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The Proms

The Proms, more formally known as The BBC Proms, or The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC, is an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London. Founded in 1895, each season now consists of over 70 concerts in the Albert Hall, a series of eight chamber concerts and four Saturday matinees at Cadogan Hall, additional Proms in the Park events across the United Kingdom on the last night, and associated educational and children's events. It is the biggest classical music festival in the world.

Proms is short for promenade concerts, a term which arose from the original practice of audience members promenading, or strolling, in some areas of the concert hall during the concert. Promming now refers to the use of the standing areas inside the hall (the arena and gallery) for which ticket prices are much lower than for the reserved seating. Single-concert promming tickets can be purchased, with few exceptions, only on the day of the concert, which can give rise to long queues for well-known artists or works. Proms concertgoers, particularly those who stand, are sometimes described as "Promenaders", but are most commonly referred to as "Prommers". Prommers can purchase full- or half-season tickets instead for guaranteed entry, although not the assurance of a particular standing position. A number of Prommers are particularly keen in their attendance, and see it as a badge of honour to achieve the "grand slam" of attending every concert of the season. In 1997, one programme in the BBC documentary series Modern Times covered this dedicated following of enthusiasts.

History

Although earlier promenade concert series had existed, the first Proms concert was held on 10 August 1895 in the Queen's Hall in Langham Place and was arranged by impressario Robert Newman. Newman's idea was to encourage an audience for concert hall music who, though not normally attending classical concerts, would be attracted by the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. In addition to promenading, eating, drinking and smoking were all allowed. He stated his goal as follows:

"I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.

However, it is the conductor Henry Joseph Wood whose name is most closely associated with the concerts. As conductor from that first concert, Wood was largely responsible for expanding the repertoire heard in later concerts, such that by the 1920s the concerts had grown from being made up of largely more popular, less demanding works, to presenting music by contemporary composers such as Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss and Ralph Vaughan Williams. A bronze bust of Wood, belonging to the Royal Academy of Music, is placed in front of the Organ for the whole season. While now known as BBC Proms, the text on the tickets (along with the headline "BBC Proms" next to the BBC logo), still says "BBC Music presents the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts'".

In 1927, the BBC — later based at Broadcasting House opposite the hall — took over the running of the concerts, and when the BBC Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1930 it became the main orchestra for the concerts. At this time the season consisted of nights dedicated to particular composers; Mondays were Wagner, Fridays were Beethoven, with other major composers being featured on other days. There were no Sunday performances.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the BBC withdrew its support. The Proms continued though, under private sponsorship, until the Queen's Hall was gutted by an air raid in 1941 (its site is now the St George's Hotel and BBC Henry Wood House). The following year, the Proms moved to their current home, the Royal Albert Hall, and the BBC took over once more. In 1944, however, increased danger to the Royal Albert Hall from bombing meant that the Proms moved again, this time to the Bedford Corn Exchange. This venue had been the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941 and played host to the Proms until the end of the war.

From the 1950s, the number of guest orchestras giving concerts in the season began to increase, with the first major international conductors (Leopold Stokowski, Georg Solti and Carlo Maria Giulini) performing in 1963, and the first foreign orchestra, the Moscow Radio Orchestra, performing in 1966. Since that time, almost every major international orchestra, conductor and soloist has performed at the Proms. In 1970, Soft Machine's appearance led to press attention and comment as the first "pop" band to perform there.

The other major conductor associated with the Proms was Sir Malcolm Sargent, who was Chief Conductor between 1948 to 1966. He was noted for his immaculate appearance (evening dress, carnation) and his witty addresses where he good-naturedly chided the noisy Prommers. Sir Malcolm championed choral music and classical and British composers, especially the brilliant Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The charity founded in his name, CLIC Sargent, continues to hold a special Promenade Concert each year shortly after the main season ends. CLIC Sargent, the Musicians' Benevolent Fund and further musical charities (chosen each year) also benefit from thousands of pounds in donations from Prommers after most concerts. When asking for donations, Prommers from the Arena regularly announce to the audience the running donations total at concert intervals through the season, or before the concert when there is no intermission.

The Proms continue today, and still present newly commissioned music alongside pieces more central to the repertoire and early music. Innovations continue, with pre-Prom talks, lunchtime chamber concerts, children's Proms, Proms in the Park either appearing, or being featured more heavily over the past few years. In the UK, all concerts are broadcast on BBC Radio 3, an increasing number are shown on BBC4 with some also broadcast on BBC1 and BBC2. It is also possible to hear the concerts live from the BBC Proms website. The Last Night is also broadcast in many countries around the world.

In 1996, a related series of eight lunchtime chamber concerts was started, taking place on Mondays during the Proms season. In their first year these were held in the Britten Hall of the Royal College of Music (just across Prince Consort Road from the Albert Hall). The following year they moved slightly further afield, to the Henry Cole Lecture Theatre at the V & A. In 2005 they moved further again, to the new Cadogan Hall, just off London's Sloane Square. These allow the Proms to include music which is not suitable for the vast spaces of the Albert Hall.

