Musical Notes: A Review Of Proms Past

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A BBC Promenade Concert Season Remembered

Just over a week ago, the BBC announced the programme for the forthcoming season of Promenade Concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall. This season — the 116th — starts on Friday, 16 July, and what a start it is: First Night — Gustav Mahler's monumental Eighth Symphony1; second night — a complete concert performance of Richard Wagner's magnificent comic opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; third night — another opera performance, this time Giuseppe Verdi's Simon Boccanegra.

By coincidence, the very same day as the programme was announced, I was hunting through my archives looking for an old concert programme. In the same box as the one I sought were the programmes and prospectuses for Prom seasons of 40 years ago, so I sat and thumbed through a few of them.

The late 1960s were a peak period for me as a Promenader. I'd been attending carefully-selected Proms, if I remember correctly, since the 1964 season, but by 1968 I was a fully-fledged Promenader. After my marriage in 1972, circumstances and finances rather curtailed my Promming, so I became an armchair Prommer, listening to many of the broadcasts on Radio 3 and watching the very few that were televised at that time. In practice I was often not back home from work in time to listen to the broadcasts live, so I built a simple gizmo that would start my reel-to-reel tape recorder at the appropriate time to capture the Prom. I could then listen to it later in the evening or into the night, often on headphones to avoid disturbing the wife/children/neighbours.

The Cost of Promming

In 1967, the Prom season prospectus could be purchased for the princely sum of one shilling (5p) rising in 1968 to 1s6d (7.5p) and in 1969/70 to two shillings (10p) — 100% 'inflation' in two years; a bit steep, BBC! Price of admission to the Arena, ticket purchased at the door on the night, was five shillings (25p) in 1967/68, and six shillings (30p) in 1969/70. A season ticket for the whole season of 51 or 52 concerts cost 125 shillings (£6.25); 150 shillings (£7.50) in 1969/70. You could also purchase half-season tickets, allowing entry during either the first four weeks of the season, or the second four weeks, as appropriate. These cost 75s (£3.75) in 1967/68, rising to 90s (£4.50) in 1969/70. For me however, the star ticket on offer was the Special Season Ticket. This gave you admission to any 25 concerts of your choice at a cost of 87s 6d (£4.38). Tickets for the First and Last Nights were excluded, but in 1969 the ticket was extended to cover these concerts as well (if required, as the prospectus innocently put it), albeit with the cost increased to 105s (£5.25).

To put these figures in context, my salary at the time was around £1,000 a year.

Concert Programmes

The term 'concert programme' here refers to the paper document that was sold to accompany each night's concert. In the late 1960s they cost 1s (5p) rising later to 1s 6d (7.5p). They were far simpler (and far cheaper) than the glossy brochure that is offered at present-day Proms: a monochrome booklet of 10 or so pages, a little smaller than A5 size, with a single-colour cover, the colour being fixed for each season. The number of pages increased if the concert included a piece such as a Monteverdi Magnificat, for which the text was required. Apart from basic information like the list of work(s) to be performed and the artists performing them, there were programme notes about the works by authoritative writers, biographical notes on star soloists and conductors, and a list of the names of the orchestral players. There were usually a couple of advertisements, often for gramophone recordings of one or more of the works being performed, or recordings by the performer and/or conductor of the evening. Music sellers such as Boosey and Hawkes would advertise books and music scores; the BBC of course would advertise The Listener magazine.

Getting There

The journey from my then place of work in Wembley, NW London, to the Royal Albert Hall called for military precision. Timing was critical, getting to Wembley Park Tube Station promptly, getting in the right carriage on the fast London Underground Metropolitan Line train for a swift change (into the right carriage again) onto the slower Bakerloo Line train at either Finchley Road or Baker Street to Piccadilly Circus, change again onto the Piccadilly Line train to South Kensington, walk/run up Exhibition Road to the Royal Albert Hall, drop my coat as a place marker in the season ticket holder door queue, dash round to the pub in Queen's Gate that the musicians used to frequent, to grab a bite of something to eat, then back to the Hall to wait for the doors to open, make a furious dash round the corridor that runs around the Hall below the level of the arena and up the short flight of stairs into the arena itself, then get as close to the front rail as possible. Breathe again — it kept you fit, did Promming!

After the concert, it was back to the pub for a couple of drinks with friends you'd met or possibly made that very evening. Finally home to flop into bed and sleep for a few hours. Next day, get up and go to work until late afternoon, when the whole process of getting to the Proms started again. For two months of the year, it dominated your life – nay, it was your life.

