The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Promenade Concerts

Category: Leisure

At the Proms the audience are very mixed and there is always a high proportion of young people. The promenaders in particular are informal, often in shirt-sleeves or light dresses as these are summer concerts, and it is certainly the thing to be extremely enthusiastic. Applause is often warm and frequently begins before the last notes have died away and is often indiscriminate. As many Londoners get their first introduction to concert-going through these popular concerts, part of the audience has still to learn to differentiate between a good and a bad performance.

The Promenade Concerts are given on every week-day from mid-July to mid-September in the Albert Hall with attendances usually between 4,000 and 6,000 at each concert. About 3,000 of the audience stand, not exclusively because it’s only three shillings if you stand and much less if you take a seasonticket. Many stand because they like the tradition of camaraderie that has grown up between the memhers of the audience and between audience and orchestra since this series of Promenade Concerts opened in 1895.

Back in those days, a young British conductor by the name of Henry Wood was concerned about the state of music in Britain. He was worried by the low standard of performance, at the lack of British musicians and the infrequent opportunities for the ordinary person to hear good music. He was convinced that there was a potential audience for serious concerts and was determined that the wider interest in culture being roused by the introduction of general education should be met with a series of cheap concerts in which new works, particularly by British composers, would be introduced, sandwiched between old favourites. The successful policy of mixing classical and modern music in one programme has won acceptance for new music.

After almost three hundred years of musical sterility in Britain, a number of composers have established themselves in the twentieth century — Elgar, Britten, Bush, Holst, Ireland, William Walton and Vaughan-Williams are a few of the better known names. Many of them were heard for the first time at the Proms. Such foreign composers as Debussy, Mahler, Bartok and Shostakovitch were likewise introduced to London audiences, and today, as every concert is broadcast in full or in part, millions of listeners can enjoy the music.

The comparatively widespread interest in serious music is due to a large extent to Henry Wood’s initiative. In the large provincial towns, too, seasons of promenade concerts are held. They are well attended and have playeda leading rolein encouraging the development of musical life in the provinces.

Another Prom innovation was the employment of women members of the orchestra. It happened during the First World War when Henry Wood began accepting the best players regardless of sex.

During the course of the years a famous tradition has grown up. It began in Henry Wood’s time; he was asked to compose something for the anniversary of the Battle of Tralalgar. He arranged a set of tunes, sea-shanties and a hornpipe, and called the whole A Fantasia based on Traditional Sea-Songs. By chance he arranged it as the last item in the last concert of the series. It proved a tremendous success and was played each year as the last item. The Fantasia is still played today in its original position. At one point a hornpipe is played and the audience stamp in time to the music with  their feet. Henry Wood himself wrote: “As for the Fantasia, the younger Promenaders thoroughly enjoy their own part in it. They stamp their feet in time to the hornpipe — that is until I whip up the orchestra into accelerando which leaves behind all those whose stamping is not of the first quality. I like to win two bars if possible but sometimes have to be content with a bar and a half. It is good fun and I enjoy it as much as they.”’

The composition of good music, and a lively atmosphere has won many friends in London and the provinces, and it is small wonder that, especially for the younger generation, the Proms are the musical attraction of the year.

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