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.
As ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ March No. 1 was played at the concluding Proms performance in 1905, and again in 1909. The year before, the Sea Songs had been featured for the first time at a final concert, and in 1909 they were played on both the first night and the last. By this time the piece had become a regular fixture: indeed, on the one subsequent occasion that Wood left his Fantasia out, he was forced by popular pressure to reinstate it. In 1916, 1917 and 1918, it was joined by ‘Land of Hope and Glory’: the first recorded occasions on which the two were performed together. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Sea Songs became an almost permanent fixture of the last night, but ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ did not, although it may have been played as an encore. ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was never performed as a separate item during these years, but only as the finale to the Sea Songs, and Elgar’s orchestration of Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’ was not heard before the Second World War.
To the limited extent, then, that the interwar last night of the Proms was a celebration of patriotism and continuity, it was largely as a consequence of Wood’s personal presence on the podium (he had been knighted in 1911), and of the regular performance of his Sea Songs. But the remainder of the programme continued to be the same cosmopolitan miscellany that had characterised the final concerts from the outset. Amid this continuity, there was one significant change: for the impact of the BBC’s sponsorship, beginning in 1927, was not merely financial. Classical music was an essential part of Reith’s conception of the corporation’s purpose to inform, educate and entertain. Accordingly, and in exchange for the BBC’s support, which also included the provision of its own symphony orchestra, the concerts were broadcast to what was very rapidly becoming a mass listening audience. In 1926 there were fewer than two and a quarter million licence holders (20 per cent of households); by 1936, there were almost eight million (65 per cent). Not all concerts were broadcast, but the closing programme invariably was. The result was that what had previously been a London-based concert for a (predominantly) London-based audience of a few thousand was now transformed, in a way that Wood and Newman could never have conceived or predicted, into a national event with an audience across the country.
Even before the BBC took them over, the Proms had been recognised as a ‘national institution’ – an accolade bestowed in 1924, on the occasion of a special visit by King George V and Queen Mary towards the end of the season. The programme culminated, at the king’s request, with the Sea Songs (he found ‘Rule, Britannia!’ a ‘jolly fine tune’, infinitely to be preferred to ‘The Red Flag’). The BBC’s sponsorship and transmissions significantly consolidated that position. But, in musical terms, the Proms remained essentially cosmopolitan. Although Wood gave more time to premiering the works of English composers during the 1920s and 1930s than he had done previously, he continued to give many first performances of Continental music, by such composers as Bartók, Hindemith, Ibert, Janáček, Kodály, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Even at the final Prom, the patriotism which expressed itself in his Sea Songs was kept firmly in check until the very end of the evening.
Nevertheless, it seems to have been during the 1930s that the Promenaders themselves became more noisy and assertive. By the end of the decade, what Wood himself revealingly called ‘the ritual of the “Last Prom of the Season”’, had now become ‘established’ as a ‘gala night’ (though it was not yet known as the ‘Last Night’). During the first part of the programme, the audience listened intently, but as the second half reached its climax with the Sea Songs, Wood admitted that the scenes ‘must strike anyone witnessing them for the first time as unique’. ‘The younger Promenaders,’ he noted,
stamp their feet in time to the hornpipe – that is until I whip up the orchestra in a fierce accelerando which leaves behind all those whose stamping technique is not of the very first quality. I like to win by two bars, if possible; but sometimes have to be content with a bar and a half. It is good fun, and I enjoy it as much as they. When it comes to the singing of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ we reach a climax that only Britons can reach, and I realise I can be nowhere in the world but in my native England.
In 1938, Wood celebrated his 50th anniversary on the podium, and he conducted a special jubilee Prom in his own honour on 5 October, the second half of which was broadcast, and which concluded with ‘Pomp and Circumstance’. But before the Second World War, there were no last night remarks from the conductor: Wood disliked public speaking, and at the end of the final concert he just put on his coat and left. But he was compelled to make a brief statement at the end of the concert on 1 September 1939, after hostilities broke out against Germany once again, ironically to announce that ‘the Promenade Concerts will close down until further notice,’ which meant there would be no ‘Last Prom’. It was the same in 1940, when the Blitz meant the Proms (now sponsored by Keith Douglas, and featuring the London Symphony Orchestra rather than that of the BBC) stopped abruptly on 7 September, only halfway through their intended eight-week run.
