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We know what’s good for you

Criticised by both right and left, the Proms are nonetheless an annual institution that stays true t

Everybody loves the Proms. Or hates them. And even then, no one seems able to agree about why. When Margaret Hodge, the former culture minister but one (and this barely over a year ago), sought to question their value on the grounds of the elitism and narrowness of ethnic profile she perceived in the audiences, she was immediately, and roundly, shouted down. Even the Prime Minister – on account of whose then ubiquitous campaigns to promote the concept of Britishness she made her remarks – steadfastly declined the opportunity to back her up.

Such arguments, however, contain nothing new. Above and beyond the controversial bombast and gung-ho patriotism of the Last Night, upon which the extremes of opinion tend to focus, the fault-line dividing populism from elitism has shown throughout the Proms’ 115-year history. Indeed, these tensions have often been most intractable during the Proms’ most successful periods. It was under the stewardship of William Glock (a one-time music critic at the New Statesman) in the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, that the festival acquired the international status it enjoys today, attracting conductors such as Leopold Stokow­ski, Carlo Maria Giulini and Georg Solti. Yet, at the same time, Glock’s efforts to modernise the festival by incorporating new works from the European avant-garde into the standard repertoire met with sustained resistance – and from nowhere more fiercely than the imposing and universally loved figure of his chief conductor, Sir Malcolm Sargent.

Glock’s efforts relate to an attempt to reinstate the founding principles of the Proms. The original idea for a series of summer concerts in the Queen’s Hall, with affordable tickets at a shilling a pop, came from an impresario called Robert Newman. His reputation has been eclipsed by that of Henry Wood, the man he appointed as his chief conductor – on something of a whim, it must be said, for Newman had not heard Wood conduct at that point. But it was Newman’s idea that the concerts should “train the public in easy stages – popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music”.

When Wood accepted the inaugural commission in 1895 it was the orchestra, not the audience, that was his main problem. Classical music in London was at perhaps its lowest ebb. Most music-making was amateurish: none of the permanent professional orchestras with which the capital now teems existed, and musical taste was provincial and unadventurous. Yet by the time Wood died 50 years later, three weeks after conducting his final concert on 28 July 1944, the capital was on the verge of unimagined riches: it would soon boast five full-time professional symphony orchestras, with a public appetite to match.

In some senses, London and the Proms have never looked back. The slightly aggressive branding of the BBC notwithstanding, today’s seasons seem closer than ever to Wood’s vision of “truly democratising the message of music, and making its beneficent effect universal”.

This year, for the first time, there will be more than 100 concerts, including 12 late-night Proms and eight chamber music events at Cadogan Hall. The concerts no longer make a profit, as they often did in Wood’s day (the BBC now runs the season at a loss of about £5.5m), but keeping standing tickets as affordable as ever at £5 (£2.50 for under-16s) brings new and noticeably younger audiences to concerts which, at the height of the London summer, regularly fill the 5,800 places in the Royal Albert Hall. With several Proms in the Park events attracting much greater numbers still, in addition to the nightly radio and frequent television broadcasts, there seems little doubt that Wood’s musical “message” is being spread as widely as the season’s founders could have wished.

That said, there are important ways in which the musical and cultural landscapes of today bear almost no similarity to the ones shaped by Wood’s careful programming. While the appetite for classical music is still strong, Victorian certainties that exposure to musical “high culture” would prove morally beneficial to the public have all but disappeared.

Similarly, Newman’s sense of a canon of “classics” has given way to a jostling array of different “musics”, all understood to be of equal worth – although some are still regarded as decidedly more equal than others. A glance through the current programme shows the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain taking a prominent billing beside the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic. Equally, even though the season as a whole is rich with symphonic and other works of the “masters”, this year will also witness a Bollywood Prom (part of a weekend programme devoted to music from the Indian subcontinent) and a Darwin-themed “extravaganza” for – you guessed it – kids.

“Fortunately the Promenade audience has now been educated to such sound and liberal tastes that it is possible to organise programmes of a very high order and include a good many novelties.” Thus wrote Newman and Wood in their 1913 prospectus. Even though only remnants of this worthy “We know what’s good for you” ethos remain today, the question of the Proms’ duty to perform new music is as much a sticking point as ever.

John Drummond, who was Proms director from 1986 to 1995, and later confessed to feeling a “physical revulsion” at the usual antics of the season’s closing concert, decided to begin the second half of his final Last Night with Panic, an uncompromising new commission from Harrison Birtwistle (the title refers to the deity Pan, as well as the anticipated response of the audience). Predictably, all hell broke loose on the BBC switchboard. And yet works

by Birtwistle – who along with Peter Maxwell Davies celebrates his 75th birthday this year – continue to feature regu-larly in the season; they are among 100 new commissions in total over the past 12 years.

If the Proms, by definition, are a popular concert series, it goes without saying that the season organisers have a duty to popularise. Yet at the same time, in connection with Wood and Newman’s aims and with its latter-day public service financing, there is also clearly a duty to “inform and educate” and to “entertain”, in Lord Reith’s coinage.

For Roger Wright, embarking on his second season as director of the Proms, the answer to this conundrum turns out to be obvious. The astringent quality of much contemporary music may challenge established concert audiences, well schooled in the classics. But for less seasoned audiences, attracted to the Proms by the cheap tickets, new music is less of a problem.

“The less problematic your expectations,” as Wright puts it, “the fewer problems will result from their being disappointed.” In this way, he suggests, the positive responses of less experienced audience members may well play a role in smoothing the path for others.

Today’s students may not be what Wood and Newman had in mind when they decided to “create an audience” for music. But as far as “democratising the message of music” is concerned, that, at any rate, seems to be working just fine.

The Proms run from 17 July to 12 September. For more information and concert timetables visit:
Guy Dammann teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama