100 most memorable Proms ever

Jeremy Pound celebrates the centenary of the BBC by looking at some of the finest moments – plus a few not-so-glorious episodes – from its guardianship of the world’s greatest classical music festival

100 best proms ever
Published: July 12, 2022 at 11:00 am

The BBC turns 100 years old in 2022 – and as a result we can expect all manner of party poppers and hullaballoo when the big day itself arrives in October. For classical music fans, there is in fact quite a lot to celebrate, as the staging and broadcasting of performances has been at the heart of the Beeb’s activities right from Day One.

Advertisement

And most famous of these is, of course, the Proms. While the famous festival founded by Robert Newman and Henry Wood has been in existence for 127 years, around three-quarters of that has been under the watchful eye of ‘Auntie’ – a period that has seen Proms that range from joyful to doom-laden, from sternly serious to splendidly silly. Here, we present 100 of the most memorable…

The 100 best, memorable and downright quirky Proms ever

13 August 1927

Proms on bbc
Early leaders: Henry Wood in action. Credit: Getty Images

Auntie takes over. Though the BBC began life in 1922, it was five years later that the organisation took over the running of the Proms. Now 32 years old, the festival itself was very popular but not in the greatest financial health – with co-founder Robert Newman having died the year before, things were looking iffy. Keen to find a way to broadcast concerts from the Queen’s Hall, the BBC saw its chance… and pounced. ‘When I walked on to the platform for my first Promenade Concert under the British Broadcasting Corporation, I felt really elated,’ wrote conductor Henry Wood later. ‘I realised the work of such a large part of my life had been saved from an untimely death.’

24 August 1927

violinist Daisy Kennedy
Violinist Daisy Kennedy. Credit: Getty Images

After her performance of Brahms’s Violin Concerto grinds to a halt midway, soloist Daisy Kennedy blames a lack of rehearsal time. The BBC denies responsibility.

11 August 1928

Absent for the first year of the BBC Proms, the decorative fountain is restored to the centre of the Queen’s Hall for the new season. It continues to bring watery relief to hot and sweaty Prommers until 2011.

24 August 1928

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is performed in its entirety and with full chorus for the first time since 1902. From now on, it will become a regular part of each Proms season.

08 August 1931

Brought together as an ensemble the previous autumn, the BBC Symphony Orchestra makes its Proms debut on the First Night.

22 August 1931

Webern’s Passacaglia Op. 1 is performed for the first time in Britain, but the critics are largely sniffy about a work they regard as little more than juvenilia.

14 August 1934

Mooted in previous seasons, Berg’s Three Fragments from Wozzeck gets its Proms premiere, sung by soprano May Blyth.

19 September 1935

An all-Russian Prom includes the British premiere of Shostakovich’s First Symphony and an aria from the 28-year-old composer’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, a work dismissed in Pravda the next year as ‘a muddle instead of music’.

11 August 1938

A 24-year-old Benjamin Britten gives the world premiere of his Piano Concerto. ‘This is not a stylish work,’ grumps the Musical Times. ‘Mr Britten’s cleverness has got the better of him.’

1 September 1939

After conducting Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto and Sixth Symphony, Henry Wood announces that the rest of the Proms season is cancelled, as Britain is now at war with Germany.

27 June 1942

The Beeb is back. The BBC has not been in charge of every Proms season since 1927 – on the outbreak of WWII, the corporation made the decision to leave the 1940 and ’41 seasons to others as it hotfooted it out of the capital. When, with things a little quieter, it returned to the helm in 1942, a couple of notable changes had taken place. Firstly, with the Queen’s Hall having been obliterated by German bombs on the night of 10 May 1941, the festival had moved to a new home at the Royal Albert Hall. Secondly, on 16 August 1941, Henry Wood – not the keenest of orators – had given the first of the conductor’s speeches that would become a regular Last Night feature.

29 June 1942

In a show of defiance against the German invasion of Russia, Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony No. 7 receives its first performance in western Europe. The score has been smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm two months earlier.

24 June 1943

Vaughan Williams

Ralph’s vision of peace. The list of works that have had their first performance at the Proms is both long and distinguished. Few, however, have enjoyed such lasting popularity as Vaughan Williams’s extraordinarily haunting Fifth Symphony. The work of a composer who, even at 70, was doing nightly duty as a fire-watcher in the event of German air raids, its message seemed to many listeners to be one of a longed-for vision of peace. ‘Its serene loveliness is completely satisfying in these times,’ wrote conductor Adrian Boult to the composer, ‘and shows, as only music can, what we must work for when this madness is over.’

