Dedicated follower of fashion? Part II

Evening at the Proms 1930’s style.

A fortnight ago, I wrote about some of the fashions that had come and gone through the long history of the Proms, from changes in the format of concerts, the ebb and flow of “fringe” interests, and different approaches to performance.

My initial interest in the “fashions” of the Proms was sparked when chatting to my colleague, Susi, about a future blog post (coming to you shortly), and a mention of a composer, who I would have thought would have been popular much earlier in the twentieth century, but has been most performed in this. So which composers have gone in and out of fashion? And are Proms in the park (loved by some, hated by others) really as new as they seem?

Proms in the Park appeared relatively recently. Initially, in 1996, they were a simple video relay in Hyde Park of the Last Night of the Proms, taking place next door in the Royal Albert Hall. Their popularity soon grew, there are now Proms in the Park(s) at four or five venues across the UK, with their own live music, and video relays. In fact the event has become so popular, that there are also non-BBC Proms in the Park playing a wide variety of music, outside the Last Night.

The Proms throughout its history has experimented both with locations and seasons.

The experimentation with locations could be seen as a sort of fore-runner to Proms in the Park, taking the event away from the metropolis. One would have thought that this would have been very popular, but the Northern Proms in 1930 was the only one of its kind until a Prom in the Park this century.

A clean sheet? Suggestions please for the Last Night of the Northern Proms, 1930.

I’m surprised that it wasn’t more successful. Running from May to June, the Northern Proms took place at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, and featured the Halle Orchestra and choir, conducted by Hamilton Harty. I particularly enjoyed the programming of the Last Night, whose content remained blank in the pre-season Proms guide. Radio listeners and concert goers were invited to nominate a favourite work for the Last Night from which a suitable programme was constructed.

The final programme consisted of Bach’s Double violin concerto, Schubert’s ninth symphony, and the first of Liszt’s Hungarian rhapsodies. A little night music from Mozart, and Lyadov’s Musical Snuffbox followed the interval, before finishing with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee, and excerpts from Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust.

The Northern Proms may have suffered from, what seems to me, the extraordinary longevity of the Summer Season at Queen’s Hall. The Northern Proms ran from May 26th-June 21st. There was then a break in Proms programming until the “Southern” season re-opened on August 9th. This then continued until October 4th. Perhaps you can have too many Proms!

Whatever the reason, there were no further official Promenade concerts outside London, including perhaps surprisingly during the war, until Proms in the Park opened for the Last Night in Gateshead’s new Baltic Arts Centre in 2001. The Proms had finally returned to the north of England.

Despite the apparent lack of success of the Northern Proms, the BBC continued to extend the Proms season. There were winter seasons running throughout the 1930s, and early ’50s. A belated season in the early ’70s was the last time that the Proms was held outside the central summer months of mid-July to early-September.

More recently there have been a number of “off-piste” Proms, usually aimed at a slightly different audience. In Cadogan Hall, the Chamber Music Proms have been very successful, and indeed it was here that I came across the composer that Susi and I had been discussing – Reynaldo Hahn (the subject of next week’s blog post), who is woefully under-performed.

In the main Proms season only a few of his works have featured – excerpts from Chansons grises in 1928, another vocal work D’un prison in 1934, and his sole orchestral work to be performed during the Proms, Le bal de Beatrice d’Este, which received its English premiere during the 1913 season. Following the 1934 performance, there is nothing until 2005 and the Cadogan Hall Proms.

Why the long break in between? Who knows? Hahn was rich, good-looking, and Proust’s one-time lover, and closest friend. He knew anyone who was anyone in Paris’ Belle Epoque. Like Oscar Wilde he was viewed with suspicion as a dilettante and a dandy. This is reflected in his obituary in the Musical Times in 1947, which can only be described as brusque. Hardly what you might expect for a composer, who was part of the French musical establishment, indeed he had recently been appointed director of the Paris Opera. Perhaps it needed a more liberal century to fully appreciate his work.

