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The Proms

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A Promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall, 2004. The bust of Henry Wood can be seen in front of the organ

The Proms (also more formally known as The BBC Proms, or The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC) is an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events held annually, predominantly in the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London, United Kingdom. Founded in 1895, each season now consists of over 70 concerts in the Albert Hall, a series of eight chamber concerts and four Saturday Matinees at Cadogan Hall, additional Proms in the Park events across the United Kingdom on the Last Night and associated educational and children's events. It is the biggest classical music festival in the world.

Proms is short for promenade concerts. The term promenade concert arose from the original practice of audience members promenading, or strolling, in some areas of the concert hall during the concert. Promming now refers to the use of the standing areas inside the hall (the arena and gallery) for which ticket prices are much lower than for the reserved seating. Single concert promming tickets can be purchased, with few exceptions, only on the day of the concert, which can give rise to long queues for well-known artists or works. Prommers can purchase full or half season tickets instead for guaranteed entry, although not guaranteed standing position. A number of Prommers are particularly keen in their attendance, and see it as a badge of honour to achieve the "Grand Slam" of attending every concert of the season. In 1997 one programme in the BBC documentary series "Modern Times" covered this dedicated following.


Although earlier promenade concert series had previously existed, the first Proms concert was held on 10 August 1895 in the Queen's Hall in Langham Place and was arranged by Robert Newman. Newman's idea was to encourage an audience who, though not normally attending classical concerts, would be attracted by the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere (in addition to promenading, eating, drinking and smoking were all allowed).

However, it is the conductor Henry Joseph Wood whose name is most closely associated with the concerts. As conductor from that first concert, Wood was largely responsible for expanding the repertoire heard in later concerts, such that by the 1920s the concerts had grown from being made up of largely more popular, less demanding works, to presenting music by contemporary composers such as Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss and Ralph Vaughan Williams. A bronze bust of Wood, belonging to the Royal Academy of Music, is placed in front of the Organ for the whole season. While now known as BBC Proms, the text on the tickets (along with the headline BBC Proms next to the BBC Logo), still says BBC Music presents the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.

In 1927, the BBC — later based at Broadcasting House opposite the hall — took over the running of the concerts, and when the BBC Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1930 it became the main orchestra for the concerts. At this time the season consisted of nights dedicated to particular composers; Mondays were Wagner, Fridays were Beethoven with other major composers being featured on other days. There were no Sunday performances.

However, with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the BBC withdrew its support. The Proms continued though, under private sponsorship, until the Queen's Hall was gutted by an air raid in 1941 (its site is now the St George's Hotel and BBC Henry Wood House). The following year, the Proms moved to their current home, the Royal Albert Hall, and the BBC took over once more. In 1944 however increased danger to the Royal Albert Hall from bombing meant that the Proms moved again to the Bedford Corn Exchange. This venue had been the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941 and played host to the Proms until the end of the war.

From the 1950s, the number of guest orchestras giving concerts in the season began to increase, with the first major international conductors ( Leopold Stokowski, Georg Solti and Carlo Maria Giulini) performing in 1963, and the first foreign orchestra, the Moscow Radio Orchestra, performing in 1966. Since that time, almost every major international orchestra, conductor and soloist has performed at the Proms. In 1970, Soft Machine's appearance led to press attention and comment as the first "pop" band to perform there.

The other major conductor associated with the Proms was Sir Malcolm Sargent who was Chief Conductor between 1948 to 1966. He was noted for his immaculate appearance (evening dress, carnation) and his witty addresses where he good-naturedly chided the noisy prommers. Sir Malcolm championed choral music, classical and British composers especially the brilliant black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. The charity founded in his name continues to hold a special 'Promenade Concert' each year shortly after the main season ends. The charity also benefits (along with the Musicians' Benevolent Fund and a third "musical" charity, chosen each year) by many thousands of pounds from a collection made by the prommers after most concerts. (The Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund for Children merged with CLIC in early 2005 forming CLIC - Sargent).

The Proms continue today, and still present newly commissioned music alongside pieces more central to the repertoire and early music. Innovations continue, with pre-Prom talks, lunchtime chamber concerts, children's Proms, Proms in the Park either appearing, or being featured more heavily over the past few years. In the UK, all concerts are broadcast on BBC Radio 3, an increasing number are shown on BBC4 with some also broadcast on BBC1 and BBC2. It is also possible to hear the concerts live from the BBC Proms website. The Last Night is also broadcast in many countries around the world.

In 1996 a related series of eight lunchtime chamber concerts was started, taking place on Mondays during the Proms season. In their first year these were held in the Britten Hall of the Royal College of Music (just across Prince Consort Road from the Albert Hall). The following year they moved slightly further afield, to the Henry Cole Lecture Theatre at the V & A. In 2005 they moved further again, to the new Cadogan Hall, just off London's Sloane Square. These allow the Proms to include music which is not really suitable for the vast spaces of the Albert Hall.

Since 1998, the Blue Peter Prom, in partnership with long-running BBC television programme Blue Peter, has been an annual fixture. Aimed at children and families, the Prom is informal, including audience participation, jokes, and popular classics. High demand for tickets - which are among the lowest priced in the season - saw this Prom be split in 2004 into 2 Proms with identical content.

The 2004 season also featured the Hall's newly rebuilt pipe organ, now again the largest in the British Isles. It took two years to complete the task (2002–2004) and was the work of Noel Mander, Ltd., of London. It was the first complete restoration of the instrument since Harrison and Harrison's work in 1936.

The Proms today

The Proms 2005. Most people sit, while Promenaders stand in front of the orchestra. The Royal Albert Hall Organ is in the background.

2008 season

The 2008 season will run from 18 July- 13 September 2008. The BBC has indicated that it will release details of the season as usual during April 2008.

