Dedicated follower of fashion? Part I

What the fashionable woman might have been wearing to the First Night of the Proms in 1926. Big hats were thankfully out of fashion; but it’s to be hoped that the weather was warm as most stylish evening gowns lacked sleeves.

Followers of MusiCB3 on social media – Facebook and Twitter – will know that we’ve been suggesting some Proms listening throughout what should have been the 2020 season, by dipping into the Proms Archive, with a daily work that would have been performed on that date at the Proms in a previous year. Susi went one better last week, and was able to take us to a complete Prom in July 1962, thanks to the pen of Hans Keller.

It struck me while browsing for inspiration through the Proms Archive that although in some ways little had changed, there had also been many changes over the years, as musical fashions and mores evolved. This was reflected in the programming of the Proms.

So what did I notice about Proms fashions?

Programmes could be conservative or adventurous, composers moved in and out of fashion, and the format of Proms programmes changed, and, changed back again. There were winter and summer seasons, complementary seasons, even a North and South Proms (more on the composers and the changing Proms seasons in a later post).

Earlier seasons, in common with concerts generally, usually consisted of a number of shorter works, often including excerpts from longer works. Lohengrin: the highlights might seem odd now, but in fact excerpts from the opera (and not necessarily just one of the orchestral preludes) were played every year at the Proms between 1895 and 1954. In fact Lohengrin was so popular that during some of the early years of the Proms, an excerpt was played in virtually every concert during the season.

The first BBC Prom in 1926 had a gloriously catholic programme:

The National Anthem (de rigeur for any public meeting) was followed by Henry Wood’s arrangement for orchestra of Bach’s Toccata in D minor (BWV 540). A recitative and aria from Verdi’s I vespri Siciliani provided a gentle interlude before the symphonic poems of Honegger’s Pacific 231 and Franck’s Les Djinns closed the first half of the concert.

Franck bridged the two halves of the concert with his Symphonic variations opening the second half of the evening. This was followed by the second suite from De Falla’s The three cornered hat, and then another operatic interlude, an aria from La Boheme sung by Clara Butterworth. Works influenced by British folksong including Vaughan Williams’ Old King Cole, Wood’s own Fantasia on Scottish melodies, two songs by Montague Philips from unrelated collections, and Ernest Longstaffe’s When the Sergeant-Major’s on parade, then led on to the final work, a return to Spain with Chabrier’s Espana.

A popular touch at the First Night of the Proms in 1926

The National Anthem continued to open every First Night of the Proms until 1969, and still features on every Last Night.

Looking at the First Night of 1926 with its solo singers (at least some accompanied by piano), orchestral suites, and mix of serious and light music, it has much more in common with the sort of programming that would have been popular in a Black Bear Music Club concert of a century earlier. This would change however. Gradually through the ’50s and ’60s programmes became shorter, or at least consisted of fewer items and lengthier pieces. And by the early ’80s although there were still some more unusual eclectic programmes, the Overture, Concerto, Symphony format was becoming increasingly the norm. Although this now seems “normal”, it’s important to remember that this would have seemed most unusual just twenty years earlier.

More recently this rather rigid format has changed again, and there are concerts featuring a mix of choral and orchestral numbers, a solitary large-scale work such as the Bach B Minor Mass, related symphonies such as the Barenboim Beethoven programmes of 2012, or more unusual concerts such as the Wallace & Gromit (Nice bit of Shostakovich, Gromit?), or the very popular Doctor Who Proms.

Another change, which would probably have astonished Proms goers of the 1920s was the impact of the school of historically informed performance. If you look at works written by Bach and performed at the Proms, there are a huge number of arrangements. Many of these are cantatas, where excerpts have been selected and arranged for large orchestral forces. This was particularly popular in the first half of the twentieth century, and indeed many of these arrangements are by Henry Wood. By the 1970s attitudes towards performance practice were changing.

The Early Music Consort of London appeared at the Proms for the first time in July 1970, in a programme combining Bach and medieval song. From this date onwards performances using period instruments became more common.

One of the works performed in the 1970 Proms concert featuring the Early Music Consort of London.

It would be interesting to know what a regular Proms goer listening to The Rite of Spring in 1947 (the Proms premiere of the work) would have thought of the historically informed performance of 2013. Although very different both programmes are wonderfully idiosyncratic, with the 1947 programme coupling the Rite with Mussorgsky, Verdi, Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto, Delius and Berlioz; while the period performance includes Lully, Rameau, Delibes and Massenet, as it dances from the French court to ballet and the Parisian stage.

The 2013 Proms performance of Rite of Spring

The Proms has never been afraid to incorporate popular or fringe music interests in its programming, as The Sergeant-Major on Parade of the 1926 First Night demonstrated. More recently there have been Proms based around world music, such as a Proms dedicated to the music of Bali and Java in 1982, or featuring the work of musicians from the world of popular music, such as Frank Zappa in 2013. Sometimes the programming has been controversial, with some Proms lovers complaining about “dumbing-down”, while others believe that it opens the Proms up to new audiences.

Despite, or perhaps because of changing fashions the Proms remains as popular as ever. Where will fashion take it next? Who knows….

Come back to MusiCB3 in a few weeks time to look at changing tastes in composers (there are some surprises), and the story of the seasonal Proms. It’s over to Susi, Hans Keller and Beethoven at the Proms next week, looking back to a time when if it’s Friday it must be Beethoven. A fashion that I am quite relieved has changed!


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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1 Response to Dedicated follower of fashion? Part I

  1. Pingback: Dedicated follower of fashion? Part II | MusiCB3 Blog

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