The Last Night of the Proms: a glorious celebration of excellent music, or a cringe-worthy splurge of bawdy and oddly-placed nationalism arranged for Symphonic Orchestra? The three-hour long ‘Last Night’ has such a high profile that it attracted a bomb threat in 2005 – a macabre indication of its cultural significance and popularity. This year’s Last Night is today, on September 13th, and in addition to the Prommers who will queue the entire day for tickets, thousands will convene at ‘Proms in the Park’ events around the country and many will take it in via their TVs and radios. For one night, it will saturate the BBC media and draw comment from all major national newspapers.
In all this fuss it is easy to forget that The Last Night of the Proms is only that – the last night, the finale of a series of world class concerts which are far cheaper and easier to gain entry too, and explore an infinitely less predictable and more ambitious range of musical ideas and sound worlds. The same songs have closed off the Proms for over half a century – the sequence starts with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, Arne’s Rule Brittania and very often Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs – replaced in kind with Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe this year. The Prommers have sung ‘Auld Lang Syne’ since 1954, and the encore has repeated the Elgar march since 1901. At the same time, it is much harder to get a ticket to this last concert. While a ballot decides who of those, that have been able to attend at least five concerts during the current season, gets a ticker for the Last Night, every other Prom is open for everyone. Several hundred standing tickets can be bought on the day for £5. Those who queue and enjoy the concert by these tickets are known as ‘Prommers’, and their relaxed informality is often lauded as emblematic of the very essence of The Proms. Still, though the main body of The Promenade Concerts may take pride of place on BBC Radio 3 and a very few selected billboards near motorways for their duration, they are accorded nowhere near as much advertising space and attention – even when taken all together – as the Last Night does on its own.
Not only in terms of advertising, The Proms and The Last Night seem in many ways to be totally separate events. For those growing up outside of London The Proms are almost invisible. It was not until my early teenage years that I realised there was a whole series of concerts before The Last Night, although I had watched the latter on TV since my childhood. I had to be introduced to them by a more seasoned, more travelled and concert-worldly cousin. What I saw back then on TV could not have been more different from my more recent experiences as a Prommer on an average night. Not only is The Last Night repetitive, predictable and inaccessible, it has often been criticised for inappropriate, excessive and out-dated promulgation of a militaristic nationalism. Whilst this year’s programme includes a greater number of more modern and musical theatre-type works such moves to bring variance into The Last Night have met with great resistance and heavy criticism in the past, making real change very difficult. Both the programmatic rigidity of The Last Night and the difficulty of getting a ticket thus seem to be directly at odds with the way in which The Proms as an overall project is considered to foreground informality, broadening the scope of musical performance and increasing the accessibility of concert-going to those who may not be familiar with classical music.
Whilst ‘accessibility’ has become quite a buzz word of The Proms’ contemporary organisation, it was never necessarily as central an aim of the series’ establishment as might generally be thought. In the beginning it was about education. Although Sir Henry Wood is accorded the lion’s share of the glory for establishing the tradition of The Promenade Concerts, the series was actually the brainchild of a businessman, Robert Newman. Newman is reported to have desired that the nightly concerts would more specifically serve to “train the public”, first luring them in with cheap tickets, starting out with performances of popular works and gradually “raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.” Evidently audiences for classical concerts were felt to be lacking even in the 1890s. Ironic, then, that it is The Last Night of the Proms rather than any earlier concert that has probably the most ‘popular’ or at best ‘populist’ programme of all the Proms concerts.
Drawing people in with ‘popular’ music to then ‘train’ them for something slightly different in this context may seem distasteful or dishonest, but in fact popular artists today do the same when they market an album or concert which features new or experimental works by highlighting the hit tracks that punctuate it. They use their established hits to attract fans to their products or concert halls, and once they are there they take advantage of this to introduce new upcoming tracks or present material that will not be released as a single in the charts. Indeed, it does seem that the organisation of The Proms series programme does operate on the same principle as the introduction of a new category – the ‘special’ Proms – have demonstrated in recent years.
Increasing numbers of ‘special’ Proms have included Blue Peter, Ceebeebies, Dr. Who and Bollywood proms, with this year seeing a staging of War Horse and an entire sub-set of ‘Late Night Proms’ featuring artists such as Paloma Faith, Rufus Wainwright and The Pet Shop Boys. Some of these events target particular groups of people, drawing them into The Proms with the music that is already ‘popular’ with them. Once tuned in, hopefully at least a few of them may browse through the programme and perhaps come along to other, more ‘serious’ events. Conversely, seasoned Prommers may feel tempted to expand their own music tastes by experiencing these more populist events as well. Journalists have at times criticised such ventures as the “dumbing down” of The Proms for going too far, for succumbing a little too much to the aching need to look ‘relevant’ at the expense of the quality of the music or programme presented. Over the years, these special Proms have been shown to draw in a more diverse demographic. The Proms themselves hence surely match both Newman’s original ideas and the current proclaimed aims of the Proms’ organisers far more closely than the celebrated Last Night. They try all kinds of things to lure people out of their comfort zone – concert-going novices and old-hats alike.
Although it is practically taboo to speak against The Last Night of the Proms, as Gordon Brown’s culture minister Margaret Hodge found out, they do seem to suffer from a mild but salient ‘image problem’ which, although not causing any noticeable friction within the wider society, seriously misrepresents The Proms in that it concludes and perhaps hampers their stated aims more than the organisers are at liberty to admit. The easy-going behaviour of mid-season Prommers, which is often proudly referred to as the key to the informal ‘spirit’ of The Proms, is of an entirely different kind to increasingly stale, long-repeated traditional ‘mischief’ of the Last Night Prommers. The coordinated whistling, shouting and flag-waving of the latter can come across as a distasteful brand of public-schoolboy tomfoolery. Thus perhaps in this sense, and in many others, The Last Night of The Proms is a very bad advertisement for The Proms themselves and everything they stand for.
Surely The Proms themselves deserve a higher profile than the formulaic Last Night, to which tickets are scarce and around which so much convoluted Pomp and Circumstance is wound? In order to break through the statistics and optimise the way in which The Proms’ aims are achieved, the more than 70 nights of the Proms before the Last Night could do with some more promotion, with a greater focus on the ‘luring’ aspect of their affordability, as Newman originally planned. In return, perhaps The Last Night ought to be modelled more on the concerts that precede it rather than clinging desperately to tradition. The Last Night’s place in the British cultural calendar is secure – we really can’t get rid of it – but for many music-lovers by the 12th of September, The Proms were already well and truly over.
 Mark Elder was dismissed as conductor of The Last Night of the Proms in 1991 when he openly criticized the nationalistic tone of the second half, and other conductors such as Leonard Slatkin have actively tried to tone this aspect of it down under their tenures.
Anita Datta is an Organist and Musician who graduated in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Now pursuing a Masters of Research at SOAS, her interests include feminism, gender and sexuality, violence, intimacy and ethnomusicology.
The column: Sound world
Sound is all around us, and together with music and its related forms has immense potential to move and engage people, to communicate, to insinuate, and to affect. Sound World explores some of the technical, historical, emotional and philosophical dimensions of ‘music’ both familiar and strange.