The Spin Doctor Europadisc's Weekly Column

Last Orders on the Last Night?

  29th July 2021

29th July 2021

‘Tradition is the illusion of permanence,’ maintains the title character in Woody Allen’s film Deconstructing Harry (1997). And you don’t need to be a fan of Allen as a filmmaker or as a person to recognise the grain of truth contained in this bon mot. In a world that seems ever-changing, tradition gives us something apparently fixed on which to cling on, a safe harbour in turbulent times, a point of reference when everything else seems bewilderingly strange. Yet such certainty is illusory both because, as the world about us continues to change, the traditions we cling to become ever further removed from reality, and because the traditions themselves change (more or less subtly) over time so that – as in a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ – they end up bearing little relation to how they started out. Put bluntly, because everything changes over time, even the most jealously preserved traditions will change too.

All of which brings us to the matter in hand. Late July: the schools have broken up for the summer, and the opening of the BBC Proms is upon us. Regularly billed as ‘the world’s greatest music festival’, this six-week season of mainly classical music, renowned for its breadth of scope, quality of performance and the affordability of its standing-room ‘promenade’ tickets, has been a constant in the British musical calendar since it was launched in 1895 as ‘Robert Newman’s Promenade Concerts’ at London’s Queen’s Hall, with the young Henry Wood as its sole conductor. It has seen many changes over the years: in the early years, Wood’s New Queen’s Hall Orchestra was the only orchestra for the entire season, its workload lightened only by the numerous solo and small ensemble items that peppered the nightly programmes, mixing light classical with ballad-style entertainment. Single-composer evenings (notably Wagner and Beethoven) became increasingly popular, and the repertoire gradually developed to reflect changing tastes and new additions to the repertoire.

Following Newman’s death in 1926, and still under the musical direction of Henry Wood, the BBC took over the running of the Proms, from 1930 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at its core. Repertoire continued to expand, with special emphasis on the new and the lesser-known to balance the perennial crowd-pleasers, which themselves developed with the passing years. Surviving two World Wars, the destruction of the Queen’s Hall in May 1941, the move to the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, Wood’s own death in 1944, and a multi-conductor interregnum (including Adrian Boult and Basil Cameron) before Malcolm Sargent took on the main conducting duties, the Proms weathered many storms, at the same time growing to include an impressive range of visiting conductors, soloists and orchestras, as well as a multi-genre repertoire, so that by the turn of the millennium they had become a truly international and multi-cultural festival.

The Covid crisis presented the gravest threat yet to the Proms’ existence: the lack of a live audience, the severely truncated season, and the social-distancing required of performers were all huge challenges. At the same time, the global social upheavals and challenges of recent years laid down a gauntlet which seemed to demand a response in addressing the legacy of empire. The Proms, with its origins in the heyday of the British Empire, is inevitably bound up with such questions. Yet the sticking point – the patriotic items at the culmination of the Last Night – owes just as much to the 1950s reinvention of the closing concert under Sargent as it does to Wood’s original conception. In fact, under Wood the Last Night varied sometimes enormously from year to year: in the early days, a popular closing item was Hermann Koenig’s Post Horn Galop (reflecting the taste for solo cornet repertoire), while later favourites included Rossini’s William Tell Overture, Berlioz’s Hungarian March, and Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. Gradually Wood’s own Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (including, of course, Thomas Arne’s ‘Rule, Britannia!’) emerged as a crowd-pleaser, but Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no.1 (‘Land of Hope and Glory’) was often interchangeable with no.4 from the same set.

It was only in the mid-1950s, a good decade after Wood’s death, that the triumvirate of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and Parry’s setting of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ became set in stone. Ever the showman, Malcolm Sargent’s Last Nights, with their tub-thumping, boisterous displays of patriotism became synonymous, for millions of television viewers, with the Proms themselves: as early as 1948, Wood’s companion of later years Jessie Linton (aka Lady Jessie Wood) voiced her concerns, while The Times reported that ‘Hooliganism was rather too evident’. Forty years ago, in The Proms and the men who made them, Barrie Hall wrote of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ that, ‘If anyone stopped to think about it, the words are hopelessly outdated, the sentiment embarrassingly jingoistic.’ But, he added, ‘Thinking about the words is not the point.’ Well, maybe now, forty years on, with all the social change that has ensued not just in Britain but across the globe, it is.

Sargent has cast a long shadow over the Last Night – witness the great hue and cry when changes were mooted in 2020, including performing ‘Rule, Britannia!’ without the singing. For some, the words were completely beyond the pale; for others of a more traditionalist bent, their removal was tantamount to ‘self-censorship’. In the middle of a pandemic the likes of which the world had never experienced, cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister felt moved to speak out in order to, er, keep politics out of music… Perhaps the moment was wrong for change, at a time when people already felt under threat from Covid: such are just the times, it could be argued, when traditions are most valued.

Yet one can’t help feeling that Henry Wood himself would have been appalled at the situation in which the Proms now find themselves. For all the recurring items in the Last Night concerts on his watch, the programme itself, including its culmination in the concert’s second half, was always a tremendously varied affair. (In 1932, it even included Alexander Mosolov’s notorious piece of Socialist Realism The Iron Foundry!) Every year, a pair of Promenaders pay tribute to Wood by placing a chaplet on the bust that has watched benignly over the whole season, sometimes cheekily wiping away a bead of sweat from his brow. But the best tribute of all to Sir Henry would be to embrace innovation with enthusiasm and vigour, as he had throughout his career, championing new works and bringing lasting changes to public taste. 126 years after the first Proms season, it’s surely the least we owe him.

The 2021 season of the Sir Henry Wood Promenade Concerts reaches its climax on Saturday 11 September. A faint rumble in the air might be the stirrings of a late summer storm or, less likely, vehicular activity on the District and Circle Lines. Or, as ‘Rule, Britannia!’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Jerusalem’ are wheeled out for the umptieth time, it might just be the sound of Henry Wood’s ashes turning beneath the Musicians’ Chapel of Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate, his final resting place…

A few alternative suggestions (more or less serious) for the Last Night programme:

- ‘I vow to thee, my country’ (just as great a tune as ‘Jerusalem’, its words are less narrow and culturally specific)

- A selection from Purcell’s King Arthur (music by Britain’s greatest composer, inspired by the legendary of King of the Britons, culminating in ‘Fairest Isle’ and ‘Saint George, the patron of our Isle’)

- ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen (the ultimate singalong, a perennial karaoke favourite, with mass cross-genre appeal!)

- Ruth Gipps’s Knight in Armour, op.8 (heard at the Last Night in 1942, an assured work from the 20-year-old composer)

- Where would the Last Night be without a rousing march? We suggest Ethel Smyth’s The March of the Women and Eric Coates’s tribute to nearby Knightsbridge

- If ‘Jerusalem’ has to be included, Errollyn Wallen’s bold reimagining for the 2020 Last Night, ‘Our Clouded Hills’, with its undertow of mystery and legend, thoroughly deserves a rehearing – surely closer to the spirit of Blake than the customary Parry version

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