The following year, after the destruction of the Queen’s Hall, the Proms were moved to the much larger and less intimate Royal Albert Hall for a six-week season, and there, on 16 August 1941, Wood delivered the first formal Last Night speech, in which he thanked his many collaborators and supporters. In 1942, the BBC resumed its support (and broadcasting) of the concerts. Having set a precedent, Wood could hardly refuse this time to thank his collaborators and his audience – including those listening on the wireless. To laughter, cheers and applause (but no horns or whistles), he spoke of ‘our glorious season’, praised the Promenaders (‘how you listen!’), and looked forward to meeting next year in what he hoped would be ‘days of peace’. For a quarter of an hour, the cheers of the audience, accompanied by the singing of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’, were transmitted by the BBC; and after the broadcast ended, they continued for another fifteen minutes. Here was the template for all subsequent Last Night speeches.
Wood celebrated his 75th birthday in March 1944, and soon after, on the eve of the 50th season, made over the title ‘Henry Wood Promenade Concerts’ to the BBC in perpetuity. The golden jubilee Proms duly began on 10 June, but at the end of the month, the remaining concerts were cancelled because of the new menace represented by the V-1, and all the concerts that should have been broadcast from the Albert Hall were transmitted instead from Bedford, where the BBC Symphony Orchestra was based for the duration of the war. Yet again, there was no closing concert; and even if there had been, Sir Henry would not have been present to deliver a speech, for he died on 19 August.
Wood’s final years had already witnessed some significant changes, as the BBC Symphony Orchestra was joined by the London Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestras, and as Wood himself began to share the heavy conducting load with Adrian Boult and Basil Cameron. Boult and Cameron (along with Constant Lambert) conducted the Proms in the 1945 season, including the final concert, but this was an occasion which neither enjoyed, as they were ‘pelted with flowers’ by the audience. Nor were they alone in regretting the increasingly boisterous behaviour of the Promenaders, which some commentators, recalling the Nuremberg rallies, lamented as un-British displays of mass hysteria. A young music critic named William Glock wrote a harsh notice in the Observer, and the bureaucrats at the BBC also wanted to calm things down, while at the same time, seeking to ‘depersonalise’ the cult of the conductor now that Wood was no longer there. In fact, nothing of the kind happened, for in 1947, the BBC appointed an additional conductor who would eventually make the Last Night entirely his own, and refashion it into an even more rumbustious and patriotic occasion: Sir Malcolm Sargent. He had recently been knighted after sustained lobbying of the Labour government by his friend and sometime lover Edwina Mountbatten, and by agreeable coincidence, had been born in 1895, the year in which the Promenade Concerts had begun.
At first glance, it may seem odd that the Last Night, with its four stirring musical items, its balloons and whistles, flags and streamers, and mannered speeches from the podium, should have been created and established by Sargent as a ‘British tradition’ during the period between 1947 and 1967. For in many people’s minds, the leitmotif of those years was not so much ‘hope and glory’ but rather ‘decline and fall’. The independence of India in 1947 had been a portent, and the Suez fiasco nine years later made Britain’s diminished status in the world plain. During the next decade, most of what remained of the empire was rapidly dismantled, and Churchill’s state funeral in January 1965 was not only the last rites of the great man himself, but also a requiem for Britain as a great power. ‘Wider still and wider’ was a more apt description of the country’s growing balance of payments deficit than of its imperial dominion. Yet it was against such a background that the Last Night of the Proms became an annual jamboree, and the ‘personalisation’ of its premier conductor reached unprecedented heights.
Malcolm Sargent adored spectacle and ceremony – especially if royalty was present and he was at the centre of the show. In July 1948, in the presence of the king, he conducted a choir of 3000 and the massed bands of the Grenadier Guards at the formal opening of the Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium. A year later, and once again thanks to the lobbying of Edwina Mountbatten, Sargent was appointed honorary advisor in music to the royal marines, a post created for him, and which he held until his death, when it disappeared. He conducted massed bands at Portsmouth in programmes of short nautical and patriotic items, including ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. In June 1956, he led the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a tour to Scandinavia, where the climax was a concert in Stockholm on 12 June, in the presence of the queens of Sweden and England, as well as Prince Philip, Princess Margaret and members of the Swedish royal family. Sargent was in his element, the concert was a triumph, and he received a great ovation.