2007 season

The 2007 season ran from 13 July– 8 September 2007, with the first concert beginning with Walton's Portsmouth Point and included Elgar's Cello Concerto performed by Paul Watkins and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Following the previous year's Voice day, brass instruments were specially featured with two concerts on 28 July 2007. Early press coverage focused heavily on the fact that musical theatre star Michael Ball would be the central performer in a concert on 27 August and a concert of British film music on 14 July. This led to media accusations of " dumbing down", despite Nicholas Kenyon's defence of the programme. Anniversaries marked in this Proms season included the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Edward Elgar, the 100th anniversary of the death of Edvard Grieg and the 50th anniversary of the death of Jean Sibelius as well as marking 80 years since the first BBC sponsorship of the Proms.

In February 2007 it was announced that the 2007 season would be Nicholas Kenyon's last as controller of the BBC Proms as he would take up the position of Managing Director at the Barbican Centre from October 2007. He will be succeeded by Roger Wright who will also retain responsibility for BBC Radio 3 and take up a broader role controlling the BBC's classical music output across all media.

2006 season

Details of the 2006 season (the 112th) were announced on 27 April 2006. As expected they marked the 250th birthday celebrations of Mozart and the centenary of Shostakovich's birth. New initiatives for the year included four Saturday matinee concerts at the Cadogan Hall and the chance for audience members to get involved with The Voice, a collaborative piece performed in two Proms on 29 July. On 3 September 2006, a concert was cancelled due to a fire which damaged the hall's electrical system.

Last Night of the Proms

Most people's perception of the Proms is taken from the 'Last Night', although this concert is very different from the others. In the UK, it is usually broadcast on BBC2 (first half) and BBC1 (second half) and usually takes place on the second Saturday in September. The concert is traditionally in a lighter, 'winding-down' vein, with popular classics being followed by a series of British patriotic pieces in the second half of the concert. This sequence begins with Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (Land of Hope and Glory), and continues with Sir Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs which culminates in Thomas Arne’s Rule Britannia. The concert concludes with Hubert Parry's Jerusalem (a setting of a poem by William Blake), and the British national anthem. The Prommers have made a recent tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne but it is not in the programme.

Tickets are highly sought after. Promming tickets are no more expensive than for other concerts throughout the season, but tickets for seats are more expensive. It is usually necessary to attend several other Proms in the season to have a chance of getting a Last Night ticket. In the post-War period, with the growing popularity of the "Last Night", the only way to obtain tickets was through a postal ballot system where prospective buyers submitted an application well in advance, along with a stamped and addressed reply envelope. The lucky ones received their tickets by return.

Prommers with tickets are likely to queue up much earlier than usual (even overnight) in order to ensure a good place to stand in the hall. The resulting cameraderie adds to the atmosphere. Fancy dress is an optional extra: from dinner jackets to patriotic T-shirts. Many use the occasion for an exuberant display of Britishness. Union Flags are carried and waved by the Prommers, especially during Rule Britannia. Flags (mostly national flags and regional flags), balloons and party poppers are all welcome. Sir Henry Wood's bust is crowned with a laurel chaplet by representatives of the Promenaders, who often wipe an imaginary bead of sweat from his forehead or make some similar gentle visual joke. Near the end, the conductor makes a speech thanking the musicians and audiences, and mentioning the main themes covered through the season.

The Royal Albert Hall could be filled many times over with people wishing to attend the Last Night. To accommodate these people, and to cater for those who are not near London, the Proms in the Park concerts were started in 1996. Initially there was only one, in London's Hyde Park adjacent to the Hall. More locations have been added in recent years, and in 2005, Belfast, Glasgow, Swansea and Manchester hosted a Last Night Prom in the Park which was broadcast live from each venue. 2007 saw Manchester's prom being replaced by one in Middlesbrough. Each location has its own live concert, typically playing the country's respective national anthems, before joining in a live big screen video link up with the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional finalé.

Leonard Slatkin, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra until recently, expressed a desire to tone down the nationalism of the Last Night somewhat, and since 2002 Rule Britannia has only been heard as part of Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs (another piece traditional to the last night) rather than separately. Slatkin's first Last Night was in 2001, just days after 9/11 attacks: it was more restrained than normal. He was the first non-Commonwealth citizen to conduct the final night. A heavily revised programme saw Beethoven's 9th replacing the Sea Songs etc and also included Samuel Barber's melancholy Adagio for Strings.

Last Night Conductors

The following table lists by year the people who have acted as conductor at the Last Night of the Proms. This duty is normally undertaken by the Principal Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but the role has on occasion been undertaken by a number of guest conductors. Where appropriate, the table indicates such guest status.

Year Name Status
1895-1940 Sir Henry Wood
1945 Constant Lambert
Basil Cameron
Sir Adrian Boult
1949-1966 Sir Malcolm Sargent
1967-1968 Colin Davis
1969 Norman Del Mar Guest
1970-1972 Colin Davis
1973 Norman Del Mar Guest
1974 Sir Charles Groves Guest
1975 Norman Del Mar Guest
1976 Sir Charles Groves Guest
1977 James Loughran Guest
1978 Sir Charles Groves Guest
1979 James Loughran Guest
1980 Sir Charles Mackerras Guest
1981-1982 James Loughran Guest
1983 Norman Del Mar Guest
1984 James Loughran Guest
1985 Vernon Handley Guest
1986 Raymond Leppard Guest
1987 Mark Elder Guest
1988 Andrew Davis Guest
1989 Sir John Pritchard
1990-1992 Andrew Davis
1993 Barry Wordsworth Guest
1994-2000 Sir Andrew Davis
2001-2004 Leonard Slatkin
2005 Paul Daniel Guest
2006 Mark Elder Guest
2007 Jiří Bělohlávek
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