The Last Night of the Proms

Watched by millions on TV, it’s the most famous annual concert in classical music and now part of the British social calendar. Roderick Swanston explains how the Last Night of the Proms began

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The Last Night of the Proms
Sir Henry Wood
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So traditional has the Last Night come to seem that one might imagine it has been the same since Queen Victoria hummed ‘Rule Britannia’ to herself in the bath.

But like many traditions it is a much more recent invention.

Every one knows, as Henry Wood knew, that you have to end with a party, but what kind of party should it be?

Initially the Proms under Henry Wood and Robert Newman had been much more populist than nowadays. Somewhere in their background there had been experience of organising concert series involving promenading audiences (standing, or rather walking around – forbidden now), as well as popular ballad concerts. The latter lay behind the idea of having the audience join in singing, perhaps in preference to coughing or fainting. But the adventurousness and high-mindedness of Wood led to an expanding repertoire of classical music including new works by Richard Strauss, and cycles of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven symphonies. All the more reason to let one’s hair down at the last concert to emphasise that work was now done and it was time for a party.

The first element in the current Last Night sequence was Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs of 1905. Initially, this had been written as another piece in a series introducing the orchestra to new listeners: Wood often included an operatic fantasia at the beginning of concerts for this purpose. Each player who played a solo was named in the programme and newcomers to symphony concerts could learn how to appreciate the joys of concert-going. By the 1930s the Fantasia had become entrenched as the first piece in the Last Night. Too entrenched for some, as there was a move in 1953 to remove the Fantasia from the Last Night, a move which was bitterly opposed by some Promenaders. Who won is history.

The second element to appear (of course apart from the National Anthem that ended the concert and the series) was ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. This had been first performed in its instrumental form in 1901, when it was encored twice, and then conducted by Elgar in 1902 with the words as part of the Coronation Ode, for which they were written. It appeared again in 1945 in the Last Night as part of the victory celebrations marking the end of World War II. But it still was not enshrined as a permanent fixture at the final concert.

• Read more: Why is 'Land of Hope and Glory' performed at the BBC Proms?

The last piece to be part of the ‘traditional’ Last Night was Parry’s Jerusalem. A strange inclusion in some ways as it is not ‘patriotic’ in the way ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are, and there is an irony in the way half-crazed audiences filled with flag-waving euphoria shout the words ‘nor shall I cease from mental strife’. But, then, not knowing what Blake’s words mean when you sing them has become another British tradition not confined to the Proms.

All the jigsaw pieces were there quite early on, but it took a while for the finished Last Night to take shape, bed down and become a ‘tradition’. Enter Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Sir Malcolm was invited to take over the chief conductorship of the Proms in 1947, the same year as the Last Night was televised for the first time. Ducks and water have never been so conjoined. His flamboyant platform manner, complete on the Last Night with white carnation just like Henry Wood, and his desire and ability as an ambassador for classical music made him ideal.

Musically much more conservative than Wood, he saw the Last Night as a vehicle for reaching the widest audience with him as the triumphant captain of the ship. One controller of BBC’s Light Programme, on which the Last Night was broadcast, observed how close the admiration of Sargent’s audience was to that of Frank Sinatra’s.

Sir Malcolm insisted on the pattern of the Last Night. The concert must end with the sequence of Wood’s Fantasia with ‘Rule Britannia’, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 with ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, Parry’s Jerusalem, all for the audience to sing along under the ‘control’ of ‘Flash Harry’ whose greatest conducting gift had been marshalling vast choral forces. And then the speech.

Henry Wood had given the first Last Night speech in 1941 at a time when the Proms’ future was in some jeopardy. He gave another in 1942, almost by chance. But from 1947 with Sargent, it became a fixture: one that survived for him until 1967 when, despite the terminal cancer that prevented his conducting, he appeared on the Last Night during Colin Davis’s speech. Cheered by the Prommers to the rafters, he held (if memory serves me well) a ‘ticket’ for the 1968 season, one that everyone knew he would not be able to attend. It was a moving and courageous act.

The Last Night has become a warhorse, for some the enemy within the gates.

Quite early in Sargent’s tenure moves were made in the BBC to change the Last Night, but they were seen off by the now militantly party-loving Prommers with their fancy hats and, eventually, party-poppers and streamers. Successive controllers of the Proms despised it.

William Glock in 1969 tried to remove Elgar’s march, but howls of protest led to its last-minute reinstatement. In a spirit of ‘authenticity’ and homage, he restored Wood’s complete Fantasia, which Sargent had performed with cuts.

In this century John Wilson has had a go at re-scoring these and in 1970 Malcolm Arnold was commissioned to compose a replacement Fantasy for Audience and Orchestra where a five-time version of a horn-pipe left a disgruntled audience who couldn’t join in easily. It was never done again, just as Malcolm Williamson’s The Stone Wall, complete with composer ebulliently appearing in a Scottish hat, has gone.

After Glock, Robert Ponson allegedly did not always stay for the second half of the Last Night, and John Drummond despised it. Since then successive Proms directors have worked on the principle: if you can’t beat ’em join ’em, indeed outdo ’em. The Last Night, now acknowledged as not part of the ‘real’ concert series, has been enlarged to include the Proms in the Park.

But those for whom the Last Night is a jingoistic, flag-waving, bad-behaving binge got a brief moment when change seemed possible.

This was the destruction of New York’s twin towers in 2001. A sober atmosphere prevailed and British patriotism held hands with the US. The American National Anthem joined the British, and the concert contained the last part of Beethoven’s Ninth. The American conductor of the BBC SO, Leonard Slatkin, performed Barber’s Adagio for Strings.

But such an occasion could not be used as an instrument for change, even if the audiences wanted it, which it seems they don’t.

The Last Night might eventually change as Britain’s ruling of the waves or its world influence stretching ‘wider still and wider’ become more detached from reality. When mental strife really does come into play and the emptiness of the sentiments becomes apparent, then change will come. But will it be to join forces with the rest of the series? I doubt it.

This article was first published in the Proms 2007 issue of BBC Music Magazine

 

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