and effectively became permanent). Moreover, the evolving production of the Proms, along with the developing audience for them, must be set in a broader historical and geographical context: namely the state and self-image of the nation in which the concerts have taken place almost uninterruptedly for a century and more. For the imperial Britain in which Henry Wood’s Proms began in the summer of 1895 was a very different place from the post-imperial Britain in which the BBC Proms have been performed in the summer of 2007, and this in turn helps explain why the Proms, like other regularly repeated rituals, have not only meant (and mean) different things to different people, but have also meant (and mean) different things at different times.

These considerations are of particular relevance to the annual ‘Last Night’ which brings the season to a climax, and which for many years has concluded with a virtually immutable (and thus ‘traditional’) programme. The first half of the concert consists of several items of serious music, each usually fairly short, and sometimes includes the first performance of a newly commissioned piece. But during the second half, which is televised live on BBC1 and also watched and listened to by a global audience of millions, the mood of the evening lightens considerably, as less demanding works are performed. There then follow what have long been regarded as the ‘traditional’ closing items: Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ March No. 1, better known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’; Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, including ‘The Sailor’s Hornpipe’; ‘Rule, Britannia!’ composed by Thomas Arne, with orchestration by Malcolm Sargent; and finally ‘Jerusalem’, set to music by Parry, and later reorchestrated by Elgar. All of these involve active participation by the audience which, as the second half advances, becomes ever more boisterous, with lusty singing as well as a deafening stamping of feet. And before ‘Jerusalem’ is sung, the conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra makes a farewell speech of thanks and good wishes, sometimes struggling to make himself heard amid the din of shouts and cheers, whistles and trumpets, football rattles and bursting balloons.

For some people, this remarkable occasion is the embodiment of the Proms as a great, patriotic, unchanging British ‘tradition’, by turns moving and memorable, flamboyant and festive. For others, it is a deplorable display of boorish behaviour, mindless nostalgia and vulgar jingoism, which bears no relation to the liberal values, cosmopolitan reach and internationalist ethos of the Proms as a whole. Yet these entrenched and contradictory assessments share and assume a permanence of programming and a constancy of purpose which are belied by the historical evidence. Across the years that separate – yet also connect – the Proms then and the Proms now, there are three phases into which the history of the final concert of the series may be usefully divided: from 1895 to 1946, the inaugural half-century dominated by Henry Wood, when it was merely the last concert; from 1947 to 1967, when Wood’s successor, Malcolm Sargent, effectively invented the ‘tradition’ of the ‘Last Night of the Proms’; and from 1968 until the present day, when a succession of BBC controllers of music have tried – with varying degrees of determination and success – to rein in, modify and reinvigorate what they have increasingly come to regard as an embarrassing anachronism.

When the manager Robert Newman and the young Henry Wood inaugurated an eight-week season of Promenade Concerts in 1895, they were not doing anything very novel. Such ‘promenades’ had been a permanent yet ephemeral part of London cultural life for the best part of sixty years. Public concerts in such places as Vauxhall, Marylebone and Ranelagh Gardens had been a feature of 18th-century metropolitan life, but promenade concerts had originated in Paris, and were imported to Britain during the late 1830s. They were held in such theatres as Drury Lane, Her Majesty’s, the Lyceum and Covent Garden, often presided over by foreign conductors (usually French), and attended by a youthful and convivial audience, who stood up and walked around while the music was being played (hence the name), and were charged less than they would have been for a formal concert. The programmes were appropriately light and undemanding, the playing often of a low standard, and most of these promenades fizzled out after a few years.

Newman’s aim when he engaged Wood was primarily commercial: to fill the recently completed Queen’s Hall, for whose finances he was responsible, and thus to generate some additional income during what would otherwise be the empty summer season. Wood saw the enterprise differently and more imaginatively: as a way to raise performance standards by creating what would be known as the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, which he would rehearse more rigorously than was customary in London at the time; and as a means of ‘democratising music’, by slowly elevating the taste, broadening the interests and improving the knowledge of his essentially metropolitan audience. To this end, Wood resolved to conduct every concert personally, to select and arrange all the programmes himself, and to make them gradually more sophisticated, innovative and demanding.

Henry Wood was a remarkable combination of chauvinist and cosmopolitan. Like Elgar, he was a tradesman’s son, and like Elgar he unthinkingly accepted the social order into which he had been born, and the legitimacy and importance of the monarchy. Significantly, when his mother taught Henry the lines of the treble staff (E, G, B, D, F) it was not as ‘Every good boy deserves favour’, but as ‘Every good Briton deals fairly’. Yet Wood was also passionately devoted to European music, from the Baroque period onwards, and all his life would be a tireless champion of works by new composers. As the Proms developed (albeit falteringly) season on season, his aim was to familiarise his audience not only with the great standards of the European repertory, but also to educate them in new musical trends, and major works by Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss were premiered at the Proms before the First World War. But in the beginning, Wood’s programmes were much less demanding, often consisting of many short items, so as not to bore the audience. This was especially true of the early final concerts, and it has remained true of the Last Night.

The programme for the first final concert, on 5 October 1895, included works by Gounod, Verdi and Hubert Parry; and it concluded (stirringly but not patriotically) with the ‘Grande Marche’ from Schloesser’s Les Enfants de la garde. Two years later, the last performance had already become a longer (but still essentially popular) affair: it was now divided into two halves, and there were 21 items on the programme, among them Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord’ and ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes’ from The Gondoliers, and Beethoven’s Overture Leonora No. 3; and the evening ended (again rousingly but not nationalistically) with Rossini’s Overture to William Tell. The result was an eclectic mixture, but it was much more European than British, and the programmes were conspicuously devoid of those military, nautical, jingoistic or imperial overtones so much in evidence in Britain during those years.

But while such sentiments were absent from the early closing concerts, both Newman and Wood regarded ‘rousing, military-style music’ as a proper component of their programmes. Louis Jullien’s British Army Quadrilles was revived during the opening season; Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory was played the following year (though Wood dismissed it as ‘an appalling work’); in 1896 Alexander Mackenzie’s Britannia Overture was performed as part of a tribute to Queen Victoria’s reign; and it was repeated in the first week of the 1900 season in a thanksgiving concert to celebrate the victory of imperial troops in South Africa. Both Wellington’s Victory and Mackenzie’s overture included the melody from Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule, Britannia!’, an exhortation to naval greatness, rather than a celebration of it (‘rule’ not ‘rules’); but it subsequently took on a life of its own, as a paean of praise to Britain’s 19th-century maritime might, and was the only one of the four patriotic compositions which would eventually become associated with the Last Night that was then in existence. In 1895, ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ March No. 1 was six years off, Wood’s own Fantasia on British Sea Songs, composed to celebrate the centenary of Trafalgar, was ten years away, and Parry’s setting of ‘Jerusalem’ would not appear until 1916. Moreover, none of these pieces was composed with the final concert of the Proms specifically in mind, and it would not be until the 60th season, in 1954, that all four would feature on the programme together.

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[*] The Proms: A New History (Thames and Hudson, 320 pp., £24.95, April, 978 0 500 51352 1).