But Sargent’s greatest and most sustained efforts went into the Promenade Concerts, where he eventually established himself as the dominant figure. With Henry Wood’s encouragement, Sargent had conducted his own compositions at the Proms in the early 1920s, and he had gone on to make a great reputation, both in London and the provinces. Orchestral players never liked him much, and nor did BBC bureaucrats or arts administrators, while his fellow conductors resented his social success and his public fame, complaining that he lacked profundity in his interpretations, and (unlike Henry Wood) was increasingly conservative and insular in his repertoire. But choirs loved him, and so did concert audiences, with whom he established a remarkable rapport, and who invariably greeted his appearance on the platform with applause and cheers. Although his private life was lonely and tainted by tragedy, in public he was charming, witty, articulate and immaculately groomed. He was the confidant of politicians, duchesses and royalty; he loved smart parties, late-night dancing and seducing upper-class women; and he was an unrivalled showman on the podium. His nickname, ‘Flash Harry’, was a very different soubriquet from Henry Wood’s ‘Old Timber’: a double-edged acknowledgment, not only of his celebrity, but also of what his critics regarded as his limitations.
It took Sargent seven years to assert his dominance over the Proms, culminating in his creation of what soon became accepted as the ‘traditional’ Last Night. The closing concert in 1947 concluded with Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, and was the first final Prom ever to be (partly) televised. It provoked the biggest reviewer response of any television broadcast of the time. Sargent was the man of the hour. The following year, there was an all-British programme: Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Delius, Boughton and Walton, before Sargent concluded the programme with Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and Serenade for Strings, followed by ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and the Sea Songs. For this 1948 final Prom, some Promenaders queued for more than twenty hours so as to be able to stand as close to the orchestra as possible: and they did so as much for Sargent as for the music. When, at the end, he simply thanked everyone and announced a forthcoming series of winter concerts, he unleashed what one journalist described as ‘an almost hysterical outburst from the packed crowd’.
Writing soon after in the Radio Times, Sargent described the promenaders’ antics as being no more than a ‘mild rag’. Nevertheless, the BBC held an inquest, which recognised and regretted that behaviour was getting out of hand. Basil Cameron thought it might help to omit the repeat of the hornpipe, while Stanford Robinson thought the Sea Songs might be dispensed with altogether. Instead, it was Sargent who was dispensed with: he made his final appearance a fortnight before the 1949 season ended, and in an attempt to return to a more restrained atmosphere, Adrian Boult was entrusted with conducting the last night. But he lacked Sargent’s visible energy and showmanly rapport; he found the experience disagreeable, and he conspicuously failed to restore order. The following year, Boult was compulsorily retired as the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and after further lobbying from Edwina Mountbatten, Sargent eventually succeeded him. He now stamped his personality indelibly on the Proms, conducting the first nights, more than half of the concerts during each season, and the whole of what soon became the Last Night; and while others deplored the exuberance of an audience that Sargent came to describe as ‘my beloved Promenaders’ (why his?, Eric Blom asked), he himself welcomed and encouraged it.
Beginning in 1950, Sargent established and perfected the sequence of musical numbers which have ever since been regarded as constituting the traditional Last Night of the Proms. Yet the key episode in the evolution of this programme took place, not in the Royal Albert Hall, but in the Royal Festival Hall, where Sargent and Boult directed the dedication concert for the new building on 3 May 1951, in the presence of the king and almost the entire British establishment. The highlight of the evening was when Sargent conducted ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, followed by ‘Jerusalem’, and his own arrangement of ‘Rule, Britannia!’, scored for soloist, chorus, state trumpeters and full orchestra. Sharing the tastes of his father, King George VI was overwhelmed, later informing Sargent that he had never been so moved by any music. In 1953, which was coronation year, these three items were transferred wholesale to the Last Night, the second half of which was televised for the first time since 1947, and which Sargent conducted alone.
