Written on 07 June 2019
Another Henry Wood Promenade Season is about to start in the Royal Albert Hall, London (RAH) with selected concerts being shown, live and/or recorded, on various BBC TV channels and, of course, all of them live on BBC Radio 3. The first time I heard a Prom was probably in 1947 - on our tiny, three-valve medium wave only, wireless. I’ve been to very few proms in the RAH, and never as a ‘prommer’, because I’ve rarely been within 200 miles of London during the season. However, I have listened to them whenever I was able to on BBC Radio, especially the BBC General Overseas Service and, later, the BBC World Service.
One of my 1947 Christmas Presents from my parents was Sir Henry Wood’s autobiography My Life of Music (first published in 1937 I believe) with the gaudy yellow sleeve of publisher Gollancz. It was not an easy read for an 11-year-old, but I persevered to the end and then re-read various bits for several years until the book eventually fell to bits. Another Christmas 1947 present from my parents was a stroke of genius by them: my very first ‘proper’ diary. - a leather-bound Letts School-Boys Diary. Although there was space for only eight handwritten lines on each diary entry, I managed to mention a symphony and a composer that I had never previously heard of in that first entry. (See scan below.)
I still remember watching on TV the Last Night of the 1967 Proms. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by its resident conductor Colin (later Sir Colin) Davis. I can never forget the totally unexpected but poignant appearance at the very end when Sir Malcolm Sargent, the BBC Symphony Orchestra's resident conductor for many years but now known to be dying of cancer, walked with obvious difficulty onto the stage to say that he had just accepted the BBC’s invitation to conduct some concerts in the 1968 Proms Season. He knew, and most of those watching and listening knew, that he was unlikely to be around to fulfil that contract and, indeed, he died a few weeks later on 03 October 1967.
The now annual chatter about the BBC ‘dumbing down’ the Proms has already started as I write this piece. For the last 10 years or so, I’ve found the BBC television relays almost unwatchable – partly because of often uninformed presenters asking their knowledgeable guests daft questions before the start, and partly because the TV directors (or are they producers?) will insist on showing frequent sequences of the Royal Albert Hall roof lights and other elements of the building architecture whenever they get bored of showing the musicians. Some years back, the BBC accompanied a performance of Holst’s Planets with regular clips from their own documentary programme about the real planets! I had forecast that within two or three minutes of the music starting the BBC would cut to a shot of a planet. I won several bets that evening. These days I record what is broadcast and then fast forward over everything except the performances themselves.
I can no longer bear to watch the second-half of the BBC's Last Night of the Proms, either live or recorded, because of the frequent and entirely unnecessary interruptions to see what is going on in various parks around the UK. It’s very clever technically, when it works and is properly synchronised, but I think the Last Night of the Proms of all nights, has to be seen and heard without interruption. So there!
My taste in music is, and always has been, very wide, from early baroque to living composers, and I have absolutely no complaint about the BBC’s choice of music or performers for the Proms – although not all of it is to my taste. However, I’m not a doddery old man who never listens to anything other than Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. My extensive collection of recorded music (CD and nowadays ‘streamed’) includes, for example, all the symphonies of Brahms, Bruckner, Haydn, Mahler, Vaughan Williams and Walton (most in several versions), with much choral music from 17th Century Buxtehude to 20th Century Hubert Parry, and lots of chamber music. (I also have all Frank Sinatra’s and Chris Barbers’ LP albums.)
Everything you could wish to know about the Proms is on the BBC website: just search for BBC Proms 2019. (See also this later afterthought.)