The Proms have a longstanding tradition of commissioning and premiering new music. We take a look at six important pieces that received their first performances as part of this great British classical music institution.
1. Schoenberg – Op. 16, Five Orchestral Pieces (3 September 1912)
Proms founder and conductor Henry Wood was taking a risk by giving Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces its world premiere in the 1912 season. Although the composer’s name was starting to be internationally recognised, his decision to abandon tonality in 1908 meant that his works still had the power to provoke confusion and outrage.
The Five Orchestral Pieces were written in the summer of 1909, as Schoenberg was undergoing the first of several musical and personal crises. This two-year period of artistic expressionism (during which he also painted a series of macabre paintings or ‘visions’) is reflected in the tense, tumultuous and, at times, violent score.
The work presented (and continues to present) a significant technical challenge for orchestras, but Wood, with admirable foresight, told players to: ‘Stick to it, gentlemen! This is nothing to what you’ll have to play in 25 years’ time!’
Audiences may have hissed this first performance, but Wood was so impressed that he asked the composer himself to conduct the piece again the following winter.
2. Vaughan Williams – Symphony No. 5 (24 June 1943)
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s fifth symphony was his main wartime composition, though some of the major themes and ideas appear to have been borrowed from his then-unfinished opera A Pilgrims’s Progress (the composer had been slogging away at the work for 30 years, but by the early 1940s appeared to have abandoned it).
The published symphony bore an ascription that read: ‘Dedicated without permission to Jean Sibelius.’ Sibelius, by all accounts, was extremely flattered, writing: ‘This Symphony is a marvellous work… the dedication made me feel proud and grateful.’
Vaughan Williams himself conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the symphony’s first performance, which took place at the height of World War Two. The symphony was received well by wartime audiences, who may have found comfort in the work’s melodic, uplifting and quietly hopeful themes.
The following year, the Proms season would end early due to fears over the glass ceiling of the Royal Albert Hall being damaged by bombs during concerts.
3. Mahler arr. Deryck Cooke – Symphony No. 10 (13 August 1964)
Gustav Mahler never finished his tenth symphony. The composer succumbed to bacterial endocarditis (invariably fatal in the days before antibiotics) at the relatively young age of 50.
The ‘curse of the ninth’ was to blame, according to Schoenberg, who wrote: ‘It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.’
When Mahler died in May 1911 he left behind a symphony that was basically complete but mostly unorchestrated (even the instrumentation wasn’t defined) and as such unfit for performance.
The version most widely performed today was completed by Deryck Cooke, whose revised realisation was premiered at the Proms in August 1964 by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Berthold Goldschmidt.
The symphony has been described as Mahler’s most dissonant work – perhaps a reflection of the ill health the composer was suffering at the time of its composition and his troubled relationship with his wife, Alma.
A descending figure at the close of the piece is annotated ‘Almschi!’ – a declaration of love and an anguished plea to an unfaithful spouse.
4. Birtwistle – Panic (16 September 1995)
When Henry Wood and Robert Newman started their annual series of Promenade Concerts in 1895, it was with the intention of educating as well as entertaining audiences. The Proms, therefore, have a longstanding tradition of programming popular repertoire alongside a mixture of more serious and contemporary music.
While there are always a couple of audience members who grumble about the more unfamiliar pieces of modern repertoire, few can have been prepared for the outcry that followed the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic in 1995.
It was the first time that a contemporary piece of music had been played at the Last Night of the Proms and for some, the invasion of the traditional setting was simply too much. The BBC received thousands of complaints, while the piece was branded a ‘horrible cacophony’ by the Daily Mail and ‘unmitigated rubbish’ by the Daily Express.
Panic has since been hailed as ‘one of the most dazzling and dynamic works of the last 20 years’ and has been performed around the world. It celebrates the Roman god Pan with a solo tenor saxophone line that runs amok over the orchestra, who represent the ‘ecstasy and terror’ of animals displaced by the god as he plays through the night.
5. Payne after Elgar – March No 6 from Pomp and Circumstance (2 August 2006)
No – not that march. The tune otherwise known as ‘Everyone’s secret favourite part of the Proms’ is the first march from Edward Elgar’s famous series and actually premiered in Liverpool two days before its performance at the Proms on 21 October 1901.
Elgar never finished the sixth march from Pomp and Circumstance, but he did leave a series of sketches – evidently liking some of them, because he wrote ‘JOLLY GOOD’ in cheerful letters across the top. But the march remained incomplete until three further pages of score were discovered in a church library.
Elgar expert Anthony Payne combined the sketches and score to create a performing version that received its premiere at the Proms in August 2006. Although the new march was similar in length to the others, it was of a markedly different mood.
As the then-Proms Director Nicholas Kenyon said: ‘It hasn’t come out at all like the end of Hope And Glory. It’s not as exuberant, is more sombre and has a wistful quality.’
6. 2012 – Turnage – Canon Fever (13 July 2012)
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Canon Fever was commissioned by BBC Music Magazine in 2012 to mark our 20th birthday. The three-minute fanfare opened the Proms season in July that year.
The title is a play on words, combining the terms ‘cabin fever’ and ‘cabin fodder’ to reflect the cacophonous atmosphere of an orchestra playing in rapid canon.
Before the premiere, Turnage said: ‘What I didn’t want to write was a very traditional idea of a fanfare… I thought, ‘I’m going to do something that’s quite a bit wild and a bit virtuosic’.
The piece certainly gives ample opportunity for the brass section in particular to display their virtuosic side, as can be heard in this live recording of the world premiere.