There was a time when The Last Night of the Proms was a huge occasion for the entire UK. Like The Royal Variety Show, Children In Need, The Morecombe and Wise Christmas Show, and yes, even Miss World, families around the country would get around the TV on the second Saturday in September in huge numbers to watch the final concert of that year’s Proms concerts and sing along with the various traditional numbers of the second half. But times have changed. It’s not a “must watch” occasion for most families anymore – in fact virtually no television is. What’s more, society has shifted considerably over the last few years, and the pieces celebrating how wonderful Britain was in the days of the Empire really can leave a bitter taste in the mouth if you listen to the lyrics.
Considering the pandemic this year, we were lucky to have any live music at the Proms, but it all worked out in the end, mixing together new commissions and old warhorses with rarities we never knew existed by composers we all know. I make a reference to the last of those because I think it’s important.
The world of classical music seems to have shrunk over the last couple of decades. I went through a few crates of records in a charity shop this week and came across record after record of music that I didn’t know. Semi-forgotten composers like Spohr, Raff, and Goldmark appeared with surprising regularity on the well-known labels. But if you were trying to find new recordings on those labels of those composers – or rarities by composers we do all know – then you’ll be searching on Amazon or in HMV for a long time in most cases. Instead, commercial considerations appear to have become much more important than a wide repertoire. We have a wonderful array of young talent in classical music at the moment, but those signed to major labels are often stuck recording the pieces we all have on our shelves already: Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Rachmaninov’s piano concertos; Chopin Preludes or Nocturnes; Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (and no, you don’t have to message me to tell me the exceptions to the rule). It’s only when you move away from the big labels of DG, Decca, Sony etc that you see a wider range of repertoire – Hyperion, for example, or CPO – or budget-label Naxos, the success of which over the last few decades has been massive. But the Proms premiere of the Sibelius Impromptu for Strings at the Last Night tonight proved that not only are there many composers whose works are totally neglected, but that there also many well-known composers where we only know a fraction of their output.
But the biggest story about this year’s Last Night was the kerfuffle about whether or not Rule Britannia would be sung with words or not. At first the BBC said no, and then they caved in to pressure from a vocal minority, most of whom probably don’t give a toss about classical music anyway. There were even protests in London, where a mob of angry middle-aged men tried to show us all how much they loved the likes of Land and Hope and Glory, but only knew the words to the first line. Times have changed, and changed quickly in the last few years, but the lyrics to Rule Britannia have left a bitter taste in the mouth for some people for a while now. After all, it is a celebration of the Britain that made its way around the globe invading, murdering, raping, pillaging, and enslaving.
So, it is time for the traditions of the last night to go out of the window – just as the tradition of watching that final concert with the family is long gone for most people? Some say that it will just “not be the same” without the jingoistic singalong, but I don’t think that’s the case. Other pieces could easily take their place and still keep the same atmosphere – and that was proven tonight by the glorious arrangement of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which surely is more inspiring than a three-hundred year old war-horse from a forgotten opera (sorry, masque) by a forgotten composer whose fortunes (contrary to my suggestions for broadening the repertoire) I’m in no hurry to revive. Call me a hypocrite. I don’t care.
For better or worse, I doubt that Rule Britannia and the other traditional pieces on the last night will be dropped in the near future. Much of the UK seems to pride itself on tradition, no matter how idiotic and archaic that tradition might be. But personally, I’d much rather see a last night containing a different programme each year, primarily drawing on well-known and well-loved pieces that are accessible to all rather than the same jingoistic twaddle – and that would give an opportunity to revive those ten or fifteen minute pieces that have been disappearing from concert halls since classical concerts have got shorter in the last few decades. While I’m very much in favour of broadening the repertoire, I realise that, for the most part, the Last Night probably isn’t the time to do it, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the same pieces each and every year.
I shall sign off with a final note about tonight’s Last Night, one of the strangest in the 125 years of the Proms. Considering the difficulties that were faced in putting it together and not making it seem utterly strange, it really was something of a triumph – particularly the first half which presented old favourites such as The Marriage of Figaro Overture and The Lark Ascending (even if that is one of the pieces I never want to hear again) alongside new, but accessible, commissions by Andrea Tarrodi and Errollyn Wallen. It worked extremely well – much better than anyone could have hoped for. So congrats to all those involved, from the performers to the organisers and the staff at the RAH. And I might even suggest that, perhaps, the last night in future should, like tonight, be a ninety minute concert with no interval. That certainly works better for television – but probably not so well for the Royal Albert Hall, who can do with selling as many drinks as possible at the bar next year as it claws its way back to (hopefully) financial health and stability.