The following year, the Last Night settled into what has become its near immutable form. Sargent directed the second half, while the BBC Symphony Orchestra and massed choirs performed ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the Sea Songs (in abbreviated form), ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Jerusalem’, which were all on the programme together for the first time; and the conductor made a witty and appreciative speech which delighted the audience, and not only in the Royal Albert Hall. For as in all subsequent years, the second half was televised live. And as Sargent himself appreciated, it was television which was the essential ingredient in creating and projecting what now became an instant national tradition. On the wireless, the cheers, laughter, horns, whistles and popping balloons often seemed little more than a tiresome distraction from the music; on television, they became an integral part of the occasion. Indeed, it was only after the Last Night became an annually televised event that the Promenaders began to wear ever more outlandish clothes, and to bring their Union Jacks, streamers, bunting and all the rest of it. The result, as Sargent intended, was a television spectacle seen by millions, not just in Britain, but around the world.
In a decade when the impact of commercial television wasn’t felt until the very end, the Last Night soon became part of a new British calendar of public events, which the BBC fashioned and which brought the nation together in a succession of observances blending recreation, ritual, royalty and religion, including the Boat Race, the Cup Final, the Trooping of the Colour, Wimbledon, Remembrance Day, the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, and the Queen’s Christmas message (first televised in 1957). Into this patriotic schedule, the instantly ‘traditional’ Last Night fitted perfectly.
To many in Broadcasting House, however, Sir Malcolm was an impossible prima donna, more interested in his own reputation than in developing and nurturing the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Moreover, he lacked Henry Wood’s interest in contemporary music and his own taste stopped with Sibelius (who died in 1957) and Vaughan Williams (who died in the following year). From this perspective, the Last Night was merely the most self-indulgent and flamboyant expression of Sargent’s vanity, conservatism and insularity. But there was more to the falling-out than that. The BBC was a corporation, run and staffed by bureaucrats, yet it also needed charismatic figures to bring broadcasting alive and connect it with the public – something the administrators only grudgingly admitted. In 1957, the bureaucrats triumphed, and Sargent was abruptly relieved of his chief conductorship of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But although he was much shaken to be peremptorily dismissed, he could not be relieved of his dominant position at the Proms, of which he now became conductor-in-chief.
When Hugh Greene became the BBC director-general in 1960, he resolved to update and reposition the corporation by lessening its ties with and deference towards the establishment. Hence his appointment, very soon after he had arrived at Broadcasting House, of William Glock as controller of music. Glock was determined to shake up the Proms from what he regarded as their complacent conservatism, epitomised by the Last Night, which he had disliked as far back as 1945, when he had been writing for the Observer. ‘Nothing,’ he later remarked, ‘needs renewing more than a tradition.’ Accordingly, Glock brought in more orchestras and foreign conductors (he particularly admired Pierre Boulez), and extended the repertoire backwards to the Renaissance and forwards into the second half of the 20th century. This meant serious confrontation with Sargent, as Glock reduced the number of concerts that he was allowed to conduct, and also urged Sargent to limit himself to the first half of some programmes, leaving the second and more experimental part to younger conductors more in sympathy with modern music. Sargent was unhappy with these developments, by which he was effectively being sidelined. He made plain his dislike of intellectuals, modern music, Frank Sinatra and groups like the Beatles, and denounced ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ as ‘mads’ and ‘rotters’ in one Last Night speech.
Yet even in the mid-1960s, Sargent’s rapport with his ‘beloved Promenaders’ remained unbroken, bringing him the sort of affection and admiration that was withheld by many of his colleagues, and as long as he lived, his Last Night continued essentially unaltered. In September 1965, there was a special Prom to celebrate his 70th birthday; at the end of the season, the Promenaders loyally voted him their favourite conductor; and the first night of the 1966 series was celebrated as his 500th Promenade Concert (in fact, it was only his 473rd). No one in the audience would have guessed that this, Sargent’s 19th consecutive season, would be his last. On the eve of the 1967 Proms, he was struck down by illness, reluctantly withdrew from the first night, and conducted no concerts thereafter. He resolved to appear at the Last Night, however, and dressed in one of his immaculate suits, made a brief speech, by turns charming and witty, in his accustomed style, praising the BBC Symphony Orchestra and its ‘new and very gifted conductor Colin Davis’. It was a brave and bravura performance, but it was his last appearance in public, and within two weeks he was dead. At his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, the whole of the nave was set aside for the Promenaders.
