Oxford, 6 September 2013
In 1941 when she was twelve, my friend Christine was taken to the Proms. She fainted and had to be carried out. She had been a Prommer you see (“to prom” means to stand through the concert, for about two hours) and the faint was due to the heat compounded by excitement, for it was an event she had been looking forward to for months. This happened in the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, a stone’s throw from the BBC. Christine had a narrow escape, for the building was blitzed in the same year.
With that building flattened, the Proms returned to the Royal Albert Hall, a sort of sat-upon dome of a building in Kensington, with a notoriously rotten acoustic. (You will be happy to know that this has been much improved with huge saucers hanging upside down from the ceiling like inverted mushrooms.)
One can’t help loving the old Albert Hall. Built in 1871 with the proceeds from The Great Exhibition, it needed 8 million red bricks quite apart from anything else. Queen Victoria was so moved at the opening ceremony she was unable to utter and the Prince of Wales had to make the speech. The whole area is like a shrine to dear Albert who had died ten years earlier. The buildings are huge and handsome and if you like that sort of thing, there’s lots of it.
Plus, of course, the Albert Memorial. This edifice, not unlike something from a Gothic church, encloses Albert, seated, reading the catalogue of the Great Exhibition he inspired and helped to organise. The Memorial, designed by George Gilbert Scott, was surely Victoria’s initiative; it is 176 feet high (54 metres), so unless one has binoculars you can’t actually see the detail. The expense was colossal and was met from the public purse.
One would hate to see these tributes to High Victorian taste demolished, whatever one’s opinion of them. My school was nearby, in a stuccoed Edwardian building, a whole road of them now split into flats, or taken over by architects or doctors’ practises, choice nursing homes or prep schools. We trotted up past the Memorial to Kensington Gardens on Mondays and Thursdays to practise our lacrosse tackles with girlish venom.
It’s the last night of the Proms on September 7th so summer must be over, and autumn on the threshold. Always held on a Saturday, this concert is the climax to a series of, on the whole, fabulous music played by many of the best orchestras and soloists. The series began on July 12th and have been broadcast “live” on BBC Radio 3. I listened to most of them and BH watched some that were televised. Barenboim’s semi-staged Ring Cycle and the discovery of Lutoslawski have been my own high points, oh and lots of Britten. BH enjoyed the Sibelius, Prokofiev, and John Wilson’s Hollywood Rhapsody Prom. There have been children’s Proms on Saturday afternoons, and Late Night Proms for the serious jazz lover, chamber music or more outré oeuvres.
The Last Night is literally festooned with traditions and ritual, accretions added and improved upon since the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts began in 1895.The crowning of the founder’s bust with a laurel wreath for example, and ribbons and favours entwined around the conductor’s podium. There is much hooting, view halloo’ing, catcalls, whistling and similar interruptions to the performance, as well as the customary “heave-ho” whenever the piano is trundled on or off the stage.
Flags, balloons and other totems wave and hover above the Prommers, who stand on the floor of the auditorium, just in front of the orchestra. These stalwart devotees, many of them music students, have queued for hours for the doubtful privilege of standing throughout the concert – hopefully not passing out like Christine. There is a delightful camaraderie among them – some of whom have been coming for years. Marriages have been made on the floor of the auditorium. (Meet your Mate mid Mozart, Mendelssohn and Messiaen perhaps?)
The Prommers add enormously to the ambience of the concerts, for apart from the Last Night, when serious appreciation is allowed to lapse, they are the heart of the series one might say: dedicated, noisily appreciative and raptly attentive.
The programme for the Last Night always follows a certain pattern. The first half is slightly more serious with, this year, Wagner, Vaughan Williams and Handel in the mix. Proceedings let rip after the interval. Among the favorites to singalong with there will be You Will Never Walk Alone, (possibly overlaid with shouts of “Come on Liverpool!” for it’s also a sporting anthem borrowed from Carousel) and the Londonderry Air. Spirits rise with patriotic fervour for Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no 1, Land of Hope and Glory, Arne’s Rule Britannia, and finally Parry’s arrangement of the much-loved Jerusalem. The conductor has to make a speech, preferably short and witty, and will receive a bouquet.
This year for the first time at the Last Night, the conductor is a woman, Marin Alsop. Hugely popular I am sure she will more than cope with the boisterous enthusiasm of the Prommers – and the other 5,500 members of the audience. Crowds watching on monster screens in Glasgow, Belfast, Caerphilly and Hyde Park will join in the singing and swaying and even if it’s raining, an atmosphere of togetherness, goodwill and jollity will no doubt prevail.
It’s one of those hallowed British customs and everything must stay the same. A move to change anything is fiercely resisted, as when it was suggested that Land of Hope and Glory should be thrown out for being too jingoistic, and Jerusalem scrapped for being too godly. I ask you!