This is a short blogpost about the BBC Proms – I meant to finish it back in September when the Proms was actually still on, but for various reasons* it got delayed, so it is unfortunately a bit out-of-date, but I hope you will still find it at least mildly interesting.
Despite a fair amount of exposure to it over the past year, I still know a shockingly small number of classical pieces, so most of the music I listen to at the Proms is new to me. This puts me in a slightly different category to the vast majority of Prommers, who seem to know all the pieces and the orchestras AND the conductors in virtually every performance!
However, as you will see, the Proms is – and always has been – a classical music festival that anyone and everyone can enjoy. I am certain this is one of the main reasons that it is still so well-loved and popular today.
So what is the Proms all about? Well, every year from about the middle of June through to September the world’s greatest classical music festival takes place in London. Thousands of people rush to buy tickets for their favourite pieces and performers as soon as booking opens. Many – probably most, in fact – of these people are dedicated devotees to classical music in all its various forms: they may have the scores to the pieces with them so they can follow the music by sight as well as ear, they could have been Promming for decades and will almost certainly know a tremendous amount about the music and the performers. For people like me who know relatively little about classical music, going to the Proms is both enjoyable and educational – before even hearing the music you can listen to people chatting about different conductors, composers etc for hours beforehand in the queue. The organisers even put on pre-concert talks so that you can hear a discussion of the composer and/or piece before listening to the performance.
Before going any further, I will explain a little bit about the origins of the festival, the formal title of which is “The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC”! Despite its official title, the festival was actually the brainchild of a man named Robert Newman, who, in 1895, decided that he wanted to set up an event to bring classical music to a wider audience:
“I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.”
Apart from finding the notion of ‘training’ the public rather amusing, I think this was (and still is) a wonderful idea. He reinforced the inclusive nature of the festival by allowing eating, drinking & smoking in the venue, which was originally the Queen’s Hall. The building was unfortunately destroyed during an air raid in 1941 and after that the concerts were held at the Royal Albert Hall. Henry Wood was appointed official conductor and he assembled the Queen’s Hall orchestra to perform the concerts. After Newman died in 1926, Wood was the name most closely associated with the Proms. There is always a bust of Wood placed in front of the RAH Organ at all the Proms concerts, but it seems a shame that Newman is less well known, particularly as he was the one who had the original idea for the festival.
The word “prom” comes from the term ‘promenade concert’, which refers to the outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens, where people were free to stroll around as the music played. Nowadays, “promming” refers to those who buy tickets for the standing areas – either up in the gallery or down in the arena. Standing tickets are, not surprisingly, much cheaper than seats, usually costing £5. They are purchased on the day of the concert, so if you want a good view (and if the performance promises to be something special) you need to arrive a few hours before the concerts start – and for some particularly momentous concerts, you may even need to start queueing the night before.
Having mentioned how cheap the standing tickets are, I feel I should perhaps issue a word of warning here. Standing up for two hours or so to listen to a symphony or two is just about do-able, although you will (unless you have the leg muscles of a super-athlete or bionic legs or something) still suffer from “Prommer’s Legs” afterwards. But I cannot understand for the life of me how prommers managed to stand for the whole five hours of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg last year. The mind boggles. Perhaps they underwent a special training regime….or maybe they’re all tenth-level yogis?
This brings us on to another point of interest – the prommers themselves. Many of these are well-known faces because they appear at almost every concert, and some of them are so intriguingly eccentric that they end up being given nicknames based on their individual quirks. Hence we have Cycling-Shorts Man, Score Lady and someone I like to think of as Tuxedo Man…he turned up at a prom last year wearing full evening dress down to the waist…and then shorts and sandals. This was presumably because he wished to look decently formal for the event but realised in a hot crowd no one was likely to see his legs, so he could get away with something cooler. Possibly.
It may seem odd that people are prepared to stand in queues for hours on end just to see something that will almost certainly be televised or at least on the radio, but watching it at home simply does not come close to the experience you get when you actually see and hear the orchestra performing live right in front of you, particularly when you are in a building as impressive as the Royal Albert Hall. And queuing is not necessarily the interminable tedium you might imagine – people bring books, chairs, picnics etc and there is a good deal of camaraderie which makes the time pass surprisingly quickly – although it is perhaps worth knowing some of the finer points of Prom Queue Etiquette. Strictly speaking you are not supposed to leave the queue, but there is an unwritten rule that says you can leave for up to half an hour to go and buy lunch/ice cream/use facilities etc, but longer than that will probably not be tolerated and you may find self-appointed Principals of the Line casting stern looks in your direction on your return!
At about lunchtime the Prom stewards will come round with raffle tickets so you have a number and henceforth Know Your Place in the queue. Later, at around 4-5pm, the stewards will venture forth again, this time to sell the actual tickets. The pre-concert talks are usually just after this and then the performance usually starts at around 7.30pm – although timings will obviously differ for morning and afternoon Proms.
Below I have a few photos of some lovely Prommers in the queue for the arena, which usually forms down the steps leading up to the Albert Hall – the gallery queue (which I’ve never been in) is round the side of the building. I should point out that the left-hand side of the steps is for common-or-garden Prommers, but the right-hand side is reserved for those devotees who have purchased a Season Ticket. That queue is usually shorter and has perhaps a slightly higher level of eccentricity per capita.
If you have never been to the Proms before, I would definitely recommend it. You don’t have to dress up – jeans and trainers are perfectly acceptable. You get to hear fabulous music played by world-class performers in a wonderful setting at a very reasonable price and all you need is a couple of friends (or a good book) to help pass the time in the queue. Not a bad way to spend a summer’s day.
*an obscene amount of procrastination