Since the BBC Proms started in 1895, every season has concluded with a celebration of the past few weeks of music making in the famous Last Night. Although the patriotism and flag-waving that we associate with the Last Night these days may be far from Henry Wood’s memories of the first final concert, the Prom has always been a musical extravaganza. Here are the best Last Nights that stand out in the Proms’ history.
1895: the first Last Night
The very first Last Night of the Proms was held on Saturday 5 October 1895 in the Queen’s Hall, London. Featuring music by 27 different composers from Hubert Parry and Arthur Sullivan to Richard Wagner and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the programme was a truly multi-national affair.
Although the Prom lacked some of the pomp and circumstance we now associate with it, it certainly had a light-hearted atmosphere, finishing with Hermann Louis Koenig’s Post Horn Galop before the British National Anthem, ‘God Save The Queen.’
1941 Proms: wartime resourcefulness
During the Second World War, the Queen’s Hall was destroyed in an intense air raid. Very little remained, but the bust of Sir Henry Wood did survive and was rescued from the ruins. The Proms were moved to the Royal Albert Hall, where Sir Henry too would reside each season.
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The Last Night on 23 August 1941 was scheduled to start at the earlier time of 6pm to allow patrons to get home before the war-time black-out. This was also the first year to include the closing speech from the conductor.
1953 Proms: Last Night traditions take hold
The Last Night of the Proms on 19 September 1953 was the first to feature Parry’s setting of William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’, now a regular fixture. By this time the concert had started to resemble the we know now.
The prom also included Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major (‘Land of Hope and Glory’) and Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia!
1967 Proms: Malcolm Sargent says farewell
Malcolm Sargent was chief conductor of the Proms from 1948 until 1967, the year in which he fell too ill to conduct. However, he still made it onto the podium to make what would be his final Last Night speech, an appearance that met a huge round of applause. He died seventeen days later on 3 October.
1995 Proms: it doesn’t go to plan
Sir John Drummond commissioned a piece from Harrison Birtwistle for the first half of the Last Night but Panic was performed in the sacred second half! The phones were jammed.
1996 Proms: go outdoors
Nicholas Kenyon took the Proms outside to a different audience. The Last Night now appeared like a pop concert in the park. Proms in the Park was born
2001 Proms: a more subdued affair
In 2001, the Last Night took place on 15 September, just four days after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon. A more subdued night than usual, respect was paid to the US with a moving performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and a rendition of the The Star Spangled Banner. The audience wore black arm bands and the sea of red, white and blue included the stars and stripes of the US flag.
2013 Proms: a female conductor takes to the podium
History was made at the 2013 Last Night of the Proms when Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the iconic concert. During the Last Night speech, Alsop took the opportunity to highlight the need for equality within classical music and give some inspiring words to young people and aspiring women conductors.
In a particularly poignant moment she said: ‘I am pretty shocked that it’s 2013 and there can still be firsts for women.’ She concluded: ‘I want to say to the young women out there, and as I say to all young people out there, believe in yourselves, follow your passion and never give up because you will create a future filled with possibility.’
2020: no audience
In 2020, the Last Night of the Proms went ahead for the first time without an audience in the Royal Albert Hall, due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was Dalia Stasevksa’s first Last Night as principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and it was a year when all eyes were on the BBC Proms, following online furore about the inclusion of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests earlier that year. Rather than having a full choir, the Last Night songs were performed by a small group from the BBC Singers, with audiences watching at home invited to submit videos of themselves clapping and cheering to be shown on the night.
Original text by David Quinn and Roderick Swanson