11 July 1943

With the government commandeering the Albert Hall for a meeting to honour China on 7 July, that evening’s Prom has to be postponed four days, making this the first ever Prom to take place on a Sunday.

29 June 1944

As German doodlebugs fall on London, a Prom including works by Bax, Franck and Sibelius brings the regular Albert Hall season to a premature end. Operations transfer to Bedford, where Proms are performed in front of an invited audience.

28 July 1944

An increasingly ill Henry Wood conducts Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in his last ever Proms appearance. He dies three weeks later, aged 75.

1 July 1945

Back at the Albert Hall, the First Night of the Proms’ 50th-anniversary season includes Walton’s Memorial Fanfare for Henry Wood and, aptly, Elgar’s Cockaigne (In London Town).

19 July 1947

Alongside Adrian Boult and Basil Cameron, the recently knighted Malcolm Sargent conducts the First Night, beginning a close association with the Proms that will continue for 20 years.

12 September 1947

The BBC cameras arrive at the Albert Hall, as parts of the Last Night are televised for the first time. Many observers are sceptical, and orchestra members struggle under the heat of the TV lights.

16 September 1950

Now the chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sargent takes solo control of the Last Night.

25 July 1953

Photo by Lambert/Getty Images

The cameras are coming… With the Queen’s Coronation on 2 June having led to a boom in the sales of television sets across the UK, the BBC decided that now would be a good time to bring the Proms to the small screen again, beginning with the 1953 First Night. Television had a natural showman in Malcolm ‘Flash Harry’ Sargent, who was positive from the outset, though not everyone was so keen. Many within the BBC didn’t want TV treading on radio’s patch, while others worried about the impact that bulky cameras might have on the experience of concert-goers. Both debates would continue well into the 1980s.

25 August 1953

Under John Barbirolli, the Hallé becomes the first orchestra from outside London to appear at the Proms. Barbirolli was at one point being eyed up as a possible chief conductor of the Proms, but chose to stay put in Manchester.

19 September 1953

Raucous shenanigans by the Promenaders in recent seasons – described by conductor Stanford Robinson as ‘hooliganism’ – lead to Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs being removed from the Last Night. The decision causes an uproar.

27 August 1955

The Albert Hall stage has a fresh-faced look to it, as the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain performs its first ever Prom, beginning what will become a near-annual tradition.

17 August 1957

The BBC celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Third Programme radio station by commissioning Ibert’s rowdy Bacchanale. The composer himself is in the audience.

28 August 1958

The Proms hosts its first complete Bruckner symphony since 1903, as the Hallé plays his ‘Romantic’ Fourth.

1 September 1959

In a ‘Masters of the 20th century’ Prom, Sargent conducts works by Sibelius, Stravinsky, Kodály and Shostakovich.

23 July 1960

The first Prom under the auspices of William Glock as the BBC’s controller of music is rounded off by Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 ‘From the New World’. For some, Glock will prove to be a disruptive modernist; to others, he is a much-needed breath of fresh air.

31 August 1960

Janet Baker performs an aria from Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage, the first of 36 appearances from the mezzo, who goes on to become a Proms favourite.

28 July 1961

How to make a point? One of Glock’s first commissions is Symphonies for piano, wind, harps and percussion by Elisabeth Lutyens, a ferocious critic of the ‘cowpat’ traditional school of English music.

21 August 1961

The Proms hosts its first complete opera performance, as John Pritchard conducts Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production brought over from Glyndebourne.

14 September 1961

Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony enjoys a surprisingly late Proms debut, played by the LSO under Meredith Davies.

22 July 1963

The hegemony of British conductors at the Proms comes to an end as the Swiss Silvio Varviso takes the baton for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Hungary’s Georg Solti and Italy’s Carlo Maria Giulini follow later in the season.

30 July 1963

The first ever Proms performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony proves such a hit that conductor Leopold Stokowski gets the LSO to play the entire final movement again as an encore.

1 August 1963

Fifteen months after its premiere in Coventry, Britten conducts his War Requiem. The soloists include soprano Heather Harper and tenor Peter Pears.

6 September 1963

Soprano Birgit Nilsson and bass Gottlob Frick join the party as Georg Solti leads a 150th-anniversary Wagner celebration.

13 August 1964

Berthold Goldschmidt conducts the LSO in the world premiere of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, a work left unfinished at the composer’s death but recently completed by Deryck Cooke.

4 September 1964

The Amadeus Quartet does its best to fill the vast spaces of the Albert Hall with a performance of the ‘Emperor’ String Quartet at the start of an all-Haydn Prom.