Other composers too have seen their fortunes ebb and flow. Wagner was phenomenally popular prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. In some seasons there was barely a concert without at least one Wagnerian overture. Post-war things looked very different. This was at least in part owing to changing attitudes to music. There was more of a reluctance to include excerpts in concert programmes, and, as much of Wagner is all about the most grand scale of musical works, he ceased to be as omnipresent as he had been pre-1939. Let’s not feel too sorry for him though, his music has still featured almost 1500 times on Proms programmes.

The previously mentioned Hamilton Harty, conductor of the Halle Orchestra, and composer, has been heard at the Proms 49 times (it should have been 50, but ironically the Wagner/ Harty concert of 1939 was cancelled due to the outbreak of war). Harty was very popular, with a mix of serious works such as his violin concerto, and lighter fare inspired by folksong. His music regularly featured on Proms programmes; but despite this, his The Children of Lir, played as a tribute following his death in 1941 was the last Harty work to be played at the Proms.

Perhaps there was an element in Proms programming of “out of sight, out of mind.” A case in point is William Alwyn, whose archive is held here at the UL. Alwyn appears surprisingly regularly through the 1950s. He trained at the Royal Academy of Music, and got to know Sir Henry Wood well while still studying there. His first Proms Premiere was in 1927, when his Five Preludes for orchestra received its world premiere in Queen’s Hall on 22nd September 1927.

Through a lucky break he became a film music composer in the early days of talking pictures, and this took up much of his time through the 1930s till the early ’60s. Alwyn was always painfully aware during this period that being labelled a “film composer” could be detrimental to the career of a composer of art music. However as far as the Proms were concerned this doesn’t seem to have been the case. Between 1949-1960, which was also the peak of Alwyn’s film music career, his music featured in nine Proms.

Strains were starting to show though – a large orchestral work which was intended to be premiered at the Proms in 1960 was dropped by the BBC, and Alwyn was forced to write, at fairly short notice, the amazingly cheerful (in the circumstances) Derby Day overture.

Shortly after this Prom, he left London and moved to the Suffolk coast. He stopped composing film scores, and dedicated himself to what he saw as more serious pursuits. He appeared at the Proms in 1964, in a concert dedicated to Sir Henry Wood. No more was to be heard of Alwyn at the Proms until 1984, when his 5th Symphony received its Proms Premiere. Fashion can indeed be fickle.

Henry Wood had always been very keen that the Proms should encourage new composers, and every season along with the standard fare includes a number of works by little known composers. For the few that have hundreds of Proms appearances, there are many that appear on the bill just once or twice. Some illustrious names are included among the one-timers – Paul McCartney and Count Basie, Charles Avison, Geminiani, and Milton Babbitt, among many others.

Scanning through the list of composers on the BBC’s wonderful Proms Archive website, some past prejudices are visible. Several of the one-timers are composers best known for their film scores (perhaps Alwyn was right to be wary), and female composers feature heavily among those who were only performed once or twice, though thankfully this seems to be changing. Equally some of the one-timers are there because of positive changes at the Proms, changes in performance practice have encouraged programmers to include composers such as Avison and Geminiani, who are normally dependent on smaller orchestral forces, while changing perceptions of what is acceptable to listen to in a concert hall have made the Proms a more inclusive place for jazz, pop, and world music.

Fashions are constantly changing, but the Proms continues to be popular, and a great introduction to fashions old and new.


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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2 Responses to Dedicated follower of fashion? Part II


    Thank you for this fascinating overview. I would add that a lot of the diversification of the Proms venue took place under William Glock, who also expanded the repertoire of the concerts, and he should be given credit for what in my mind was the most stimulating Proms series of all. I know several composers whose first Prom appearance has also been their last, and there is, alas, some consequential negative psychological effect.( There could be a concert of music by the salon des refuses, though you could hardly ask the BBC to mount it…!) Many are called, few are chosen – thus has it ever been …

    Christopher Wintle


    • mj263 says:

      Thank you Christopher for the perceptive comments. Despite his success in the 1950s, Alwyn was certainly severely depressed by what he saw as his “abandonment” by the BBC following the “Derby Day” incident. Interesting to note that despite her great talent, his future wife, Doreen Carwithen has only ever received one performance at the Proms, not atypical for female composers sadly, Margaret.


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