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31 August 2022

Notes on the Proms

At my 350th Prom, there are queues no longer, and the BBC coverage has changed. But familiar pieces still stimulate fresh responses.

By Michael Henderson

My Proms debut fell on a Sunday afternoon in September 1984. After queueing for five hours, I stood in the arena to hear Claudio Abbado conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in a classic programme: Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, Schubert’s Ninth. Recently at my 350th Prom, I lolled in the gallery. It was a Sunday morning this time, and another Beethoven’s Fourth.

What memories! Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday celebrations. Roby Lakatos, the Magyar fiddler with his band. Iván Fischer inviting the Budapest Festival Orchestra to sing as an encore. Wagner’s Ring cycle conducted over four sweltering evenings by Daniel Barenboim. Günter Wand’s Bruckner’s Eighth. Most memorable, perhaps, was Abbado conducting Mahler’s Ninth with the Berliner Philharmoniker, when the hall remained silent for 54 seconds.

There are queues no longer. All tickets are bought online, which diminishes the sense of occasion. But familiar pieces still stimulate fresh responses. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra brought Sibelius’s Seventh and Carl Nielsen’s Fourth, linked by Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, and it was magnificent. The orchestra of West German Radio from Cologne showed how a grouping of well-known works (Mendelssohn, Dvořák and Brahms) can “solve, satisfy, and set unchangeably in order” when played with love. On such evenings, there is no place finer to absorb great music than the Royal Albert Hall in London. And every night somebody is hearing a masterpiece for the first time.

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Sadly, if predictably, the BBC coverage has been dismal. Amol Rajan scuttled the ship on the first day, when he interviewed a pop singer (as you do), by way of suggesting the Proms were not multicultural. But the current season features composers of all kinds from 20 countries, spread across six centuries. No other celebration of music casts its net so widely.

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Presenting duties once undertaken by Richard Baker and Jim Naughtie have passed to Clive Myrie and Katie “amazing” Derham, who has never heard a poor performance. Derham plumbed the lowest of many subterranean depths when she said Mozart “would have been all over social media”. Ye Gods.

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Derham is only obeying orders. A friend who was invited to talk on a popular television show about the Shakespeare North Playhouse, which recently opened in Prescot, near Liverpool, was instructed: “Don’t say ‘Jacobean’, because nobody will know what it means.” That’s the voice of the modern BBC. How exhausting this self-abasement must be – and how patronising.

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This hostility towards classical music, one of the greatest gifts Europe has given the world, is coloured by inverted snobbery. Because it requires patience and a certain level of intelligence to appreciate, it is resented by programme-makers hunting young audiences; hence the proliferation of Proms devoted to popular music. I predict that in the next five years Rajan will succeed Myrie as a presenter – unless he is appointed director general of the BBC before then – a pop singer or rapper will perform at the Last Night, and there will be a Match of the Day Prom.

My friend Jonathan Gaisman QC, who has a more profound love of music than anybody I know, poses a delightful question: who is the greatest composer who did not speak German as his first language? The obvious candidate is Tchaikovsky, although persuasive arguments could be made on behalf of Debussy and Stravinsky.

Sibelius gets my tanner. In Germany and Austria they play his work only under sufferance, and in France he is a rumour. Yet in “the land without music” the Finn has always been accepted as a master. Like Chekhov, he is an honorary Englishman.

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Is there is anything in the orchestral repertoire so majestic as the final page of that second symphony, played superbly this year by the BBC Philharmonic? I think not. To make absolutely sure, though, I’m happy to attend another 350 Proms.

This year’s BBC Proms ends with “Prom 72: Last Night of the Proms” on 10 September

The BBC Proms
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

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This article appears in the 31 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Liz Truss Doctrine