1 September 1965

Featuring Jacqueline du Pré in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Malcolm Sargent conducts a Prom celebrating his 70th birthday (a day that actually fell back in April).

17 August 1966

Shostakovich, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky are on the bill as the Proms welcomes its first ever overseas orchestra, the Moscow Symphony, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

17 September 1966

A 25-year-old Martha Argerich wows the Last Night audience with her Proms debut in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. It will be another 26 years before the Argentinian makes a return visit to the festival.

16 September 1967

A poignant farewell. Suffering from pancreatic cancer, Malcolm Sargent was too ill to conduct any Proms in the 1967 season. Nonetheless, come the Last Night, he appeared at the Albert Hall one final time to give a speech. ‘Next year, the 74th season of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts begins on July 20th,’ he told the audience. ‘I’ve been invited to be here on that night. I have accepted the invitation.’ He died on 3 October.

19 July 1968

The 1968 season opens with a Malcolm Sargent Memorial Prom, in which Colin Davis conducts works by Vaughan Williams, Walton and Elgar.

12 August 1968

After a first half featuring Thea Musgrave’s Concerto for Orchestra, John Tavener’s Alium and Don Banks’s Violin Concerto, the audience is asked to vote for which work they would like to hear again after the interval. Alium wins by a landslide.

21 August 1968

Emotions in Czech. On 20 August, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to put a stop to liberal reforms being carried out by the Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcˇek – 137 civilians were killed as the world looked on in dismay. When the USSR State Orchestra and Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich (above) took to the Albert Hall stage to play Dvorˇák’s Cello Concerto the next night, the occasion was highly charged and tinged with desperate irony. ‘That night will forever live in the memory of those of us who were there,’ recalls cellist Julian Lloyd Webber, who was 17 at the time. ‘Prague was a very important city in Rostropovich’s life – he met his wife Galina there – and here he was playing the Czech cello concerto. The tension was extraordinary, and while the performance was not his most technically perfect, towards the end it was utterly heartbreaking. When it came to the encore, he had tears rolling down his face.’

18 July 1969

Breaking with tradition, the Proms season does not open with the National Anthem. Instead, conductor Colin Davis launches straight into Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts in a Henry Wood Centenary Prom.

13 August 1969

As well as championing the new, Glock shows his willingness to push the boundaries at the other end of the timeline, as the Proms welcomes music from the 14th century: Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame, sung by the Ambrosian Singers.

28 August 1969

Some things go on too long. The 40-minute premiere of Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Blis has many audience members heading towards the bar well before the work is over. Others stick around to boo.

30 July 1970

Period performance pioneer David Munrow brings the Early Music Consort of London to the Proms for the first time.

13 August 1970

The music carries on well towards midnight as the BBC Symphony Orchestra is joined by rock band Soft Machine for the first ever Late Night Prom. An evening of premieres includes Mike Ratledge’s Out-Bloody-Rageous.

7 September 1972

The Albert Hall Arena is cleared to make room for Stockhausen’s Carré for four orchestras. It is played once, and then again for good measure.

29 December 1972

Yes, you have read the date right. An all-Stravinsky concert launches an eight-day Winter Prom season, reviving a tradition abandoned earlier in the century. The revival only lasts a year.

4 January 1973

The Berlin Philharmonic makes its debut visit to the Proms, playing Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies under Herbert von Karajan.

26 July 1974

As pre-Proms talks are introduced to the mix, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor (and composer) Pierre Boulez leads the way, giving five during the season, including one introducing this evening’s programme of Stockhausen, Berg and Wagner.

7 August 1974

Crisis looms when baritone Thomas Allen collapses during Orff’s Carmina Burana but – Oh, Fortuna! – budding opera singer Patrick McCarthy steps out from the audience to take over and save the day.

9 August 1976

The hair is here. Simon Rattle’s late night concert with the London Sinfonietta makes him, at 21, the youngest ever conductor at the Proms.

17 August 1977

An 88-year-old Adrian Boult conducts his 251st and last Prom, rounding off with Vaughan Williams’s Job, a work that the composer himself had dedicated to him.

18 August 1979

Although the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Viennese Night’ Prom is later watched by more than five million on TV, the BBC’s controller of music Robert Ponsonby decides not to repeat the format.

7 August 1980

After a musicians’ strike has wiped out the first 19 Proms, the season gets off to a very belated start, with soprano Jessye Norman joining the BBC SO for Mahler’s Fourth.

16 and 18 July 1982

Pleas to Ponsonby for a TV-friendly First Night fall on deaf ears, and the new season opens instead with Berlioz’s The Trojans, divided between two Proms on Friday and Sunday. Neither are televised.