In the Last Night of the Proms, Sargent had bequeathed to the BBC a Janus-faced legacy: in one guise, an iconic national ‘tradition’ with which the bureaucrats and administrators would tamper at their peril; in another, an embarrassing anachronism which was urgently in need of a makeover. Either way, the result has been that in the forty years since Sargent’s death, the issue of what the BBC should ‘do’ with or to the Last Night has been impossible to avoid, yet also very difficult to deal with. To many, the arguments in favour of change have been and still are overwhelming. The flag-waving of Sargent’s Last Night seems to many to be at best an uncomfortable and inappropriate display of deluded and escapist nostalgia, and at worst to pander to the xenophobia and racism of football hooligans and the far right. Meanwhile, and as planned and developed by successive BBC controllers of music, the Proms themselves have become more cosmopolitan and internationalist (with many orchestras and conductors from overseas), more innovative and experimental (with new works commissioned, late night concerts, and an unprecedented range of early and contemporary music), and use more varied locations (among them the Roundhouse, Covent Garden and Westminster Cathedral in addition to the Albert Hall). This in turn means that in recent decades the Last Night has become increasingly detached, both from the country’s contemporary circumstances and from the Promenade Concerts as a whole; and when it is beamed and broadcast around the world, it conveys a deeply misleading impression and image of both.
In 1969, William Glock and the new conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis, made their first effort at reform, by deleting ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ from the programme; but so great was the press and public outcry that in the end it had to be reinstated. In 1970, they attempted an alternative modification: Malcolm Arnold was commissioned to write a modern equivalent of Wood’s Sea Songs, which included audience participation and the traditional hornpipe, this time in 5/8 rhythm, demanding an exceptional facility in stamping from the audience; but perhaps for this reason, it did not catch on. Twelve months later, there was another new commission in the form of Malcolm Williamson’s ‘instant opera’, entitled The Stone Wall; but it, too, was not a success. And in 1972 there was a third attempt to produce a modern substitute for the Sea Songs: a work entitled Celebration, by Gordon Crosse; but this also failed to resonate with the audience in the Albert Hall or the public beyond.
By this time, Colin Davis had had enough of the Last Night: he had never enjoyed the occasion, either in terms of music-making or speech-making. With Davis’s departure, this first (and so far only) sustained attempt to move the Last Night into the post-Sargent era effectively came to an end. Thereafter, until 1990, it was presided over by a different ‘guest conductor’ each year. No chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was eager to take on the job, least of all Pierre Boulez, who would scarcely have been at ease with the Sea Songs written to celebrate the centenary of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. But it was also a matter of design: as more orchestras and conductors performed at the Proms, the BBC management had no wish that any individual should dominate the Last Night as Sargent and Wood had done. In this sense, the ‘depersonalisation’ policy, first sketched out in the late 1940s, was finally being implemented.
For successive BBC controllers of music, the Last Night had become a headache that had to be endured because it could not be cured. Robert Ponsonby, who followed Glock and held the position from 1972 to 1985, disliked the occasion so much that he habitually left the Albert Hall before the second half even began. But in Thatcher’s Britain, with the prime minister presenting herself as a latter-day Britannia and champion of ‘Victorian values’, Sargent’s Last Night remained largely unaltered, except for the addition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in the late 1970s, sung at the very end. Indeed, the programme had become sacrosanct: in September 1990 Mark Elder was abruptly replaced as the conductor because he had questioned the playing of such patriotic music when the Gulf War was about to be waged, at a time when ‘the public would be better disposed than ever to bellow their way through “Land of Hope and Glory”’. By then, Ponsonby had been succeeded by John Drummond, who saw the Proms through its centenary season of 1994 and its 100th anniversary the following year. Drummond shared Ponsonby’s ‘distaste’ for the Last Night: he regretted that it perpetuated the ‘jingoistic isolationism’ of the Sargent years, and later recalled that he moved ‘from tolerant enjoyment to almost physical revulsion as the behaviour of the audience inexorably took over from the music. It was no longer Britannia who ruled, but exhibitionism.’ As for ‘Land of Hope and Glory’: by the early 1990s, ‘few things sounded more hollow as “Make thee mightier yet” in the last years of John Major’s government.’
