The Proms needs its audience just as we need the Proms | Imogen Tilden

A virtual Proms season is to be welcomed, but the unique Royal Albert Hall atmosphere is what makes the concerts so special

•News: Proms to go ahead this summer but not as we know them

I first went to a Proms concert as a teenager. Just as one does still today, I joined the queue that snakes around the outside of the Albert Hall, bought an arena ticket for a few pounds and stood – back in the days when social distancing belonged to dystopian novels – wedged between an armpit to my left, a rucksack to my right, and a suit in front of me who tutted his disapproval when I whispered to my friend. I had to crane my neck to see the musicians, but I was thrilled to be so close to the music that it felt I could inhale it. In the past three decades, I’ve been lucky enough to go to hundreds more Proms, and whether in boxes, stalls, the choir, or from the vertigo-inducing heights of the gallery the experience is special, the atmosphere crackles. 

Like every live event this summer, the Proms, of course, is not able to take place. Instead, the BBC has announced a virtual festival across the eight-week season, with archived concerts each night, and, come late August, a fortnight of live-streamed performances from musicians inside an empty Albert Hall.

The chance to explore the riches of past Proms, and, later, to hear live music, is to be welcomed. But can the Proms be the Proms without its audience? It’s impossible to imagine. I love how people clap between symphony and concerto movements – a sure sign that you have classical newcomers in who don’t yet know it’s not really the done thing to react spontaneously. I love seeing families, and tourists for whom a night at the Proms is as essential as a visit to the British Museum and Windsor Castle. And the Prommers? Of the Royal Albert Hall’s 6,000 seats, 1,400 are kept for music-lovers who buy cheap tickets on the day to stand in the central arena or in the gallery. Many of these go to every single concert, many have been doing this for years and years. You might have heard some of their rituals. A “heave” (from the arena) and a “ho” (from the gallery) as the grand piano is wheeled on stage for a piano concerto. Or the furious applause that greets the sound of the “A” to which the orchestra tunes. The chanted group announcement during the interval telling us the Prommers are collecting for musical charities and will be shaking buckets at the end of the concert. 

Every performer is cheered to the rafters and called back for as many encores as he or she will give. Despite the huge space of the venue, its circular shape makes it incredibly intimate. One of the festival’s most acclaimed events of recent years was Daniel Barenboim’s Ring cycle in 2013. In a speech at the end of the final opera, Barenboim commented on the quality of the attention in the hall. “The communion between musicians and public depends not only on us but also on you, and you have brought so much silence!” 

And what about the famous Last Night, with its bells and whistles, streamers, silliness and flags of every colour? Between the Scylla of Brexit and the Charybdis of Covid-19, there feels little to celebrate in today’s musical world, so let’s hope that the BBC don’t expect us all to unite in a mass Zoomed choir to sing Land of Hope and Glory between clenched teeth. 

Can the Proms be the Proms without its audience? I don’t think so, but I will be tuning in for sure this summer, and raising a glass to this great British festival and praying that we’ll all be back, to be silent together, in 2021.


Imogen Tilden

The GuardianTramp

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