Since 1998, the Blue Peter Prom, in partnership with long-running BBC television programme Blue Peter, has been an annual fixture. Aimed at children and families, the Prom is informal, including audience participation, jokes, and popular classics. High demand for tickets — which are among the lowest priced in the season — saw this Prom be split in 2004 into two Proms with identical content.

The 2004 season also featured the Hall's newly rebuilt pipe organ. It took two years to complete the task (2002–2004) and was the work of Noel Mander, Ltd., of London. It was the first complete restoration of the instrument since Harrison and Harrison's work in 1936.

The tradition of promming remains an important aspect of the festival, with over 1000 standing places available for each concert, either in the central arena (rather like the groundlings in the pit at Shakespeare's Globe) or high in the hall's gallery. Promming tickets cost the same for all concerts (£5 as of 2008), providing a considerably cheaper option for the more popular events. Since the tickets cannot be bought in advance (although there are season tickets available), they provide a way of getting in to otherwise sold-out concerts.

The Proms today

2008 season

The 2008 season ran from 18 July to 13 September 2008. The BBC released details of the season slightly earlier than usual, on 9 April 2008. Composers whose anniversaries were marked include:

The celebration of Stockhausen was centred on two large-scale concerts on 2 August 2008, and complementing Vaughan-Williams's interest in folk music, the first Sunday was given over to a celebration of various aspects of British folk, including free events in Kensington Gardens and the Albert Hall, and ending with the first-ever céilidh in the Albert Hall itself.

Other changes included additional pre-Prom talks and events. For the first time, there was a related talk or event before every Prom, held in the Royal College of Music. The popular child-oriented Prom this year became the Doctor Who Prom, (in place of the Blue Peter Prom of recent years). The Doctor Who Prom included a mini-episode of Doctor Who, "Music of the Spheres".

Just over a month before the announcement, Margaret Hodge, a Minister of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport suggested "that the Proms was one of several big cultural events that many people did not feel comfortable attending" and advocated an increase in multicultural works and an effort to broaden the audience. Her comments received wide criticism in the musical world and media as being a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Proms, with the Prime Minister even distancing himself from her remarks.

2007 season

The 2007 season ran from 13 July–8 September 2007, with the first concert beginning with Walton's Portsmouth Point and included Elgar's Cello Concerto performed by Paul Watkins and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Following the previous year's Voice day, brass instruments were specially featured with two concerts on 28 July 2007. Early press coverage focused heavily on the fact that musical theatre star Michael Ball would be the central performer in a concert on 27 August and a concert of British film music on 14 July. This led to media accusations of "dumbing down", despite Nicholas Kenyon's defence of the programme. Anniversaries marked in this Proms season included the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Edward Elgar, the 100th anniversary of the death of Edvard Grieg and the 50th anniversary of the death of Jean Sibelius as well as marking 80 years since the first BBC sponsorship of the Proms.

The 2007 season was Nicholas Kenyon's last season as controller of the BBC Proms, before he became Managing Director at the Barbican Centre from October 2007. Roger Wright became controller of the Proms in October 2007, whilst retaining responsibility for BBC Radio 3 and taking up a broader role controlling the BBC's classical music output across all media.

2006 season

The 2006 season (the 112th) marked the 250th birthday celebrations of Mozart and the centenary of Shostakovich's birth. New initiatives for the year included four Saturday matinee concerts at the Cadogan Hall and the chance for audience members to get involved with The Voice, a collaborative piece performed in two Proms on 29 July. On 3 September 2006, a concert was cancelled due to a fire which damaged the hall's electrical system.

Last Night of the Proms

Most people's perception of the Proms is taken from the Last Night, although this concert is very different from the others. It usually takes place on the second Saturday in September, and is broadcast in the UK on BBC2 (first half) and BBC1 (second half). The concert is traditionally in a lighter, 'winding-down' vein, with popular classics being followed by a series of British patriotic pieces in the second half of the concert. This sequence begins with Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (Land of Hope and Glory), and continues with Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs, which culminates in Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia. The concert concludes with Hubert Parry's Jerusalem (a setting of a poem by William Blake), and the British national anthem. The repeat of the Elgar march at the Last Night can be traced to the spontaneous audience demand for an encore at its premiere at the 1901 Proms. The Prommers have made a tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne, but it is not in the programme. However, when James Loughran, a Scot, conducted at the Last Night in the 1970s he did include the piece in the programme.

