Premiere League

The Proms have a long and proud tradition of premiering works. Helen Wallace hunts out the great, the not-so-great and the truly startling

The BBC Proms (Credit: Getty)

Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Delius’s A Song of Summer, Kodály’s Dances of Galanta, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance Marches, John Ireland’s London Overture and John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil: just a handful of the 500 world premieres performed at the Proms over the last 100 years. Reactions have varied from the ‘serene loveliness’ that Sir Adrian Boult felt in 1943 at hearing Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, to the heckling that accompanied Birtwistle’s 1995 Panic!

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Embracing the new has never been an easy option, as Henry Wood complained in 1899: ‘The old, old story; as soon as novelties appear, box-office receipts disappear.’ But the conservative taste of the public never stood in his way. The works that were introduced to this country in the early years of the Proms concert speaks volumes for his vision:  Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade (1896), Mahler’s First Symphony (1902 – the first Mahler ever to be heard in Britain), Sibelius’s First Symphony (1903), swiftly followed by Tapiola and En Saga, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (1907) Debussy’s Iberia (1913), Bartók’s First Suite for Orchestra (1914) Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique (1914), Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead (1915), Janácek’s Wallachian Dances (1930) and Britten’s Piano Concerto, performed by the young composer himself in 1938.

It is hard now to imagine any of these works causing offence, but there was frequent resistance, as critic Felix Aprahamian recorded in his diaries of the 1930s: ‘I stood in the Promenade through a saccharine performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto… my patience being amply rewarded with Bartók’s provocative Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin. It turned some people white and speechless with hatred.’ One can feel the neophiliac champing at the bit to get through the Haydn-Mozart Proms that ‘tend to drag when one is waiting for the first two Debussy Nocturnes in part two.’ After an evening of Brahms on 15 August 1934 he is rewarded by ‘Honnegger’s Chant de Joie – well worth the effort. A Brahms audience found it all very bewildering and knew not whether to clap or no. Another pearl cast before swine!’ No one present will soon forget the uproar caused by Birtwistle’s saxophone portrait of Pan, Panic!  at the Last Night in 1995. But one suspects that Sir Harry was rather chuffed that 10,000 angry listeners jammed the BBC switchboard in outrage at this rude assault on their ears, or that the Daily Telegraph managed a leader on the horrors of contemporary music…

Henry Wood (Credit: Getty)

Prom tiddly Prom 

Though Wood had impeccable taste, many of the commissioned premieres, or ‘novelties’, during his tenure were lightweight truffles which have not withstood the test of time: one can’t help noticing that a certain Percy Pitt holds the world record for the number of Proms premieres, with no fewer than 11 new works programmed between 1900 and the early 1920s. It paid off when he was appointed the BBC’s director of music in 1924, but he can’t be accused of abusing his post, since his own Dance Rhythms Suite, Serenade or Coronation March do not appear after that date. Works with titles like Harlequinnade (George Clutsam) and The Vicar of Bray (Ernest Austin) dominate the novelty list before World War I, and spring up again in more professional dress in the 1920s when Armstrong Gibbs and Eric Coates stole the show, though now interleaved with the more serious work of Ireland, Moeran, Howells, Rubbra, Bax and Bliss. Lennox Berkeley provided some rigour and elegance to several works in the 1940s and 1950s, but even as late as 1957, long after the ethos of Darmstadt had swept through contemporary music, light, patriotic works such as John Gardner’s A Scots Overture and Malcolm Arnold’s cheerful Tam O’Shanter outnumbered any international masterworks in the premieres list.

The arrival in 1960 of William Glock as controller of music at the BBC marked a radical change of direction. Glock’s ambitions for new music soared, and he finally laid to rest the old notion of a commissioned ‘novelty’ as a fanciful amuse bouche between the true ‘meat’ of concert works. He made his mark immediately and in 1961 Alexander Goehr’s uncompromising Hecuba’s Lament  was featured. Glock introduced audiences to the young Turks of the day. The appearance of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Fantasia on an In nomine by John Taverner in 1962, Harrison Birtwistle’s first commission Nomos in 1968 and John Tavener’s In Alium in the same year reveal that Glock had identified the most distinctive talents among younger composers.

Glock’s successors Robert Ponsonby (1973-85) and John Drummond (1986-92) forged ahead with a wide-ranging stream of commissions from high-profile, often British composers. Robert Ponsonby was responsible for Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony in 1979, one of his finest works, and in the same year commissioned Nicholas Maw’s La Vita Nuova and Anthony Payne’s The Stones and Lonely Places Sing. Jonathan Harvey’s 1986 Madonna of  Winter and Spring can be seen as a classic in his oeuvre, while Drummond hit the jackpot in 1989 with John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, a luminous meditation for cello and orchestra, the recording of which went on to be a big seller. In 1990 a young Scot unleashed the highly-charged The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie onto an unsuspecting Proms audience: James Macmillan had arrived. Drummond followed this by commissioning him to write
a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie. Veni, veni Emmanuel  was the result, a work which has received a staggering 350 performances worldwide – surely the most successful Proms commission ever?

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie has performed MacMillan's Veni, Veni Emmanuel all over the world. (Credit: Getty)

Lasting monuments

Of course, the success of a work cannot only be judged on its international take-up alone, and there have during the last 20 years been some ‘slow burn’ premieres of great artistic and historical significance. Maw’s wonderful, sprawling Odyssey (1987) must be one of the longest, Lutoslawksi’s Chantefleurs et chantefables (1991) one of the most beautiful, and Saariaho’s glacial Graal Theatre (1995) signalled a major new force in European music. Mark Anthony Turnage’s Some Days (1991) introduced a highly original voice to Proms audiences, as did the devilishly clever construction of David Sawer’s Byrnan Wood, commissioned for the 1992 season. Two elderly composers, long silenced, were encouraged to enter an Indian summer by the Proms. One was Minna Keal who, in 1989, saw her Symphony premiered in her 80th year, after a composing gap of 46 years. The other was Berthold Goldschmidt, who had given up composing in the 1950s in part due to the discouragement of the BBC itself. In the late 1980s his music received recognition and in 1996 his Passacaglia  was given its UK premiere 70 years after its first performance. Sadly, he died that same year, and never got to hear Deux Nocturnes, the work that he had been commissioned for the 1998 Proms.

There has been a distinctively international flavour to Proms world premieres during Nicholas Kenyon’s tenure as Proms controller: Elliott Carter’s Adagio Tenebroso and Steve Reich’s Proverb from the US, the Italian Berio’s Shofar, the Finn Magnus Lindberg’s dizzying Feria, Austrian HK Gruber’s Aerial for trumpet and orchestra and, from Greece, Xenakis’s Sea Change – all represent the crests of current waves in contemporary music. Kenyon singles out John Woolrich’s Oboe Concerto and Julian Anderson’s glittering Stations of the Sun as favourites, and the latter has already had 24 performances in seven different countries since its 1998 premiere. In 2002, BBC Music Magazine commissioned its own Proms premiere in celebration of its tenth birthday, and Hail! Bright Cecilia was played on the Last Night in the presence of its seven composers. This year’s company looks as diverse and distinguished as ever. From Morgan Haye’s provocative Strip, to Bent Sørenson’s dramatic Little Mermaid and works by the Korean Unsuk Chin and Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen there are sufficient ‘novelties’ to keep Henry Wood dancing in his grave. 

This article was first published in the Proms 2005 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

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