The Last Night of the Proms will feature the traditional flag-waving anthems Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory, the BBC confirmed on Monday night, but they will be performed as orchestral versions with no singing.
Following suggestions that the music might be axed because of perceived links to colonialism, the BBC said the songs would be played, but in an adapted form without a singer in line with new coronavirus restrictions.
Commenting on the move, the BBC’s media and arts correspondent, David Sillito, said: “The Last Night of the Proms will still have Jerusalem, the national anthem and new orchestral versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory. However, there will be no live audience in the Royal Albert Hall to sing along, and the number of musicians and singers will be reduced and dispersed around the hall because of social distancing.
“The music will, the BBC says, have to be adapted to reflect the new circumstances – which means there will be no singing of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory.”
He said the orchestra-only arrangement was how the tunes were first performed at the Proms in 1905, adding that it was understood that the songs would return with lyrics when the coronavirus restrictions came to an end.
The BBC said in a statement that “decisions about the Proms are made by the BBC” and that it regretted “the unjustified personal attacks” on the guest conductor Dalia Stasevska after reports that she saw the locked down event as a perfect moment to bring change.
After those views were attributed to Stasevska in the Sunday Times, the Finn faced calls for her to be replaced as conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the night. Nigel Farage tweeted: “So the BBC may drop Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory from the Proms because the Finnish conductor is too woke. Why not drop her instead?”
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, also intervened to say he shared concerns over the potential removal of the two songs, which he described as highlights, and that he had raised them with the BBC. “Confident forward-looking nations don’t erase their history, they add to it,” he said in a tweet.
Dowden’s comments came after Downing Street also waded into the row when a spokesman said that on similar issues Boris Johnson has been clear that “we need to tackle the substance of problems, not the symbols”.
Earlier reports had suggested the BBC was discussing whether to drop the anthems in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The organisers were said to be fearful of a backlash because the songs were said to be associated with colonialism and slavery.
Audience members at the annual event at the Royal Albert Hall in London wave union flags while singing Rule, Britannia!, which includes the line “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Stasevska was reported to be among those keen to remove the compositions from the evening’s repertoire. “Dalia is a big supporter of Black Lives Matter and thinks a ceremony without an audience is the perfect moment to bring change,” a BBC source told the Sunday Times.
With live shows from the Royal Albert Hall kicking off from Friday, reduced orchestra sizes, social distancing and empty halls will make the 2020 Proms a very different experience.
Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of the Chineke! orchestra, the majority of whose musicians are black, Asian and from ethnic minorities, has said she would be mortified if the BBC did not axe Rule, Britannia! Last month, the classical music critic Richard Morrison singled out the anthems for criticism in a column for BBC Music Magazine, suggesting they were “crudely jingoistic texts”.