The Proms remain the most democratic concert series in Britain. But a lack of new music means that Prom audiences are ageing and in decline—if the Proms don't adapt, they may dieby Martin Kettle / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
Can the Proms survive?
Over the decades, the Proms have become one of the great British cultural rituals. And here they come again—72 classical music concerts at the Albert Hall over eight weeks, starting on 13th July, all broadcast on the BBC, plus the assorted spinoff series of chamber concerts, matinees, talks and open-air events. It was ever thus—and probably always will be.
Except that it wasn’t ever thus at all. In the 40 years I’ve been attending, much has changed—and all for the better—in terms of programming, repertoire and performance quality. The earliest Proms of the late Victorian years—the series began in 1895—seem like concerts from another musical planet altogether. A typical programme contained 15 or even 20 items—most of them long-forgotten songs, arrangements and dances that most music lovers today would find insufferably light.
And yet the mission statement of the Proms, as expounded by their founder Robert Newman, is still recognisable 112 years on. Newman’s intention was to run “nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages… gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.” These were consciously concerts for a democratic age, a project of popular enlightenment for which tickets would be accessibly priced and the formalities of more established concert seasons done away with.
Needless to say, liberal intellectuals mocked what Newman and his right-hand man, the conductor Henry Wood, set out to achieve in London’s newly built Queen’s Hall. EM Forster, in Howards End in 1910, wrote a famous satire on just such a concert, and the pretensions of those who attended them. And as John Carey has brilliantly illustrated, intellectuals of the period did not hesitate to display their fear of the “masses” who were invading the sacred halls of which they considered themselves the high priests.
More than a century on, Newman’s vision can still be seen in this year’s season of what are now officially known as the BBC Proms. The concerts take place nightly (sometimes more often than that), are accessibly priced (tickets start at £5) and formalities are non-existent. Add in the nightly radio relays (and repeats), the televising of almost half of the concerts and the increasing online presence, and the sense of the Proms as a democratic project unlike any other concert series in Britain is difficult…