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THROUGH BBC WORLD SERVICE, I am virtually taking part in a British tradition, The Proms concerts. And, most appropriately, Diverted Traffic 115, London Review of Books, September 6, 2020, reprinted David Cannadine’s Last Night Fever.

Here are tidbits on The Proms, including their upcoming Last Night celebration on September 12, 2020. My sources include this LRB piece and the BBC.

The First Promenade Concerts. In the mid-18th century, concerts were enjoyed by people while strolling through London’s public gardens. In 1895, the creation of Queen’s Hall in London’s Langham Place gave rise to an annual series of Promenade Concerts organized by impresario Robert Newman. 

Queen’s Hall, London, as viewed in a 1912 postcard.

Newman said, “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.” 

Conductor Henry Wood, only 26 at the time, formed the Queen’s Hall Orchestra for these events. In keeping with the promenade idea, the concerts were informal with eating, drinking, and smoking permitted. 

Sir Henry Joseph Wood, 1869–1944, English conductor, best known for his association with The Proms. Image c. 1909 by Ernest Walter Histed, The Musical Times, 1911.

BBC to the Rescue. The newly established British Broadcasting Corporation took over the Promenade Concerts in 1927, a year after impresario Newman’s death. When the BBC Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1930, it became the primary orchestra for the concerts. 

BBC Coat of Arms.

A Wood Tale. LRB author Cannadine wrote that during the 1930s, the promenaders became more noisy and assertive. This gave rise to a charming response by conductor Wood with the rousing “Sailor’s Hornpipe” portion of his Fantasia on British Sea Songs

“The younger Promenaders,” Wood said, “stamp their feet in time to the hornpipe – that is until I whip up the orchestra in a fierce accelerando which leaves behind all those whose stamping technique is not of the very first quality. I like to win by two bars, if possible; but sometimes have to be content with a bar and a half. It is good fun, and I enjoy it as much as they.”

World War II and the End of the Wood Era. Private sponsors continued The Proms after BBC withdrew temporarily at the outbreak of war in 1939. Alas, Queen’s Hall was devastated beyond repair in a May 1941 air raid. The concerts moved to Royal Albert Hall until 1944.

Conductor Wood celebrated his 75th birthday in March 1944. Later that year, The Proms were moved out of London, Cannadine noted “because of the new menace represented by the V-I.” Wood died in August, 1944.

The Proms relocated to the Bedford Corn Exchange. The city of Bedford, some 50 miles north-northwest of London, hosted the events until the end of the war.

Sir Malcolm Sargent’s Proms. In 1947, BBC appointed Sir Malcolm Sargent as Proms conductor. Cannadine noted, “He had recently been knighted after sustained lobbying of the Labour government by his friend and sometimes lover Edwina Mountbatten, and by agreeable coincidence, had been born in 1895, the year in which the Promenade Concerts had begun.”

Sir Malcolm Sargent, 1895–1967, English conductor, organist, and composer, chief conductor for The Proms, 1948–1967. Image from Classic fm.

 Sir Malcolm died on Friday, October 3, 1967, at age 72, two weeks after he delivered a brief speech from the rostrum at The Prom’s Last Night. He had been too ill to conduct, and Colin Davis had taken over. In Sargent’s honor, ever since, The Proms have started on a Friday night.

Royal Albert Hall, London, home of The Proms.

The Virtual Proms 2020. Audience attendance at Royal Albert Hall was precluded for 2020 because of the pandemic. BBC announced full TV and radio listings for The Proms season from July 17 (a Friday) to the Last Night celebration on September 12. 

The Last Night will feature violinist Lisa Batiashvili and soprano Golda Schultz, who performed at the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-2020 production of Porgy and Bess

Golda Schultz sings Clara’s Act I aria in Porgy and Bess.

 Schultz, who is South African, portrayed Clara, a major role that includes the show-stopping “Summertime.” Porgy and Bess was recently part of the Met’s Free Streaming.

Thanks to the Met and the BBC, I’ve been fortunate in my virtual attendances. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020 

2 comments on “BBC PROMS 2020

  1. kzhw
    September 9, 2020

    See PROM – Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate – “Brush off your Shakespeare” for the melding of Broadway and British music hall traditions for an erudite and as ribald as Porter gets rendition of a a show stopper.

    The original movie version 1953 as far as I know – Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore here:
    from the country that calls Miller Lite beer.

  2. Andrew G.
    September 10, 2020

    I only learned about the BBC Proms recently when I was trying to find out the name of an earworm I couldn’t shake. Found it!

    (Remind me never to mess with any conductor that powerful in a dark alley. I might not survive long enough to regret it.)

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