As a month, September feels to most of us as a period of transformation. The weather starts to turn, rounding out the end of the summer, and children go back to start another school year – a feeling of new beginnings that we can all remember.
Traditionally, September is also the end of what is known as ‘The Season’, encompassing major annual summer events, from the Chelsea Flower Show to Wimbledon and finishing with the Proms. September would historically see wealthy families return from London, or other major cities, to their country estates as the winter months drew in.
But the feeling of something drawing to a close at the end of the summer – perhaps marking the beginning of a less frivolous time of year – is very relevant still today. This is what makes the Last Night of the Proms in particular so special. It is a final hurrah or celebration, to be spent outdoors and with family. Plus, as with most things British, it’s an event filled with unusual histories and traditions.
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The Proms Then And Now
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2016 marks the 122nd year of the Proms. Before the most celebrated ‘Last Night’, the Proms actually begin in July, and are a series of over 70 concerts held predominantly at London’s Royal Albert Hall. They were originally conceived by Robert Newman in 1895, who was known for putting on similar concerts in London. Newman wanted an opportunity to educate the masses about classical music like Wagner and Beethoven, generating a wider audience of concert-goers. By offering low price tickets and blending higher classical music with some of the more popular choices of the day, he planned to make the whole experience more accessible.
The atmosphere at these original concerts was informal, with the audiences able to walk around while the music was playing. This lead to the name of the Proms, which comes from the word Promenade – to stroll about. Henry Wood, the original sole conductor of the Proms, was Newman’s co-founder, and conducted the subsequent concerts for nearly fifty years. After his death, the official formal name for the Proms became The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.
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The Proms were taken over by the BBC in 1927 and have since become the largest music festival in the world by means of its broadcast reach on television, radio and the internet. The principles of attracting the public are still at the core of the Proms today, which keep them firmly in the hearts of the British. Even today’s concerts are relatively informal – although a trip to the Albert Hall is generally considered quite a special occasion. Proms Extra is an additional part of the Proms, introduced to encourage younger or new classical music fans. These include singalong events and even workshops, which coincide with the traditional Proms season.
Every year, important events that have marked the previous 12 months are marked with tributes or special performances during the Proms. This year’s include a continue of the recent celebrations of Shakespeare, with 2016 marking 400 years since the playwright’s death. Music legend David Bowie will also be paid tribute with a special performance, following his death at the start of the year. A celebration of Latin American music will also honour the 2016 Olympics taking place in Rio de Janeiro. Overall – there’s something for everyone. Tickets are available here.
The Last Night Of The Proms
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The Last Night of the Proms is probably one of the best known British celebrations of the year. It marks the night where the Proms move out – or more accurately spill over – from the Royal Albert Hall, and where thousands gather together for the final festivities. This is known as Proms in the Park, and most famously takes place in London’s Hyde Park, although in recent years, simultaneous celebrations have also popped up in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and across England. The Proms in the Park usually feature a selection of live acts on stage, before big screens broadcast the final traditional ‘singalong’ live from the Royal Albert Hall.
In-keeping with the British love of picnics, the Proms in the Park are often an opportunity for large groups to get together with their hampers, chairs, rugs and bottles of champagne. The events tend to kick off early, to make the most of the summer evening. In-keeping with the spirit of blending popular music with more classical offerings, American pop legends Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are set to headline the BBC Proms in Hyde Park this year. They will be joined by the likes of Rick Astley and the recently reformed All Saints, as well as the cast of popular West End show Matilda. Along with the finale from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it is music diversity at some of its best.
Keeping Tradition Alive
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Overall, the Last Night of the Proms is when the most tangible sense of celebration really comes out. The Conductor’s speech is a particularly important tradition, where he or she will round off the celebrations with thanks to the orchestra and performers, as well as reviewing the audience figures for the Last Night. The tone of the speech can vary from light-hearted humour, to more serious subject matters, depending on the conductor and the mood of the season.
Most famously associated with the Last Night is the tradition of flag-waving, and not just the British flag, but flags of other nations too. This particular tradition didn’t exist until 1947, but national feelings of relief following World War Two contributed to the celebrations. Nowadays, some of the songs most associated with the Proms include Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia, where the flag-waving frenzy really comes to life. As a nation known for its relatively quiet patriotism, Brits tend to welcome the opportunity to let loose and belt out the well-known words. Fireworks are also often now included as part of the Last Night, particularly in the red, white and blue colours of the Union Jack.
Overall, for music traditionalists or those just discovering their own tastes, the Proms are one of the most important festivals in the British calendar and certainly not to be missed. For more information about attending the Proms, visit www.bbc.co.uk/proms.