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The Archive: How the Proms evolved beyond classical music

The Royal Albert Hall during the BBC Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC The Royal Albert Hall during the BBC Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC
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It’s nearly over for another year. Eight frenetic weeks of classical music concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and another BBC Proms season – the 122nd – ends this Saturday with the usual Elgar, Parry, hornpipe, flags and bunting. Described in 1993 by Liz Forgan, then managing director of BBC Network Radio, as “a vital part of our cultural heritage”, the Proms are not, however, just about music.

Many actors have taken part this year, both in concerts and in pre-concert events. That has been the case since at least 1969, when The Stage reported that: “Actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing added interest to the Promenade Concert performance of Berlioz’s melodious opera Beatrice and Benedict at Royal Albert Hall on July 31 by taking over from singers for the Shakespeare dialogue passages. This had the effect of linking the musical episodes with the drama.”

Founded in 1895 by impresario Robert Newman with the better-known Henry Wood, who conducted most of the concerts at the beginning, the Proms were originally based at Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. The nearby BBC has run them since Newman’s death in 1927. When Queen’s Hall was destroyed by bombing in 1941, the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall. Wood died in 1944 and Malcolm Sargent became lead conductor from 1947 until 1966. It was also Sargent – ever the showman – who developed the last-night tradition of the conductor’s speech. His final, brief Proms appearance – against the advice of his doctors – in 1967 was moving, too. He died only a few weeks later.

Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, presenter Katie Derham, conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich outside the Royal Albert Hall for the launch of the 2016 BBC Prom. Photo: Jonathan Ford/BBC
Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, presenter Katie Derham, conductor Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla and cellist Leonard Elschenbroich outside the Royal Albert Hall for the launch of the 2016 BBC Prom. Photo: Jonathan Ford/BBC

The concerts were broadcast nightly on the BBC’s Third Programme from 1946. That station was replaced by Radio 3 in 1970, which still airs all Proms concerts.

The Third Programme was as committed to drama, poetry and challenging talks as it was to music, which may be partly why the proms began to diversify under William Glock, who became the BBC controller of music in 1959. Hitherto, the Proms had simply been nightly concerts of mostly established repertoire played by British orchestras. “He [Glock] programmed chamber works, started late-night concerts at venues other than the Royal Albert Hall, gave complete opera performances and invited foreign orchestras,” noted the Daily Telegraph in 2000 when Glock died, aged 92.

The first full-length opera – a link between classical music and drama – was Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s Don Giovanni on August 21, 1961. The orchestra was the Royal Philharmonic, and Geraint Evans played the part of Leporello. The Stage later noted a Das Rheingold Prom in 1970, Parsifal in 1972 and Fidelio in 1973. The tradition continues – this year, one Prom was given over to Glyndebourne’s The Barber of Seville. That meant – and continues to mean – lots of actor-singers to the fore.

More recently, musical theatre has received similar treatment. In 2010, a magnificent Stephen Sondheim Prom was staged in honour of the composer’s 80th birthday. Actors Daniel Evans, Maria Friedman, Simon Russell Beale, Julian Ovenden and Jenna Russell – along with Bryn Terfel – paid musical homage with the BBC Concert Orchestra under David Charles Abell. The icing on the cake was Judi Dench singing Send in the Clowns. Then, last year, came a smaller cabaret Prom at Cadogan Hall at which Sian Phillips, Jamie Parker and mezzo soprano Kitty Whately helped to celebrate Sondheim’s 85th birthday.

Actors have featured in other ways, too. The Proms has developed into a full-blown arts festival, rather than one exclusively devoted to classical music. The pre-Proms talks – now called Proms Extras and run at nearby Imperial College – which Glock started in the 1970s, have long ensured that the spoken-word is a key part of the mix.

Audience members at the BBC Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC
Audience members at the BBC Proms. Photo: Chris Christodoulou/BBC

This year, the Shakespeare 400 theme has brought Proms Extras, including actor Samantha Bond discussing Shakespeare and his contemporaries in preparation for a concert featuring Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet. Then there was Simon Callow reading from the German romantic poets who inspired Brahms. Michael Pennington, meanwhile, discussed the ways in which Shakespeare depicts his own theatrical world in the plays, which was followed by a concert of Shakespeare-related music, including Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and William Walton’s Richard III Suite.

Actors have often featured in the main concerts, too. In 2014, John Hurt and Rory Kinnear both performed in different Proms in a single week. Hurt spoke parts of Shakespeare’s text for a performance of Walton’s incidental music written for the 1944 film of Henry V. Neville Marriner conducted. Kinnear, meanwhile, retold the Oedipus story as part of a performance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo.

This year the Proms has a new director. David Pickard comes from running Glyndebourne since 2001. Appointed last year, he has said that he owes around 50% of this year’s programming to his predecessor Roger Wright and Edward Blakeman, who held the fort temporarily. Of course he’ll make changes, as directors of the Proms, even in the days when that had to be combined with other BBC work, always have.

He has, however, publicly promised that the central tenets are in safe hands. “It will be evolution not revolution,” Pickard said earlier this year. Could this, in time, include even more actors and other performers? It has, after all, become an arts festival as well as a musical one.

The Proms runs until September 10

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15

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