‘Prom’ is short for ‘Promenade’. The name of the proms was initially the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.
Put aside, for a moment, the notion of classical music concerts involving sitting quietly in a seat and listening attentively for a couple of hours. In the 1830s, Philippe Musard, a composer and conductor, had a very different picture in mind when he invented the ‘promenade concert’ in Paris.
Keen to attract audiences for concerts beyond the social elite, Musard was canny enough to realise that this could be done by relaxing the format a little. By placing the orchestra in the centre of the room and taking away the seats closest to the stage, he created a space in which concert-goers who wanted to dance to the music could do so. Some danced, others simply listened, and others promenaded around the room, enjoying the music as they went.
In the early 1840s, Musard brought his idea over to London. The ‘Promenade à la Musard’ format instantly proved a hit, not least as tickets to stand were considerably cheaper than those for the seats, and others soon copied it. ‘The general freedom of circulation round the orchestra and from the gallery to the floor practically gives the shilling [ticket holder] the run of the house,’ enthused writer George Bernard Shaw.
Promenade concerts were still popular when the entrepreneur Robert Newman invited conductor Henry Wood to launch a new series at London’s Queen’s Hall in 1895. Over the years, though the official title remained the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, the famous summer concerts became known to most people as, simply and more succinctly, The Proms.