Great music, cheering crowds, singing along, and good-natured patriotic feeling.
Yes, it’s that time again – the day which features that annual staple of late summer in Britain: the Last Night of the Proms.
As its name states, this event marks the end of what is known as “the Proms” – a series of daily concerts and other activities over an eight week period from mid-July to early September which showcase the best of orchestral and classical music from around the world.
It was started in 1895 under the direction Sir Henry Wood and launched by impresario Robert Newman, who had an idea for creating a series of indoor concerts to attract an audience to concert hall music amongst people who did not usually partake in classical music. The concept was based on outdoor promenade concerts where the audience could walk around – or promenade – while the orchestra was playing. With low ticket prices and a more informal atmosphere which included activities such as drinking, smoking, and eating, Newman hoped to “train the public” with popular music at first, and then “gradually raising the standard” until he had “created a public for classical and modern music.”
Henry Wood, aged only 26, was established as the conductor of the promenade series at the behest of Newman’s financial backer, the otolaryngologist Dr. George Cathcart, and though Newman was responsible for the organizing and planning, it has been Wood whose name is most associated with the Proms. For the next half century, he conducted the orchestra for all of the concert seasons, and in the process as the first conductor, he built up a repertoire (including the presentation of new works by contemporary composers – both British and international) which set the standard for the subsequent series and conductors following his death in 1944. Such was his influence on the Proms, that they are still known as the “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts” on the tickets, though since the BBC took over the running of the concerts in 1927, they have been officially termed as the BBC Proms.
Since World War II, the main venue for the Proms has been the Royal Albert Hall in London, and it is there that a bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood is placed on the hall’s organ throughout each season – the bust itself having been saved from ruins of the original home of the Proms, Queens Hall, and now owned by the Royal Academy of Music.
In the course of its existence through over a century, the Proms have become one of the biggest and most popular musical festivals in the world. In addition to the main concerts, there are also associated educational and children’s events, as well as lunchtime chamber concerts and matinee’s featured at Cadogan Hall. No longer simply about music, it has since become a major British cultural event and national institution that has become renowned the world over, as well as a prestigious platform for the various conductors and musicians who have participated in it.
It is also a much sought-after event by the people of the United Kingdom, as well as foreign tourists and others residing in the country. Such people are known as “Promenaders”, or more commonly, “Prommers” – especially those who use the standing areas of the Royal Albert Hall, for which ticket prices are lower than for reserved seats. But regardless of seating arraignments, the Proms make for an enjoyable and memorable experience with something for everybody to enjoy.
However, the most memorable and well-known part of the Proms is undeniably the Last Night. Usually held on the second Saturday in September, it is unlike the previous concerts in that it is lighter, looser, and more informal, with the program broken into two parts consisting of popular classics followed by patriotic British songs toward the end of the second part. Traditionally, the evening also features a speech by the conductor in which he or she thanks the audience for their participation, as well as the musicians, soloists, support staff, and others who make the entire Proms possible – including those who gave the conductor the honored privilege of presiding over the festivities. Also acknowledged is the amount of money raised through ticket sales and donations which go to support musical charities. The conductors also tend to discuss the themes of the music that was performed throughout the concert season, and how they connect to people’s lives. At times, the speech can be quite humorous – with the conductor being self-depreciating, and taking good-natured digs at the audience.
But the real event which gives the Last Night its true significance is the sequence of favorite patriotic selections, usually starting off with Edward Elgar’s elegant Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (Land of Hope and Glory), which receives a traditional encore dating back to its premier at the 1901 concert. This is followed by Sir Henry Woods’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which leads into and culminates with Thomas Arne’s rousing Rule Britannia!, which is also performed in its own right with a soloist. Then there is the sweet and soft sound of Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem followed by the UK National Anthem, God Save the Queen – with Benjamin Britten’s stirring rendition being frequently chosen – to conclude the program. Following this, the Prommers traditionally break out spontaneously into Auld Lang Syne with hands linked together in a final spirit of Promming fellowship to end the spectacular evening.
Indeed, it is the spectacular and participative nature of the Last Night which has made it a fixture of British culture. It is in many ways, a celebration of the United Kingdom and its people, and for this reason, there is always high demand for tickets – some from people who’ve never been to the Last Night, and others who make it their business to attend it every year. While the standing tickets stay the same price as during the rest of the series, the seated tickets are more expensive, but for some people it is worth the cost for what may be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Because demand for the Last Night has tended to be exceedingly high with scores of people not being able to make it into the Royal Albert Hall, Proms in the Park was introduced in 1996 in nearby Hyde Park to accommodate a larger outdoor crowd. Later on, to bring the Proms experience to those not in or near London, other locations have been added in throughout the United Kingdom. The Proms in the Park events in Belfast (Titanic Slipways), Glasgow (Glasgow Green), Swansea (Singleton Park), and Hyde Park each have their own concerts before linking up via large screens to the Royal Albert Hall to join in for the grand finale.
At all of these locations, there is a fun and festive atmosphere, as well as a sense of camaraderie amongst the audience. Balloons and party poppers are common for the Last Night, as well as fancy dresses – from dinner jackets to t-shirts to funny hats. People also bring flags with them, usually the Union Flag, but also the flags of each of the Home Nations of the UK – the Saltire of St. Andrew (Scotland), the Cross of St. George (England), the Saltire of St. Patrick or Ulster Banner (Northern Ireland), and the Red Dragon or St. David’s Cross (Wales). Also seen are the flags of counties/local government authoroties within the UK, immigrants in the UK, and visitors and tourists, all of which make for a tremendous display of color and the vibrant fabric that is Britain, which is probably one reason why Jiří Bělohlávek (Proms conductor in 2007, 2010, and 2012) has described the Proms as “the world's largest and most democratic musical festival.”
All of this is broadcast throughout the UK and also overseas via radio, which allow for millions more to partake in this celebration of Britishness, including yours truly. I certainly enjoy it, for the Last Night not only features great music, but also shows Britons who are proud of themselves and of their country, and who have their heads held high for the potential of making their country better tomorrow than it was yesterday.
This event speaks to the need for the British people – wherever they live – to look at one another as one and to come together for the good of country as it faces several issue (including the economy, immigration, the role of government, and constitutional change). The music alone does not solve these complex issues in a complex country of course, and I realize the Last Night isn't for everyone. But beyond the flag waving and booming music are precious moments which are shared with fellow citizens and residents throughout the United Kingdom, whether they live in Aberystwyth or Aberdeen, or in Edinburgh or Exeter, or in Belfast or Brighton. I certainly hope that as the selections help to project a confident Britain around the world, that they also instill some confidence in the people and help to inspire them to build bridges with others to improve the country and make it better together.
So if you are in the UK, get out your party poppers and please try to attend tonight’s concert at the Royal Albert Hall, in the parks, or just tune in to the BBC. It’s going to be a Great British time!