The BBC Proms is often described as the greatest classical music festival in the world which is quite an accolade. On closer inspection, it is easy to see how the Proms have become so popular. It runs for two months every summer from July through to September and hosts over 70 performances mainly held at The Royal Albert Hall in London. BBC Radio 3 broadcasts all the concerts and increasingly they appear live on television too. World class conductors, composers, singers and instrumentalists are featured daily and the music they play ranges from medieval to contemporary classical music and more recently, jazz, musical theatre and even pop.
The main feature that differentiates the proms from other classical music festivals, are the ‘promenaders’. The audience members who have queued up for tickets (sometimes for hours in the cold and rain) and then proceed to stand for the concert in certain areas of the hall. This then allows them to sway (often in tandem with the music) and move about during the performances! This is great fun and a wonderful informal tradition. I have been a ‘prommer’ several times and the atmosphere in this area of the hall is electric. Often friends are made for life. There are over 1000 standing places available for each concert and at £5.00 a ticket that is surely a bargain!
The Henry Wood Promenade concerts, as they were known originally, began in 1895 in the Queen’s Hall under the auspices of impresario Robert Newman. Newman’s idea was to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical concerts, but who may be attracted by the low ticket prices and the informal ambience. The conductor Henry Wood was then hired to put together the concert programmes and he was responsible for developing the repertoire heard at the proms for many subsequent years until his death in 1944. Thus the prom template was firmly established.
I have been to many prom concerts over the years and they are always exciting, special occasions. Whilst the Royal Albert Hall does not have the best acoustics (an infamous fact!), the building is linked inextricably with this festival and it is now inconceivable that prom events could be held elsewhere. However, over the years other venues have been increasingly involved. The Royal College of Music (across the road from the RAH) often provides a place for pre prom concert talks and chamber concerts are now held at the new Cadogan Hall, just off Sloane Square. Children’s concerts are very popular too (namely the ‘Blue Peter Proms’ and ‘Doctor Who Prom’) as are the ‘Proms in the Park’ events held all over the country. Think hamper, champagne and an evening of sublime music under the stars (or possibly an evening under an umbrella!).
The Last Night of the Proms is the climax of two months of music making. Tickets for this event are like gold dust. The concert always ends with the same familiar British music (rounding off with God Save the Queen and Jerusalem!) and the conductor’s famous ‘speech’ provides a suitable end to this truly magnificent festival.