1969 – The 75th Season

I've chosen 1969 as a season to remember for two reasons: firstly it was the 75th anniversary season, and secondly, it was the first season during which I was present at both the First and the Last Night of the Proms.

As I mentioned above, the 2010 season will start with Mahler's massive Eighth Symphony; the 1969 season started on a similar scale with Colin Davis2 conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Grande Messe des Morts by Hector Berlioz. Three days later, at the opposite end of the magnitude scale, we had the first performance in this country of Luciano Berio's Sinfonia, sung by The Swingle Singers and conducted by the composer.

At the end of the first week, Charles Groves3 conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto, played by Jacqueline du Pré. It was a landmark performance of the concerto; the BBC's recording was later made available on CD. None of us at that concert knew how little performing time was left to this magnificent cellist4. I had seen her perform this concerto the previous year at a special concert put on by du Pré and her husband, the pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim, in protest at the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. On that occasion I was seated in the stalls behind the orchestra; it was the only time I have ever seen a solo cellist break a string, as du Pré did at the start of the second movement.

Concerts 10 and 11 were memorable for different reasons. In the first, Sir Adrian Boult conducted a programme that included Elgar's Symphony No. 1. The following night should have been straightforward: Walter Susskind conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra — Simon Rattle was as yet only 14 years old — in Schubert's Fourth Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Fifth. Sandwiched in between was programmed Richard Rodney Bennett's Piano Concerto, to be played by Stephen Bishop5. Unfortunately, when the piano was brought onto the stage, they forgot to lock the wheels. Initially, the effect was that the piano tended to drift away from Bishop as he played, but he was able to pull it back towards him at suitable moments. However, soon after, the front desk of the cellos felt in danger of being run over and jammed his foot against the back leg of the piano. This stopped it moving backwards — instead it now began swinging ominously from side to side like a pendulum. Fortunately, in the end no harm was done and I don't remember any serious problem with the performance, although I admit that from the second row of the arena, my attention was focussed more on the performance of the piano than that of Bishop and the orchestra. The following night, a firmly-anchored Colin Davis conducted Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedict; interesting in hindsight is the fact that some of the lesser spoken parts of this work were given by a 24-year-old Helen Mirren.

For concert 19, Sir John Barbirolli conducted the Hallé Orchestra in a programme that included Walton's Partita and the Third Symphony of Sibelius. A few days later, Bernard Haitink conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, with soloist Alfred Brendel, and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony, and a few days after that, Haitink and the LPO returned to perform Mahler's Second Symphony 'The Resurrection', with Margaret Price and Norma Proctor as the vocalists. Mahler again featured in concert 37, when Jascha Horenstein conducted the Seventh Symphony.

During the last week of the season, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra visited to play three concerts, conducted for two of them by their great conductor Václav Neumann. At their first appearance, they had clearly never seen anything like a Proms audience, and were visibly nervous as they were ushered, almost herded onto the stage. Remember, this was only a year after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and support for the Czech people was running very high in London and elsewhere; the reception for the orchestra in the hall was deafening. They started with very familiar music (both to themselves and to us): the overture to Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride, and the final movement of the same composer's nationalist tone poem, Má Vlast (My Country). They soon settled down and began to enjoy themselves. Their last concert featured Martinu's Sixth Symphony and Mahler's Fifth. The night following the Czech's last concert, André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra played Brahms Violin Concerto, with Ida Haendel as soloist, and Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. This was only three years after Previn and the LSO had made their now-historic recording of this symphony.

The penultimate concert, which in those days was always Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, was played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt.

And so as always, all too soon it was time for the Last Night of the Proms. In charge for only the second time since the death of Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1967, was the white DJ'd Colin Davis. My prospectus has annotated changes to the advertised programme: in place of a first performance of The Battle of Britain March from Walton's ill-fated film score, we heard the same composer's Capriccio Burlesco, written in 1968; replacing the Brahms Academic Festival Overture was Elgar's Cockaigne Overture. In the first half, the great French horn player, Alan Civil, played Richard Strauss's First Horn Concerto.

So completed, what for me, was one of my favourite Prom seasons. Other seasons, other memories; I loved every minute of them. I still go to as many Proms as I can manage, although now I prefer the comfort of a seat rather than standing in the arena. There is no music festival in the world like the Proms, they are unique.

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1I have written two Entries on this symphony that are currently going through Peer Review.2Not yet Sir Colin Davis; he wasn't knighted until 1980.3Again, not yet Sir Charles Groves. He was knighted in 1973.4In 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and could no longer play. She died in 1987.5Now known as Stephen Kovacevich.

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