My earliest memory of going to concerts is not of music, but of vomit. When I was a child, we weren’t well-off enough to go to the Royal Opera House or the Royal Festival Hall, but several times in a summer we could manage an adult and a child ticket at the Proms. As the last piece on the programme drew near its end, we would sit teetering on the edge of our seats like sprinters on the blocks, ready to make the breathless dash down Exhibition Road, heading for Charing Cross and the last, slowest train out of London to Kent that night.
Our musical excursions took place on Friday evenings, so the train was always crammed with office workers and City slickers who had been celebrating the end of yet another week. Once, two people in our carriage threw up before the train had even jolted beyond the M25. One of them was the man sitting at the table opposite me. Helpfully, his vomit went all over the crinkled copies of the Evening Standard on the table between us, so after he got off at West Malling it was easy for my mother to scoop up the whole mess and put it underneath the seat he had vacated. We had heard Holst’s Planets that night, a piece that has always seemed a little green about the gills to me ever since.
It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I worked out why I was only ever accompanied by one of my parents on these outings. Two tickets still cost less than three, even if you sit near the ceiling. Yet long before I realised this, the whole enterprise still felt precarious, like every time we nearly missed a train or got sick on our shoes one or both of my parents might decide they had had enough. Of course, I know now how lucky I was to have parents who would give up their time and money and comfort in order to indulge my childhood obsession with symphonies, and that we lived within a couple of hours of a city where the best music in the world can be heard. That said, I still remember the savage fear that gripped me, aged thirteen, when my father fell asleep during the overture of Verdi’s Nabucco. I spent the next three hours convinced I would never hear it again because it had bored him into unconsciousness.
At the Last Night of the Proms, just after the interval, a laurel wreath is placed on the bust of Henry Wood. I watch this on television every year and get a bit tearful as the audience in the hall applauds. It’s an awkward little ceremony that happens right before the flag-waving portion of the concert and is a reminder of the origins of the Proms, before the series grew to encompass over a hundred concerts in eight weeks and feature musicians from all over the world.
When the Proms began at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place in 1895, Henry Wood was there to set the tone for what would come – as conductor, but also as programmer, enshrining early on the low ticket prices, informal atmosphere and commitment to mixing contemporary and underperformed works with popular choices that still characterise the series today. The bronze bust of Sir Henry was recovered from the bombed ruins of the Queen’s Hall in 1941, and even though the man himself died in 1944, he still watches over every season from his perch below the organ.
On the cover of the New Statesman in January we called the elitism of Britain’s cultural establishment “the class ceiling”. It’s a natty expression that conveys the many different pressures keeping people who aren’t from privileged backgrounds from getting involved in the arts, as either performers or patrons. A hundred years ago Wood used the Proms to combat cost and snobbery, but now to those barriers we have to add the high cost of living, the withdrawal of public funding, the London-centred life of the UK and the nebulous-yet-pervasive sense that classical music is a preserve of the posh.
In a speech at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards in May, the Royal Opera House music director, Antonio Pappano, spoke of his fear that while Britain has historically been excellent at training the next generation of musicians, we are poor at training audiences. He’s right – if it had not been for my early experiences at the Proms, chances are I would not have grown up into someone who saves up for concert tickets, and there must be thousands of others like me. The way ticket prices and sponsorship deals are going in the arts, it is just getting harder to get new people through the door in the first place.
The Czech conductor Jirí Belohlávek described the Proms as “the world’s most democratic music festival”, an epithet that is hard to dispute when you survey the audience on any given evening at the Royal Albert Hall. There are bankers on hospitality jaunts, drinking champagne in boxes. The well-heeled set from the Home Counties fork out to sit in the stalls. Then there are students and pensioners and people with only a few quid to spare who pay five pounds to “prom” – that is, stand in the gallery or down in the central arena (where the sound is at its very best, incidentally).
People chat, eat, sit down, lie down, hug, dance and clap: everything we are made to feel you aren’t supposed to do at a concert. And somewhere up near the ceiling, there will be a little girl staring down in wonder at the orchestra – as small as Borrowers to her – each with their own miniature instrument, making a sound big enough to sing inside her head for weeks afterwards.
The 2015 Proms run from 17 July to 12 September, with every concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3. For more information see www.bbc.co.uk/proms