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The Proms: A Beginner's Guide

by Dawn Copeman

If you're in Britain over summer, why not come to a Prom? Don't worry, you don't need a tuxedo, fancy dress, corsage or a limo. These aren't high school proms, but a uniquely British form of classical music concerts.

The main Proms take place in London from July to September each year. In addition, many castles, abbeys and country houses hold Proms throughout the summer. But what are these Proms and why are they so special? To answer that, we need to look at the history of the Proms, how the Proms changed, and what you can expect to see and hear at a Proms concert today.

The History of the Proms

In 1894 Mr. Robert Newman, manager of the Queen's Hall, London, met a talented young musician and conductor named Mr. Henry Wood and informed him of his plans for a new series of concerts to be held over summer. These concerts would, Newman hoped, educate the people about classical music and hopefully make it more popular. The concerts would begin with easy pieces and gradually introduce more challenging pieces of music. Mr. Wood agreed to become the conductor of a permanent orchestra and to help Mr. Newman develop his concerts. And so the first of the Proms, or as they were then known, "Mr. Robert Newman's Promenade Concerts," was performed on August 10, 1895.

The original concerts lasted for three hours and were a mix of classical works in the first half and pieces from popular operas in the second. The tickets cost one shilling (five pence) for a single concert or a guinea (1.05) for a season ticket.

Battle Proms They were called Promenade concerts because a large part of the seating area had no seats and so the patrons had to stand during the performances. This is still true at Proms concerts in London today, and dedicated Prommers will tell you that this is the best place to be. During the original Proms the patrons could smoke, eat and drink, as Newman and Wood wanted to keep the atmosphere as informal as possible, although customers were asked not to strike matches during vocal performances.

Wood and Newman certainly challenged their audience. They had Wagner and Beethoven nights, performed works by the leading composers of the day (such as Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov), and introduced new pieces of work that they called novelties.

During the First World War the Proms caused some controversy by continuing to play music by German composers, as both Newman and Wood felt that music and art should rise above the political squabbles of the day. Whether this was a wise decision is a moot point, as the Proms started to lose money. After the war, Newman was forced to sell the lease to the Queen's Hall (and thus the Proms) to repay his debts. Chappell's, a publishing firm, bought the lease and acquired the Proms, but they too withdrew their support when the Proms continued to make a loss. Thus in 1927 the BBC took over the Proms. They asked Henry Wood to remain in charge of the orchestra and to continue to coordinate the mixture of works to be performed, in line with his and Newman's original vision.

The retention of Henry Wood proved to be vital when, at the start of the Second World War, the BBC was forced to temporarily close down production of the Proms. Henry Wood managed to find private sponsorship for the Prom seasons in 1940 and 1941. These seasons were shorter than usual; in 1940 the season lasted only four weeks, and concerts were often interrupted by air-raids. During one air-raid in 1941 the Queen's Hall was destroyed by a bomb, forcing the Proms to find a new home. They moved to the Albert Hall, where they've been held ever since. In 1942 the BBC took over the Proms again. Then in 1944, during the 50th season of the Proms, Henry Wood died. He was 75 years old.

The Changing Nature of the Proms

Following the war the Wagner and Beethoven nights were dropped and Viennese evenings introduced in their place. Throughout the fifties and sixties the structure of the Proms changed dramatically. The mainly orchestral concerts that had made up the bulk of the Proms were supplemented with entire operas, music from around the world, jazz concerts, gospel music, children's concerts, music for percussion and new pieces specially commissioned by the BBC.

In the seventies Pre-Prom explanatory talks began, as did Late Night Proms. In 1996 the Proms Chamber Music, the Proms Lectures, and Proms in the Park were introduced. The latter enables spectators in parks in Belfast, Glasgow, Manchester, Swansea and in Hyde Park, London to watch the Last Night of the Proms on a large screen and picnic and participate as Prommers.

What You Can Expect at The Proms Today

The Proms today consists of over 70 main Prom concerts at the Albert Hall and additional Proms Chamber Music performances at the Victoria and Albert Museum. There is at least one Prom concert every evening, and a large number of these are preceded by a pre-Prom talk. Every Prom concert is broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and a number of Proms are now broadcast on the web and on BBC4 -- a digital television channel. The Last Night of the Proms is always shown on BBC television.

Each Prom season now has themes, and the works reflect one of the themes. The performance is still a mix of old and new and includes music, conductors, performers and orchestras from around the world. The themes for 2004 were "Back to Bohemia" and "East meets West and England in 1934." This year's proms include concerts marking 200 years since the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Hans Christian Andersen and the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Thus the themes for the 2005 season will be "Fairy Tales," "The Sea," and "Composer Anniversaries." Placido Domingo will make his Proms debut this year, performing in Die Walkure on 18 July. Ravi Shankar, 85,is also making his debut and will perform his sitar Concerto No 1 with daughter Anoushka in August. Also for the first time ever, 100 young musicians aged between 15 and 18 will join the BBC Symphony Orchestra on stage at the proms. Half-price tickets are being offered to all under-16's.

The Last Night of the Proms

The highlight of the Proms season is The Last Night of the Proms. This is an amazing, bizarre, uniquely British event. It is also incredibly popular and tickets for the Last Night are invariably the first to be sold out when tickets go on sale in mid May.

