The very first First Night was back in 1895, at London’s Queen’s Hall. It was certainly a generous programme, with conductor Henry Wood limiting himself to pieces by a mere 22 different composers. Liszt, Bizet, Chopin, Wagner and Saint-Saëns are among the names still familiar, Cyrill Kistler, Joseph Gungl and Tito Mattei rather less so.
15 soloists joined The New Queen’s Hall Orchestra; the audience was large and enthusiastic. ‘If the succeeding concerts… are as brilliantly successful as the first of the series,’ wrote The Guardian’s reviewer, ‘No one interested in the venture, either financially or artistically, will have reason to complain.’
By the time the BBC took over its first Proms season, the First Night – still under the baton of Sir Henry Wood – was still very much a multi-piece jamboree: 20 works in total. English music featured strongly, with pieces by Elgar, Parry, Quilter and Stanford all on the bill, while the evening’s most substantial work was Grieg’s Piano Concerto, performed by the Belgian pianist Arthur De Greef.
Three years after the BBC had taken over the running of the Proms, the organisation introduced its new ensemble to the great festival – for the first time, the First Night was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, taking over from the Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra.
For its debut outing, the BBC SO treated the Queen’s Hall audience to a lengthy programme of favourites by Stanford, Mendelssohn, Richard Strauss, Charpentier, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Parry, Dvorák, plus the Proms premieres of Raymond Huntington Woodman’s An Open Secret and Henry Clough-Leighter My lover, he comes on a skee. A new era had began.
With Queen’s Hall reduced to rubble by German bombers, the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in 1941. The indestructible Sir Henry Wood was still there though, conducting his 47th First Night. Nor was there any wartime rationing of the programme – the second half alone featured Rachmaninov’s Paganini Rhapsody, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, an aria from Handel’s Alessandro and, to round it all off, the overture to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman.
To celebrate the centenary of the Proms, this First Night truly was one to remember as Sir Andrew Davis conducted Mahler’s massive Symphony of a Thousand. The stage was fit to bursting, with members of a trio of cathedral choirs, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Philharmonia Chorus and the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus. As you can imagine, they really raised the roof!
In the summer of 2012, we commissioned Mark-Anthony Turnage to write us a fanfare to celebrate BBC Music Magazine’s 20th anniversary. Canon Fever is riot of multi-layered brass and percussion with ‘Happy Birthday’ cunningly hidden within its textures. And, of course, we were delighted when the BBC Proms decided to kickstart that year’s season with the piece’s world premiere performance, the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s brass section deserving a medal for their virtuosity – and enthusiasm!
What made this Prom particularly poignant was the impromptu rendition of the French national anthem to open the concert. Sakari Oramo led the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the anthem as a tribute to the victims of the Bastille Day attack, that had taken place the day before. The stage was lit in red, white and blue and the audience took to their feet. It was an incredibly moving gesture of solidarity for everyone there, and it is an evening the audience will struggle to forget.
If you want to attend the First Night of the Proms in person, we explain how to buy tickets for the BBC Proms here.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.