The Guardian view on the BBC Proms: give women more space and time | Editorial

There are more than 30 female composers in the Proms programme this year. But why is so much of their work banished outside the Royal Albert Hall?

The Proms began in 1895 as the brainchild of impresario Robert Newman and conductor Henry Wood. “Democratising the message of music” was, in Wood’s words, the aim of this cheap summer season of orchestral concerts. When the festival was threatened by financial catastrophe in 1927, it was one of the great enlightened acts of the young BBC to take it on and subsume it into its own work.

The annual arrival of the Proms programme, which was published last week, continues to mark a particular moment in the British cultural calendar. “Your guide to the world’s greatest classical music festival … UK bestseller”, proclaims the cover. For once, such arrogance is justified. The BBC Proms are excellent and open to all-comers. Each night, 1,350 standing tickets are available at the Royal Albert Hall – for great artists from Sir Simon Rattle to Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – for £6 each. All the concerts are broadcast on Radio 3 and available thereafter on the BBC Sounds app; some are shown on TV. Wood’s aims have been fulfilled magnificently.

The festival, in a way, acts as a microcosm of the BBC at least in one sense – that the act of acknowledging the nation’s good fortune in having it at all is usually a prelude for complaining that it is not better. What “better” might consist of remains in the eye of the beholder. The repertoire of complaints is as predictable as the appearance of Brahms in the programme: that it is too elitist; that it is not radical enough; that it does not have enough new commissions; that its non-classical concerts are gimmicky; that the flag-waving patriotism at the Last Night of the Proms represents a frightful imperialist hangover; that not enough concerts are on TV.

Some of these complaints are more valid than others. What is perhaps more interesting is to take a step back and to give thought to how the Proms reflect the cultural moment. We are in the midst of a surge of fourth-wave feminism, and this year’s programmers have clearly given thought to female composers, from the 12th-century Hildegard of Bingen, via Barbara Strozzi and Fanny Hensel, to significant figures of our own day such as Judith Weir, Errollyn Wallen and Anna Þorvaldsdóttir. Indeed, last year the BBC promised that by 2022, half of all Proms commissions would be given to women. On the face of it, the headcount of more than 30 female composers in the programme this year looks impressive – at least compared with previous festivals. On the other, their contribution adds up to only around six hours of music, spread over 75 concerts (most of which last a couple of hours or more). Crucially, around half of these six hours of music will be performed outside the Royal Albert Hall – in much smaller venues, including Cadogan Hall.

Women still aren’t taking up enough time, or space, in the Proms. That may be a regular complaint, but it is one whose failure to address history will look on unkindly.

Contributor

Editorial

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on classical music: art or status symbol? | Editorial
Editorial: While the Proms will bring joy, Beethoven and Bach are too often heard for the wrong reasons

Editorial

04, Jul, 2019 @5:25 PM

Article image
Proms 2019 comment: There's little here to challenge or feel exceptional
This year’s Proms programme, unveiled today, feels a missed opportunity for director David Pickard to show how enterprising and adventurous he could be

Andrew Clements

16, Apr, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on BBC Radio 3: a balm to the soul | Editorial
Editorial: The classical music network offers listeners something infinitely precious – escape, companionship and beauty

Editorial

03, May, 2020 @5:25 PM

Article image
Classical music and the dreaded ‘elite’ tag | Letters
Letters: Alan Davey defends the work of the BBC, Stephen Pettitt says most classical music-making functions on a frayed shoestring, Sue Clark believes interest in classical music is fostered through exposure and participation from an early age, and Paul Michell claims the Guardian’s treatment of classical music is like filling the books pages with Jeffrey Archer reviews

Letters

07, Jul, 2019 @4:38 PM

Article image
Female composers missing from the BBC Proms | Letters
Letters: James Poke says the total playing time of women’s music in this year’s Proms will be less than 6%, though David Hoult adds that proportionally the BBC has it about right

Letters

24, Apr, 2019 @5:13 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the return of live music: hope and longing | Editorial
Editorial: The BBC can help British classical music recover – if the government steps in, too

Editorial

07, Jun, 2020 @5:25 PM

Article image
First night of the Proms review – the moon, and female stars
Zosha Di Castri’s evocative tribute to the Apollo moon landing led an opening night that, under the baton of Karina Canellakis, felt subtly like an upward leap

Erica Jeal

21, Jul, 2019 @10:22 AM

Article image
Proms in the dark: meditative music at the Royal Albert Hall
Festival plans include hip-hop, the Clangers, Queen Victoria’s piano and turning the lights off

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

16, Apr, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
Why, this year, Last Night of the Proms will be woke | Daniel Kidane
My composition premieres tonight. It’s a recognition that classical music needs more diversity, says composer Daniel Kidane

Daniel Kidane

14, Sep, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on the Wigmore Hall: happy 120th birthday | Editorial
Editorial: It may seem staid – to some. But the music played at the Wigmore Hall, and at vital venues like it, stirs the soul

Editorial

04, Jun, 2021 @5:25 PM