20 August 1984

Odaline breaks new ground. It took nearly 90 years since Henry Wood first flourished his Proms baton, but at last the conductor’s podium was filled by someone with two X chromosomes, with Odaline de la Martinez stepping up to lead her own Lontano ensemble in works by Schoenberg, Gerhard and others. ‘I remember contacting the BBC and suggesting I do a programme there,’ de la Martinez later said in an interview. ‘They agreed, and it was only a few weeks before the performance that someone said to me, “Do you realise that you are the first woman to conduct a performance at the Albert Hall?” So I rang the BBC and they confirmed it!’

8 September 1984

Symphonies by Mozart and Bruckner mark the Vienna Philharmonic’s first visit to the Proms, under Claudio Abbado.

15 September 1984

The audience at the Last Night is invited to enjoy an extra-long interval so that TV viewers have time to watch Dynasty on BBC One before joining them for the second-half jollity at the Albert Hall.

14 September 1985

Last Night mezzo soloist Sarah Walker unbuttons the sleeve of her seemingly conventional white dress to reveal a Union Flag. A sartorial precedent is set.

24 July 1988

Leonard Bernstein is here to conduct his Songfest. The Prom’s kick-off time is 7.30pm. Bernstein arrives at the Albert Hall at 7.28pm. And relax…

15 September 1990

Andrew Davis takes over the Last Night at late notice after intended conductor Mark Elder has been sent to the naughty step, sacked for questioning the suitability of singing patriotic songs in the light of the impending Gulf War.

10 August 1992

Performed by Evelyn Glennie, the world premiere of James MacMillan’s percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel proves a major hit (excuse the pun).

18 July 1994

At the age of 68, Queen Elizabeth II attends her first ever Prom. Her Majesty is treated to an all-British concert from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Davis that includes Britten’s Violin Concerto, performed by Ida Haendel.

16 September 1995

Don’t Panic! The popular narrative goes that John Drummond, the departing controller of the BBC Proms who was never a fan of the Last Night, plonked Birtwistle’s discordant Panic for saxophone and orchestra into the concert’s second half specifically to wind up the TV audience tuning in for Jerusalem and all. Very drôle if so… but not true. Though countless calls of complaint were made to the BBC, that was not Drummond’s aim. Panic had in fact been intended for the first half but, as Birtwistle had composed a work nearly twice as long as commissioned and because it required large amounts of orchestral shifting beforehand, there was no choice but to put Panic at the start of the second.

22 July 1996

Lovers of music on a smaller scale head to the Royal College of Music on a Monday lunchtime as the new Chamber Music Proms series is launched with a performance by the Arditti Quartet. The series later finds a permanent home at nearby Cadogan Hall.

14 September 1996

Another Proms first, this time involving thousands of concert-goers and an open-air stage in Hyde Park. Hosted by Sheridan Morley, the debut Proms in the Park event on the Last Night proves such a success that it is soon extended to other cities across the UK.

10 August 1997

The Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin makes history by giving the first ever solo recital at the Proms. The seven encores that follow may well be a Proms record too…

17 August 1997

Westminster Abbey choristers in cassocks and ruffs, processing into the Royal Albert Hall and singing Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols on a swelteringly hot August afternoon? Absolutely.

12 September 1997

A moving performance of Verdi’s Requiem is dedicated to the memories of Princess Diana and Georg Solti. Tragically, Solti was himself initially scheduled to conduct the concert, but died the day before Diana’s funeral. Five minutes of silence follows the performance before applause begins.

10 August 1998

Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group’s Late Night Prom is brought rudely to a halt by the sound of rape alarms and leaflets fluttering down from up high in the Albert Hall. The perpetrators, who are protesting against what they believe is a cabal running British music publishing, disappear anonymously into the night.

7 September 1998

Here’s one we made earlier. Presented by Katy Hill, the first Blue Peter Prom marks the 40th anniversary of the much loved children’s programme.

10 August 1999

And… one, two, three, kick! One, two, three, kick! The Proms premiere of Bernstein’s Wonderful Town, starring Thomas Hampson, ends with Prommers doing a conga around the Arena.

15 September 2001

Barber replaces Britannia. Perfected by the likes of Malcolm Sargent and Andrew Davis, the conductor’s Last Night speech usually provides the chance to indulge in a few witticisms and rouse the Prommers into a state of even greater patriotic excitement. For Leonard Slatkin (above) in 2001, the task was very different. Coming just four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the occasion required a change of tone, not just in the speech but in the choice of music too. Out went ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’; in came Barber’s Adagio, Negro Spirituals from Tippett’s A Child of Our Time and the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. ‘We felt it was vital to respond to people’s mood at this sombre and difficult hour,’ explained Proms controller Nicholas Kenyon, ‘and at the same time to show that music can affirm our shared humanity.’

