As the Proms come to an end this Saturday with the traditional ‘Last Night’, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the political history of the proms…
Few events appear more synonymous with Britishness than the flag-waving jamboree that is the (second half of) the Last Night of the Proms – the gala concert that brings to a close an annual two-month-long festival of music. For many the Last Night is a joyous opportunity to indulge in some popular musical party pieces; for others it can appear at times to verge on jingoism. The history of the proms and of similar efforts at bringing music to the masses is more complex, though, and far more cosmopolitan.
Perhaps the most famous instance of musically-based patriotic celebration in the 18th century was the first performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks. The suite was composed to celebrate the (far from popular) peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748), which brought to a close the War of the Austrian Succession, but in keeping with the mood of disappointment with the terms of the peace settlement the event, which took place in Green Park on 27 April 1749, verged on disaster. One of the wings of the setting for the fireworks display, dubbed ‘The Temple of Peace’, caught fire during the show and had to be pulled down. An unfortunate painter named Curtis fell from the structure and dashed out his brains, while an intoxicated shoemaker fell into one of the ponds in Green Park and drowned before he could be pulled out [London Evening Post, 27-29 Apr. 1749]. Perhaps most dramatically of all, a lady in the crowd was set ablaze by a rogue rocket and only saved when obliging members of the audience stripped off her outer clothing [Penny London Post or the Morning Advertiser, 28 Apr.-1 May 1749]. Interestingly, the papers had little or nothing to say about the music itself, though it had already attracted a huge crowd at the main rehearsal held a few days before and ultimately became a mainstay of the English concert programme.
Just over a century later, celebration of Handel’s music was at the heart of a series of concerts promoted by the Sacred Harmonic Society first held in the 4,000-seater concert space within the Crystal Palace in 1857. At this first festival Queen Victoria was present with other members of the royal family and at the queen’s request ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ was repeated, and she and all present stood for a rendition of the ‘Old Hundredth’, which rounded off the evening [The Musical Times, xli no. 689 (1900)]. Such occasions emphasized both a celebration of national (and international) achievements but also a clear effort to entertain and improve the minds of the people and proved popular events for as long as the Crystal Palace survived. Sir Henry Wood, founder of the proms, was later to conduct the June 1926 Handel Festival, still running at the Crystal Palace.
The original motivation behind Wood’s new series of ‘promenade concerts’, which were launched at the Queen’s Hall on 10 August 1895, was not dissimilar and along with the events held in the Crystal Palace formed a continuum with the earlier promenade concerts that had been such a feature of 18th-century society. In common with an earlier series of concerts put together by Sir Arthur Sullivan, these new ‘promenade concerts’ were initially intended to help educate the public in the ways of classical music – particularly that of the continent. Thus, the opening concert conducted by Wood may have begun with the national anthem, but the first piece on the programme was the overture to Richard Wagner’s opera Rienzi and over the years Wood came to be criticized for championing foreign over British composers with whole evenings dedicated to Wagner and Beethoven. Such relatively harmless critiques took on a more serious hue during the First World War. On 28 July 1915, the Liberal MP, Sir Arthur Markham, rose in the Commons to question how seriously the government was taking its duties when several key industries and services remained in the hands of Germans, or people of German descent. One of the examples he cited was Sir Edgar Speyer, proprietor of the Queen’s Hall:
I suppose it is because he is of German origin that we in this country are to be treated during the next few weeks by Sir Henry Wood to a series of concerts entirely composed of German music. I have the whole of the programmes here, from which it will be seen that some of the concerts are to be devoted entirely to Wagner’s music. What would France or Russia do under conditions of this kind? The people are not recognising the seriousness of the position. I cannot understand how people can go to listen to German music, when every people in the world, except ourselves, would not tolerate during a time of war that they should be entertained by German music. But as the Queen’s Hall belongs to him, I suppose we in this country are to be instilled with German virtues.
The effect of Markham’s oratory was perhaps dented slightly by an ensuing exchange with two colleagues, one of whom (R. McNeill) questioned whether or not there was any Beethoven in the series, to which Markham responded, no, the whole programme was German. Sir Frederick Banbury then retorted that Beethoven was German.
Markham’s assault on both Speyer as proprietor and Wood as concert-master, was called to mind in the chamber once more over a decade later during the debates in the Commons over the Cinematograph Bill, which sought to encourage the British film industry. One of those to question the wisdom of the bill was Ramsay MacDonald, who spoke on 16 March 1927 against one of the measure’s primary aims, that of ensuring that a quarter of all films shown in Britain should be of British make. MacDonald queried sardonically whether the bill’s sponsor would:
extend the principle of the Bill to provide that if we go to a promenade concert at Queen’s Hall at least 25 per cent of the music must be British-produced music every time we go there?
A similar, though perhaps more heartfelt, intervention was made later in the year during subsequent exchanges over the same bill by Frederick Mountague (MP for Islington West):
Members of this House remember that during the War there was a point of this character brought out in the attitude which was adopted by a well-known conductor of music in London. I refer to Sir Henry J. Wood. At that time there was a movement more or less official – semi-official and of a public character – which endeavoured to prevent the performance of German music, because we were at war with Germany. To the credit of his artistic and moral courage, Sir Henry Wood stood up against it. He realised that in matters of art the only possible attitude of mind would have to be an international one, whether it was a question of war or not.
By the time Mountague strode to his defence, Wood had long since become a champion of several British composers as well as continuing his long-standing exposition of Wagner, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Wood himself had arranged the Fantasia on British Sea Songs for the 1905 season celebrating the centenary of Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, a piece that has since become a regular item on the programme of Last Night concerts – somewhat to Wood’s surprise.
The tradition of promenade concerts at the Queen’s Hall came to an end in 1941 when the venue was destroyed in an air raid. The proms were relocated to the Royal Albert Hall and ultimately came to be known as the ‘BBC Proms’. This did not, of course, mean an end to discussion of the proms in Parliament, though by then complaints appear to have become less about the nationality of the music’s composers as of their antiquity. Thus in January 1964 during the debates on the BBC licence Donald Chapman spoke to complain at the increased levels of 20th century music on the radio and how even the Proms were ‘very different from the old pattern.’ Chapman, a self-confessed ‘low-brow’ devotee of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms decried the unwillingness to heed the lessons Wood had taught. For him the Proms were, as Wood had first envisaged them, an opportunity to educate the public in traditional ‘popular’ classical music and woe betide those who sought to rewrite the formula.