God save The Last Night of the Proms post-Brexit

It has always had an undercurrent of jingoism. But, says the former director, it’s time the union jack-wavers realised the truly international nature of the Proms

As the annual ritual of the Last Night of the Proms approaches in the year of the Brexit referendum, there may be a sense of foreboding that this most British of occasions might be hijacked to celebrate the triumph of Little England, to reinforce the message of a land of hope and glory in which Britons never shall be slaves – to the EU or anyone else.

How wrong that would be. At the end of a hugely successful BBC Proms season, with music and orchestras from around the globe, this would be to radically misread the forces that gave birth to the music of the Last Night celebrations, to the concept of the Proms and to the entire tradition of adventurous British music. The inspiration our native music has derived from continental Europe and beyond has been deep and lasting.

What made Edward Elgar, the creator of Land of Hope and Glory, the outstanding composer of his time? It was not a narrow-minded English outlook, but his absorption in continental models. He found the provincial atmosphere in Worcester, where he grew up, stifling. He discovered Brahms, Liszt and Berlioz on his own. In the 1890s, on visits to Europe, he heard all of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Parsifal, Tristan and Die Meistersinger. He incorporated Wagnerian traits in his early oratorios and, by 1902, when The Dream of Gerontius was performed in Düsseldorf, the German composer Richard Strauss praised Elgar as “the English progressivist”.

Sending a message at the 2015 Last Night.
Sending a message at the 2015 Last Night. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

A similar broad outlook applies to other classics of the Last Night. Hubert Parry was also deeply influenced by Wagner, and his choice of William Blake’s visionary poem Jerusalem to set as a unison song was anything but narrowly national. That was the one item from the traditional Last Night to survive the radical reworking of the programme in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. Thomas Arne’s stage work Alfred, which has Rule, Britannia as its finale, is firmly based on models developed by the German immigrant Handel through a lifetime of travel to Italy, study of European music and residence in England.

It would also be false to characterise the Proms as purely English in outlook. Henry Wood was the creator of those Last Night celebrations (although Malcolm Sargent deserves credit for turning them into showbiz in the early days of TV), and his approach was deeply international. Wood scoured Europe for great new works: countless premieres by Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, Bruckner – and famously Schoenberg and Webern – began to transform the repertory, a process carried much further by the revolutionary extension of the season in the 1960s by William Glock, both forward to the European avant garde and backward to early music.

In terms of performers, internationalism was a much later development. The same orchestra played for all the concerts in the early decades. It was only in the 1960s that non-British orchestras began to appear regularly – a far cry from today, when an endless succession of international ensembles clamour to appear in front of the world’s most receptive and open-minded classical music audience.

In 1998, when I was director, there was potentially a tricky moment when we decided to extend that spirit to the Last Night, which until then had an entirely British cast (plus one honorary Brit, the Australian conductor Charles Mackerras). We were fortunate in the context: the Last Night had already expanded outside the Albert Hall to Proms in the Park, and digital TV had enabled many more broadcasts of the season. The mood was of ever-increasing openness, so the introduction of the American baritone Thomas Hampson – and a host of other international stars over the years through to Juan Diego Flórez in 2016 – felt like the most natural thing in the world, especially when balanced with a commitment to a regular piece by a younger British composer.

Watch the 1998 Last Night, with Thomas Hampson, on YouTube

The best British music has never been insular. Even the aspects that feel most nationalistic, such as the folk-song revival, are not typical. It was Constant Lambert who noted that “the strength of the English tradition in art is that it has always been open to fruitful foreign influences”, and that the “self-conscious Englishry practised by the folk-song composers was in itself peculiarly un-English”.

You can argue that we always did things very late in the day – but as a result, we did them very well. The composer Hugh Wood observed how powerfully what we think of as the English tradition – whether Byrd’s masses and the madrigals of the 16th century, Purcell’s viol consorts of the 17th century, Elgar’s 20th-century symphonies and concertos – are all late developments of European models.

The Last Night of the Proms goes around the world and represents us to the world. As we redefine our cultural identity in the wake of the Brexit vote, it’s vital that it shows us, like the rest of the Proms, as open, welcoming and innovative – and, above all, looking to the future of the artform. “Stick to it gentlemen,” said Henry Wood to his (then all-male) players as they struggled with Schoenberg a century ago. “This is nothing like what you will have to play in 50 years’ time!”

The Last Night of the Proms is at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 10 September. Part one is on BBC2 at 7.15pm; part two is on BBC1 at 8.50pm.


Nicholas Kenyon

The GuardianTramp

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