I’m delighted to hear that this year’s BBC Proms will include at least some live performances. Unsurprisingly, most of the 2020 season is made up of re-runs of memorable past concerts.But, according to the Radio Times website, “Friday 28th August will see the focus shift from revisiting past performances to exciting new ones, as organisers plan to have musicians playing live at the Royal Albert Hall for the final two weeks, culminating in an emotional Last Night of the Proms“.
The totemic TV images of historic Last Nights of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts will have to suffice during the pandemic. Their symbolism is woven into the very fabric of British culture, though of course they form only a small portion of the full annual eight-week summer season of classical music.
I’m prompted to mention this because I recently came across a wartime copy of Radio Times in our family memorabilia. The issue is dated August 15th, 1941, and its front cover leads with the news that, whilst German bombs may have destroyed Queen’s Hall – where the Proms had taken place since their founding in 1895 – a successful transition had been made to their new venue, the Royal Albert Hall. “Traditional scenes of enthusiasm will mark the end of the forty-seventh Promenade Concerts on Saturday”, says the front page blurb. “There will also be broadcasts on Monday and Friday. More pictures of the Promenaders in their new home, the Royal Albert Hall, are on page 5”.
Turning to page 5, we hear the tone of wartime defiance in the description of audiences at the new venue …
“Blitzed out of Queen’s Hall, the Proms this season have moved to Kensington. For six weeks, Sir Henry Wood and the London Symphony Orchestra have been making music to packed audiences at the Royal Albert Hall.
“Across the vast floor of the Albert Hall stretches a sea of heads. These are the greatest Prom audiences ever. Two thousand music-lovers were capacity at Queen’s Hall – between five thousand and six thousand have been present on certain nights this year. Intent rapturous, motionless, they stand”.
“In these boxes revellers have drunk in the New Year at the Chelsea Arts Ball, cigar-smoking sportsmen roared at heavyweights, ideologists acclaimed politicians, music-lovers heard Kreisler, Gigli, Cortot. Now, unlikely in their splendour, sit Prom-goers. Somewhere in these heights lurks the Albert Hall’s famous phantom – its echo. Experts with screen and canvas have all but laid it, at last.
“Youth at the bar! Familiar to any Prom enthusiast are these types that lean intently forward in their common worship. These are the early birds, the wise who make sure of more to support them than pure fervour. Gone in many cases is the wild-haired deshabille that characterised the Prom devotee – the Service barber and the Service uniform have worked their way upon it. But battledress can’t change the heart of its wearer. Whatever the shape of future things to come, the Proms are sure to be part of them”.
The enemy in 2020 may not be raining bombs on our heads. But at this point it seems to pose as deadly a potential threat to our everyday lives as did the Luftwaffe.
Let’s hope that, by the time of the next Last Night, we’ll have consigned Covid-19 to the dustbin of history, just as we did Hitler.