Our Proms Festival
This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
What is now known as the BBC’s ‘Proms’, is not only the UK’s largest concert festival but also the biggest of its kind in the world. It is now just passing the halfway mark. Its unique feature is that it mounts daily concerts for eight weeks from early in July, and in addition to regular evening events usually involving a full symphony orchestra – this year 30 internationally renown orchestras have been booked – it also attracts a galaxy of great performers, choirs and smaller instrumental ensembles brought in from around Europe and far beyond. There are performers from West Africa, Palestine, Mali and America to celebrate world music and jazz – and even a Dr. Who event. Running alongside all this is a series of lunchtime recitals, matinees and late-night concerts. Principal themes this year are the birth centenaries of Britten, Tippett and Lutoslawski, and the bicentenary of Richard Wagner, observed with the concert presentation of seven operas, including the whole Ring Cycle – a 26-hour star-studded concert marathon that no other organization could ever afford.
This unique festival has grown remarkably since it was begun in the summer of 1895 by the prodigious Henry Wood, then only 26 years old but with a keen sense of enterprise. His idea was to have the main body of the audience standing and free to walk around the hall. Programmes were to be ‘so attractive that nobody will want to miss a concert’ and always include musical ‘novelties’ as well as rising performers whom he would personally search out. Some of the composers featured in that first season have long since melted into oblivion, like Herbert Bunning, G.H. Clutsam and T.H. Frewin, but others alive at the time and in whom Wood had equal confidence survived better – like Jules Massenet, Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss, then in his still precocious youth at 30 years old. Henry Wood continued to devise programmes and conduct the concerts for the next forty years, being made a Companion of Honour shortly before his death in 1944.
In 1927 the BBC took over the organization and financing of the Proms, and it is that which has since allowed this annual summer music event to expand and assume the uniqueness for which it is famous. Nowhere else could so much be spent on the cost of bringing in orchestras and performers from around the world, commissioning new works from composers, and mounting such a sustained annual carnival were it not for the support of the BBC’s public purse, which provides both a live and a recorded presentation of every concert, and a selection of televised programmes throughout this short but compact season. The programmes also go into recorded storage so that repeat broadcasts can be scheduled through the less active winter season.
Performers are all delighted to appear on the ‘Prom’ platform and each will record their exhilaration in the presence of such a distinctive audience. For composers it is a valuable showcase too, and although there are always a few who melt away into the background of our musical radar, it is an invaluable privilege to have even a short piece included in one of the programmes, for the listening audience is estimated at many millions. One possible disadvantage for composers, and maybe performers too, is that many major events must be planned by the BBC team several years in advance. In these days of swift emergence, advancement and disappearance of reputations, planned programmes may seem jaded when they arrive, but the risk is worth it – as always in the arts. It is fortunate that there is some less distant flexibility in the planning allowed, but this year Wagner had to be planning a long time ago.
Promenading in the old Queen’s Hall was in the arena and gallery areas and cost a shilling – seats were of course more expensive – and continued even after the concerts moved to the Royal Albert Hall in 1941. Few may realize that the final night was first televised in 1947! Henry Wood is remembered not only in the traditional title of the summer festival, but also for his Fantasia on British Sea Songs, originally written for the Trafalgar centenary concert in 1905, and which is always performed on the final evening concert. We have a lot to thank that great conductor for.