As we have just enjoyed the great American late summer tradition of Labor Day weekend, this time of year my mind always turns to a fantastic and very British summer tradition, “the Proms” or as it is more formally known, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. This is an eight-week summer season of daily concerts of orchestral classical music held annually in the Royal Albert Hall in central London. Unfortunately, as with many traditional events that have been interrupted due to Covid-19 this year, these are mired in controversy.
As a girl and young woman living in London, England, the Proms concerts were part of the background and soundtrack to my life, especially the grand finale, known simply as the ‘Last Night of the Proms’.
Thousands of people from all over the country flock to London to crowd around the Royal Albert Hall and into the large Hyde Park nearby, to sing traditional and patriotic British songs together. Millions of Brits sit around their TVs to sing at home. It is beautiful and moving, and all the more so from a country that generally does not make bold outward displays of its patriotism.
There is really no American equivalent to the ‘Last Night of the Proms’. The best description I can come up with is as a combination of the popularity and patriotism of the 4th of July with the beautiful music of the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington DC…only bigger and more widely watched.
So how did the Proms start? The first Proms concert took place in August 1895 and was the brainchild of the impresario Robert Newman, manager of the newly built Queen’s Hall in London.
His vision was to reach a wide audience by including more popular programming, less formality and keeping ticket prices low.
This was pretty revolutionary as he removed seats in the stalls – traditionally the priciest as they are closest to the orchestra – and let people stand in the ‘promenade’ he created to enjoy the concert for a low price (hence its name of ‘the Proms’). He wanted to end formal and regimented ways of presenting serious classical music and create a music festival for the people. Smoking and drinking were encouraged by audiences in those early days to make sure everyone felt welcome and relaxed.
“Promming’ is still the cheapest way to go to the festival, and people don’t need to book in advance.
Last year up to 1,350 standing places were available every day for the equivalent of about $8.
Even two World Wars could not stop the Prom concerts continuing although the annual festival of world-class performances by the world’s greatest classical musicians of the past, present and future were a little curtailed from 1915-18 and 1940-45 as the two World Wars raged.
Even when the original venue of the Queen’s Hall was bombed by the Nazis and destroyed in 1941, the Proms were moved to Royal Albert Hall in Kensington, London and have remained there ever since. In 1927, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began broadcasting the Proms concerts on the radio and later TV too, meaning that the music became even more accessible to everyone.
This year the Prom’s annual series of weekly symphony orchestra concerts is 125 years old.
So with the challenges of COVID-19 and the need to social distance, there are no audiences and no crowds for the Proms this year, and the role of the BBC in broadcasting the concerts on radio and TV has become even more important to the British public. At The ‘First Night of the Proms’ in July, socially-distanced members of the BBC singers performed in the Royal Albert Hall’s otherwise empty stalls, with the orchestra spaced out on the large stage. So, what was the controversy all about?
The most popular ‘Last Night of the Proms’, which takes place next week on September 12, traditionally ends with the singing of the patriotic songs ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’, with the audience and those watching at home enthusiastically joining in. The BBC originally decided to play instrumental versions only not just because of concerns about singers gathering with the threat of COVID-19 but also because the lyrics might potentially be associated with colonialism and slavery.
This led to outraged outpourings from thousands including public figures from actors to politicians, most of which vehemently declared that the pomp and pageantry of the Proms was a staple of the British summer. Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson intervened, stating that, ‘’I think it’s time we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions, and about our culture, and we stopped this general fight of self-recrimination and wetness. I wanted to get that off my chest.’’
Soon after this, the BBC made a U-turn by finding the solution of socially distanced singers so that audiences are free to sing along at home. There is a lot more information about the Proms at www.history.
com and about the controversy at www.bbc.co.uk I will leave you with a quote by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh – the Queen’s husband, who at age of 99 perhaps has the ability to see current events through the long term lens of history as much as anyone on earth. “Change does not change tradition.
It strengthens it. Change is a challenge and an opportunity, not a threat.”
God Bless America and Great Britain. Stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.