Tickets are highly sought after. Promming tickets are no more expensive than for other concerts throughout the season, but tickets for seats are more expensive. To buy a seat in advance it is necessary to have bought tickets for at least six other proms in the season to have a chance of getting a Last Night ticket, and either an advance booking must include those six concerts, plus an application for a Last Night ticket, or the ticket stubs must be presented at the box office when purchasing a Last Night ticket for that season; tickets can only be purchased in an equivalent (or lower) price band to that for the previous tickets. For standing places, full season tickets automatically include last night admission, half-season ticket holders have access to a special distribution of tickets, but must purchase their Last Night ticket in addition to the cost of the season ticket; day Prommers also have to present six ticket stubs at the box office. Some standing tickets are sold on the day, just as for other concerts during the season. In the post-War period, with the growing popularity of the "Last Night", the only way to obtain tickets was through a postal ballot system where prospective buyers submitted an application well in advance, along with a stamped and addressed reply envelope. The lucky ones received their tickets by return.

Prommers with tickets are likely to queue up much earlier than usual (even overnight) in order to ensure a good place to stand in the hall. The resulting cameraderie adds to the atmosphere. Fancy dress is an optional extra: from dinner jackets to patriotic T-shirts. Many use the occasion for an exuberant display of Britishness. Union Flags are carried and waved by the Prommers, especially during Rule Britannia. Flags (mostly national flags and regional flags), balloons and party poppers are all welcome. Sir Henry Wood's bust is crowned with a laurel chaplet by representatives of the Promenaders, who often wipe an imaginary bead of sweat from his forehead or make some similar gentle visual joke. Near the end, the conductor makes a speech thanking the musicians and audiences, mentioning the main themes covered through the season, and noting the cumulative season's donations raised over the season.

The Royal Albert Hall could be filled many times over with people wishing to attend the Last Night. To accommodate these people, and to cater for those who are not near London, the Proms in the Park concerts were started in 1996. Initially there was only one, in Hyde Park, adjacent to the Hall. More locations have been added in recent years, and in 2005, Belfast, Glasgow, Swansea and Manchester hosted a Last Night Prom in the Park which was broadcast live from each venue. 2007 saw Manchester's prom being replaced by one in Middlesbrough. Each location has its own live concert, typically playing the country's respective national anthems, before joining in a live big screen video link up with the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional finalé.

Leonard Slatkin, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2000-2004, expressed a desire to tone down the nationalism of the Last Night somewhat, and since 2002 Rule Britannia has only been heard as part of Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs (another piece traditional to the last night) rather than separately. Slatkin, an American, had his first Last Night in 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks: it was more restrained than normal. He was the first non-Commonwealth citizen to conduct the final night. A heavily revised programme saw Beethoven's 9th replacing the Sea Songs, and included Samuel Barber's melancholy Adagio for Strings.

On the day of the 2005 Last Night, the hall management received word of a bomb threat, which led to a thorough search of the Albert Hall for 5 hours, but the concert took place with a modest time delay. This has led to increased security concerns, given the stature of the Last Night in British culture, which Jacqui Kelly of the Royal Albert Hall staff noted:

"That was quite a nerve-racker - our biggest event, the one everybody knows the Albert Hall for, and we were in real danger of losing it. We're an iconic thing, up there in the public eye, so we have to expect that.

2008 also contained some departures from the traditional programme. Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 was moved to after the speech by the conductor. In addition most of Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs was replaced by Vaughan Williams's Sea Songs as a final tribute in his centenary year. However, Wood's arrangements of naval bugle calls from the start of the Fantasia were retained, and Sargent's arrangement of Rule Britannia returned with Bryn Terfel as soloist. As on his previous appearance in 1995, he sang the final verse in a Welsh translation, with the chorus also translated into Welsh.

Last Night Conductors

The following table lists by year the conductors of the Last Night of the Proms. Normally, the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra leads this concert, but guest conductors have directed the Last Night on several occasions. Where appropriate, the table indicates such guest status.

Year Name Status
1895-1940 Sir Henry Wood
1945 Constant Lambert
Basil Cameron
Sir Adrian Boult
Guests
1946-1948
1949-1966 Sir Malcolm Sargent
1967-1968 Colin Davis
1969 Norman Del Mar Guest
1970-1972 Colin Davis
1973 Norman Del Mar Guest
1974 Sir Charles Groves Guest
1975 Norman Del Mar Guest
1976 Sir Charles Groves Guest
1977 James Loughran Guest
1978 Sir Charles Groves Guest
1979 James Loughran Guest
1980 Sir Charles Mackerras Guest
1981-1982 James Loughran Guest
1983 Norman Del Mar Guest
1984 James Loughran Guest
1985 Vernon Handley Guest
1986 Raymond Leppard Guest
1987 Mark Elder Guest
1988 Andrew Davis Guest
1989 Sir John Pritchard
1990-1992 Andrew Davis
1993 Barry Wordsworth Guest
1994-2000 Sir Andrew Davis
2001-2004 Leonard Slatkin
2005 Paul Daniel Guest
2006 Mark Elder Guest
2007 Jiří Bělohlávek
2008 Sir Roger Norrington Guest

See also

Proms Controllers

References

External links

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