For his final Last Night, in 1995, Drummond decided to assert himself, and urged the Promenaders to leave their ‘balloons, klaxons and pop-guns at home’, and to listen ‘without extraneous noises’, since ‘the music and the speech must be heard.’ He also commissioned a new work from Harrison Birtwistle, originally intended for the more conventional and less high-spirited first half of the concert. But the finished piece necessitated elaborate seating changes on the platform for the orchestra, which could only be made during the interval. As a result, and for the first time ever, a major new, avant-garde work was premiered in the second half of the Last Night programme. It was entitled Panic, it was a concerto for saxophone and orchestra, it lasted a very long 18 minutes, and it was the composer at his most violent, abrasive and dissonant. The BBC was inundated with complaints that the piece was ‘a disgrace and an insult to the British public’, that ‘a wonderful nationalistic occasion had been turned into a terrible nothing’, and that the banned balloons would have sounded a great deal better than the blasted Birtwistle. But Drummond was unrepentant: ‘if the mummified corpse of the Last Night ever experiences any sort of reanimation’, he wrote in his autobiography, ‘Birtwistle’s Panic may have played its part.’ (It hasn’t done so yet.)
The lesson drawn from what many saw as the debacle of the Panic episode was: ‘mess with the Last Night and you risk scuppering a big part of audiences’ sense of what the Last Night of the Proms means.’ Drummond’s (frustrated) desire to reform the programme was not shared by his successor, Nicholas Kenyon, who assumed responsibility in 1996. ‘I am a “Let joy be unconfined” man myself,’ he told the press, and throughout his period in charge he took the Last Night in a different direction, aiming neither to calm down nor shock existing audiences, but to attract and draw in new ones. Indeed, by the time Kenyon assumed office, a blueprint was already available: during the early 1990s, there had been discussions about the possibility of staging a simultaneous open-air, crowd-pulling concert in Hyde Park. Drummond had been against it: partly because he feared it would reduce the demand for tickets in the Albert Hall and detract from the main event; partly because he regarded such an open-air concert as ‘the essence of mindless populism imposed on an event which is already dangerously rabble-rousing’; and partly because such a stunt seemed to him redolent of all that was most philistine about John Birt’s regime as BBC director-general. (The only Prom that Birt regularly attended during his years at Broadcasting House was the Last Night when, as Drummond disdainfully put it, he filled his box ‘with Conservative politicians and right-wing journalists.’)
But Kenyon embraced such proposals enthusiastically and in 1996 the Last Night was accompanied by a parallel live concert in Hyde Park. The first half of this ‘Prom in the Park’ was a separate programme, in which classical artists performed alongside names drawn from the worlds of popular and light entertainment. But thanks to new big-screen technology, there was a live link-up to the Albert Hall for the second half, so that thousands in Hyde Park could join in ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the Sea Songs, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Jerusalem’. In subsequent years, these ‘Proms in the Park’ were extended to Belfast, Swansea and Glasgow, thereby connecting the Last Night with the British public outside London in a wholly new way. This successful extension of the Proms has been accompanied by the insertion of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish melodies into the Sea Songs, although David Mellor took exception to ‘the addition of glutinous settings of Celtic ditties, from an entirely different aesthetic to Wood’s virile evocation of our nation’s glorious naval past’.
On two occasions in recent years, the programme of the Last Night has been more substantially altered, in response to sudden and unexpected events. In 1997, after the death of Princess Diana it was modified to include ‘Jupiter’ from The Planets, which contains her favourite hymn tune, ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’; and John Adams’s (unfortunately titled) ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’ was replaced by Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. But in 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, some more fundamental change was deemed necessary. Triumphalism would have seemed tasteless; and quite by chance, the conductor that night was the first ever non-Briton to be in charge, who also happened to be an American: Leonard Slatkin. Accordingly, the programme in the second half was substantially redesigned. Out went ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the Sea Songs, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and (once again) ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’, to be replaced by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, after which ‘Jerusalem’ was sung. For some critics, this necessary ditching of the patriotic finale seemed the long-awaited opportunity to change the established formula in a permanent way. But in 2002, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, the Sea Songs and ‘Jerusalem’ were all back, rather to Slatkin’s regret, and there they have remained for the rest of Kenyon’s tenure. Who dares predict how, or in what direction, the Last Night will – or will not – evolve under his successor?