The concert begins with music representing each of the main themes for the season. Last year, for example, the first half consisted of music from Dvorak, Puccini, Gilbert and Sullivan and a rendition of "Oh what a beautiful morning" from Oklahoma. During this part of the concert, the Prommers will behave as impeccably as they normally do, even though they're wearing unusual clothing festooned with Union Jacks and are carrying Union Jack flags. But this is not what the Prommers are really here for. No, they are here for the patriotic finale: "Land of Hope and Glory" (or Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" March No. 1), the Fantasia of British Sea Songs (including the very popular "Rule Britannia), and finally "Auld Lang Syne," "Jerusalem" and the National Anthem. Throughout all of this the Prommers will rousingly sing along, bob up and down in time with the music and join in with whistles and hooters! It is quite a sight and an amazing atmosphere! You really need to experience it to believe it.

Going to the Proms

This year's Prom season will run from July 15 to September 10. Children aged five to sixteen are welcome at the Proms. Remember that the Proms are informal, so you don't need to dress up.

Tickets can be bought in advance and will go on sale beginning mid May. However, even if all the seats have been sold out, the Royal Albert Hall always keeps 500 tickets to be sold on the day of the concert. These Day Promming tickets cost only 4 each in 2004. So, if you can't get a ticket in advance and are prepared to queue, there is a good chance you can get in to see a Prom concert for a very low price. And remember, Prommers insist that standing in one of the two Prom areas is the only way to experience a Prom.

If you want to attend several Proms, you can buy season tickets. There are full-season and half-season tickets. For 2005, the cost of a full season arena ticket is 160, while a full-season gallery ticket costs 135; a half-season arena ticket costs 90 and a half-season gallery ticket costs 75. Full-season ticket holders are guaranteed entrance to the Last Night of the Proms, whereas half-season ticket holders are given the chance to be allotted Last Night tickets from a reserved pool.

If you don't want to buy a season ticket, but want to experience the atmosphere of the Last Night of the Proms, you will need to book in advance and will need to be aware of the six concert rule. This states that you can only buy tickets for the Last Night of the Proms if you have bought tickets to six other concerts. If you've bought one ticket to six concerts, you are entitled to one ticket for the Last Night of the Proms. To get two tickets for the Last Night, you need to purchase two tickets for six concerts. The maximum number of tickets you can purchase for the Last Night is two. You will need to book early to get tickets for the Last Night. Be sure to mention that you want to book tickets for the Last Night when booking for the other concerts. If the Last Night is already sold out, however, you are not entitled to a refund for the six other concerts.

Proms Around the Country

Proms are now seen as such a quintessential part of the British summer that you will find Prom concerts being held all over the country. These are usually single-performance, outdoor events where the gates open late afternoon and where the concert goers are encouraged to bring picnics. Some people enter the full Proms spirit and are extremely eccentric, bringing dining tables, chairs, silver, etc. and dressing up in Victorian period costume. Most, however, simply bring a huge hamper, a large blanket and candle-lit torches for when it gets dark.

The concerts normally begin around 8 pm with a mix of popular classical music pieces. They all have the same finale as the Last Night of the Proms, and this is when the picnic-goers around you will suddenly produce Union Jacks or the Flag of St. George and start patriotically and fervently singing along.

These outdoor Proms usually (though not always) finish with a firework finale. Some of the Proms in our database this year feature the English National Orchestra, while another is being performed by the Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra and yet another has a Spitfire for the finale! Just because they're not being held at the Albert Hall does not mean that these are in any way inferior events. They are, in a way, an ideal taster event for the Proms, in that they encapsulate eight weeks of Proms concerts in one evening.

If you see a Proms concert advertised at a castle, abbey or country house, then what they mean is they will be holding a version of the Last Night of the Proms. If you can get to one of these events, go. Take a picnic; enjoy the setting and the music and especially the flag-waving finale.

So, go on, attend a British Prom. It will be like nothing you've ever experienced before.

More Information:

BBC Proms
http://www.bbc.co.uk/Proms
For general inquiries, contact Proms@bbc.co.uk; for ticket information email Promsbooking@royalalberthall.com.

BBC Prom Season Tickets
http://www.rahrequests.org/acatalog/Weekend_Passes.html

Battle Proms
http://www.battleproms.com/
Held at Burghley House, Hatfield House, Blenheim Palace, Highclere Castle, and Loseley Park, this series of Proms includes cavalry and infantry re-enactors of the Napoleonic Association, fireworks, and a rendition of Beethoven's Battle Symphony ("Wellington's Victory") with a full complement of 193 cannons.

Musical Associates
http://www.musicalassociates.co.uk/concert_dates.html
This organization produces proms at several locations, including Battle Abbey (Sussex), Tonbridge Castle (Kent), Castle Howard (near York), Harewood House (Yorkshire), Tatton Park (Cheshire), and more.

The Promenaders' (Unofficial) Home Page
http://www.promenaders.freeserve.co.uk/Door6.html
TDedicated to the Proms from the Promenaders' point of view. Find news and gossip from the Proms, reviews (better described as personal impressions), photos, a discussion forum, information about how to get to the Proms and what to do when you get there, and loads more.

Welsh Proms
http://www.welshproms.co.uk/


Dawn Copeman is a freelance and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. Dawn is the editor of the Newbie Writers Website (http://www.newbiewriters.com) and also edits the Writing World newsletter (http://www.writing-world.com/newsletter/index.shtml). . Dawn currently resides in East Sussex. She can be contacted at dawn@newbiewriters.com.
Article © 2005 Dawn Copeman

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