19 July 2003

Readers of the Radio Times are invited to vote for the repertoire of the Nation’s Favourite Prom. The winning works include Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, read here by Sir David Attenborough.

31 August 2003

For some concert-goers, learning how to turn off a mobile phone is an intellectual challenge too far, as Simon Rattle discovers at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He stops the Berlin Philharmonic mid-bar, and starts the piece again.

16 July 2004

After two years of silence during a major revamp, the mighty Albert Hall organ is ready to play again. And how. The 2004 season opens with the thunderous sound of Bach’s Toccata in D minor, played by Martin Neary, before the BBC Symphony Orchestra takes over for the Fugue, as orchestrated by Henry Wood.

3 August 2005

A family moment, as Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka perform together in a concert that includes the Proms premiere of Shankar Snr’s Sitar Concerto No. 1.

19 July 2006

Her Majesty the Queen makes a return visit to the Proms, this time for an 80th-birthday celebration. Among the works are A Little Birthday Music by Master of the Queen’s Music Peter Maxwell Davies and Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.

2 August 2006

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 6, a work created by Anthony Payne from the composer’s incomplete sketches, is given its world premiere.

4 September 2006

After their Beethoven Ninth Symphony Prom has been cancelled by a fire in the Albert Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Christoph Eschenbach come back the next day for a second go, this time playing Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s Fifths.

19 August 2007

The Albert Hall stage becomes a vibrant sea of yellow, blue and red, as Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra makes its lively Proms debut under conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

27 July 2008

Daleks come face to face with double basses at the inaugural Doctor Who Prom. Thankfully, no viola players or trombonists are exterminated.

30 July 2011

No sooner have the daleks been repelled than the Albert Hall is invaded by Vikings, courtesy of the Horrible Histories Prom. There are also visits from Henry VIII, a caveman and Death, among others.

1 September 2011

Though the concert itself goes ahead, protests by the pro-Palestinian group BDS London lead to the Israel Philharmonic’s Prom being taken off air.

13 July 2012

BBC Music Magazine plays its own little part in Proms history, as the 2012 season opens with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Canon Fever, a work commissioned by the magazine’s editorial team.

27 July 2012

Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony before haring off and across the city to appear as one of the Olympic flag bearers at the Opening Ceremony of London 2012.

22 July 2013

From Olympic rings to Wagnerian ones – Barenboim returns to the Proms to conduct Das Rheingold, following up with the rest of the Ring cycle in three further concerts over six days.

7 September 2013

Marin Alsop is the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms. ‘I feel certain that Henry Wood would see this evening as a natural progression towards more inclusion in classical music,’ says the American in her speech.

10 August 2014

As he steps onto the podium to conduct the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in Walton’s Henry V: A Shakespeare Scenario, Neville Marriner becomes, at 90, the oldest conductor in the history of the Proms. Marriner appeared in his first Prom, as a violinist, in 1963.

29 July 2015

Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong hosts a late-night Ibiza Prom, bringing the Balearics party vibe to Kensington.

5 August 2016

In one of the great Proms encores, violinist Pekka Kuusisto marks his debut by getting the audience to join him and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra leader Laura Samuel for a Finnish folk sing-along.

21 July 2019

The Sunday morning CBeebies: A Musical Trip to the Moon Prom includes Earth, a specially commissioned work by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, no less.

28 August 2020

Nobody home. In years to come, the date will tell its own story – a Proms season beginning at the end of August, with just two weeks of concerts to follow. Audience figures for that season – zero – will also reveal that the UK was still in the grip of Covid. With no-one in the seats or the Arena to applaud, the orchestral players did their best to fill the void by clapping the soloists, but it was a sorry sound. Tasked with conducting this strangest of First Nights, Sakari Oramo said he would treat the occasion as if he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra were in the recording studio. Together, they performed works that included, in the composer’s 250th-anniversary year, Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony.

30 July 2021

Though the season is slightly shorter than usual and a certain level of social distancing is still in place, the Proms returns to something close to normality. Dalia Stasevska, who conducted the previous season’s Last Night to an empty hall, is immediately called back to begin this year’s festivities.

Advertisement

What is your most memorable BBC Prom? Let us know at music@classical-music.com

Authors

Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.

Sponsored content