How A British Classical Music Fest Survived Two World Wars To Bring Music To The Masses

Jul 28, 2017

One of the most beloved classical music festivals in the world is midway through its eight-week run. The BBC Proms features nightly concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. From the beginning in 1895, the spirit of the festival has been clear: an informal atmosphere, affordable ticket prices and concert programming that was at once accessible and challenging and that makes live classical music more available to audiences.

Keeping the tradition going for 123 seasons—and through two World Wars—wasn’t always easy, and the enduring success of the Proms is largely due to co-founder and conductor Sir Henry Wood, who presided over the concerts for nearly half a century.

Beginnings

In 1894, a 25-year-old Wood was approached by Robert Newman, the manager of the recently opened Queen’s Hall, and was asked to conduct a concert of light classical music. Wood formed the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and an audience of 2,500 gathered for the first ever Proms concert.

A 1907 Vanity Fair caricature of Henry Woods. The caption reads: "Queen's Hall."
Credit Leslie Ward / Wikimedia Commons

Unlike other concert halls, audiences were allowed to eat, drink and smoke (although they were asked to refrain from striking matches during vocal pieces). Wood’s skill with both the orchestra and the audience allowed an increase in more complex symphonic music in the Proms programs, and soon Wood had dedicated entire nights each week to the performance of music by Beethoven and Wagner.

Even with the success of the first Proms concerts, Newman found himself bankrupt in 1902 and Sir Edgar Speyer, a banker and philanthropist of German origin, stepped in as a primary funder.  

World War I

With the onset of the first World War, anti-German sentiments began to grow in Britain. The arts were not immune to such attitudes, and British musicians wrestled with the fact that their musical canon was largely Germanic at its core. With some calling for a complete ban of German music, the Proms canceled its Wagner night in 1914.

Wood, who was known for his open-minded approach to repertoire, issued the following statement: “The substitution of a mixed programme in place of a wholly Wagnerian one was not dictated by any narrow-minded intolerant policy, but was the result of outside pressure… The greatest examples of Music and Art are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices and passions of the hour.”

Even as public opinion differed, Wood continued to program German repertoire throughout the war — and to this day, Wagner has received twice as many performances as any other composer at the Proms.  

But Edgar Speyer, who had saved the Proms from bankruptcy just a handful of years prior, was stripped of his British citizenship and sought refuge in the United States in 1915. With Speyer exiled, music publisher Chappell & Co. stepped in to finance the concerts, and in 1927, the BBC assumed the role.

Below, the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, performed at the 2012 Proms. 

World War II

In 1938 a widespread celebration of Wood’s long career culminated in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall for which Vaughan Williams wrote and dedicated to Wood his Serenade to Music. However, celebrations were followed soon by the outbreak of WWII and the withdraw of the BBC’s support for the Proms.

Wood, with the help of private investors, kept the concerts going for the 1940 and 1941 seasons. But further hardship was ahead. On May 10, 1941, a German bomb destroyed the Queen’s Hall, home to the Proms since the inaugural 1895 season. Just 63 days after the bombing, the 47th Proms season launched at the Royal Albert Hall—the same venue where Wood had been honored a few years prior.

Today

Even after Wood's death in 1944, the Proms continued to flourish and expand through the decades, adding events like pre-concert talks, Proms for children and Proms in the Park. And the egalitarian spirit of the Proms remains: a come-as-you are dress code and  £6.00 "promming" tickets (which allow patrons to stand in the large open space directly in front of the stage in the Royal Albert Hall) are two enduring traditions.

2011 saw record attendance, with over 300,000 attending Proms concerts. Another 18.5 million viewers in the UK tuned in across all BBC television platforms, and 2 million heard the live BBC Radio 3 broadcasts each week. 

One of the most beloved Proms tradition is the "Last Night," when audiences don their most British regalia and sing along with both reverence and humor to a finale of British patriotic pieces. Edward Eglar's Pomp & Circumstance March No. 1, Thomas Arne's "Rule, Britannia!" and the British National Anthem are annual staples. 

During that final performance, the spirit of Henry Wood is not far. A bust of the man who co-founded the Proms and was its champion through the most difficult years of the 20th century resides at the back of the Royal Albert Hall's stage. Each year, an audience member places a chaplet over the bust before the performance of Wood's "Fantasia on British Sea Songs." 

You can hear this year's "Last Night" broadcast live September 9th at 7:30 PM (that's 1:30 PM CST) on BBC Radio 3

Tags: