1 Prom is short for promenade concert
Promenade concerts were musical events that took place in London’s pleasure gardens, where listeners could stroll around while listening to the music. The gardens charged a small entrance fee and provided a variety of entertainments. Promenade concerts became popular in the 18th century, with some 12,000 people paying 2s 6d each to hear Handel rehearsing his Music for the Royal Fireworks in Vauxhall Gardens on 21 April 1749. The term ‘promenade concert’ was first used in the mid-19th century.
2 The Proms was launched by Robert Newman
Born into a wealthy family, Newman worked at the London Stock Exchange. However, he was also musical and later became a concert agent and then the first manager of London’s Queen’s Hall, which opened in 1893. He organised symphony concerts at the hall, and his aim with the Proms was to generate a wider audience for this music by offering lower-priced tickets and an informal atmosphere. The first Proms took place at the Queen’s Hall in 1895.
3 The very first conductor was Henry Wood
Born in 1869, Henry Wood was a musician, conductor and composer. Wood was working at the Queen’s Hall, where he impressed Robert Newman, who told the former about his plans for the Proms: “I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.” Wood was appointed conductor of the first Proms and remained so for the next 50 years. He died in 1944 and in his honour the concerts were formally named The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. Wood was knighted in 1911.
4 The BBC has been sponsor since 1927
Financial backing for the first season came from a wealthy doctor. George Cathcart agreed to sponsor the Proms on two conditions: that Henry Wood would conduct every concert, and that the pitch of the orchestral instruments would be lowered to the European standard diapason normal; concert pitch in England was nearly a semitone higher than that used on the continent, and Cathcart regarded it as damaging for singers’ voices. Later seasons were backed by Edgar Speyer, a banker, and then music publishers Chappell & Co. However, the latter withdrew its support in 1927, and the BBC, with its mandate to ‘inform, educate and entertain,’ stepped in. For the first time, the concerts were broadcast. While some worried this would reduce audience numbers, Wood believed it would help achieve his aim “of truly democratising the message of music, and making its beneficent effect universal”.
5 During WWII the BBC withdrew its support
After Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, the BBC decentralised its Music Department and announced that it was unable to support the Proms. But the show must go on and with characteristic determination, Henry Wood secured private sponsorship. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, and both the 1939 and 1940 seasons were forced to end early due to bombing.
6 It has taken place at its current home since 1941
The Proms today is based at London’s Royal Albert Hall. This beautiful concert hall was opened in 1871 by Queen Victoria; it is named for her beloved consort, Prince Albert, who had died six years earlier. The Queen’s Hall, the Proms’ original home, was destroyed in 1941 during the Blitz and despite much lobbying, the building wasn’t rebuilt. That year the Royal Albert Hall hosted the Proms and in 1942 it was decided the hall would become the event’s permanent home. However, amid concerns for the hall’s safety as German bombing intensified, in 1944 the Proms was moved again, this time to Bedford Corn Exchange. As it happens, the Royal Albert Hall was never targeted by German bombers and the Proms returned to the hall after the war; the festival has remained there ever since.
7 The Proms is aiming for gender equality
The Proms – and classical music as a whole – have been accused of sexism; not really surprising when Vasily Petrenko, principal conductor of the National Youth Orchestra and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, claims orchestras perform better for male conductors because “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”. It’s encouraging, then, that it has been announced that half of all new commissions for the Proms will go to women by 2022. This initiative is part of Keychange, an international campaign aimed at raising the profile of women in music. Unfortunately, the gender balance won’t apply to soloists, orchestras or conductors. Marin Alsop became the first female conductor of The Last Night of the Proms in 2013; she commented: “I have to say I’m still quite shocked that it can be 2013 and there can still be firsts for women.”
8 The Proms gave us Britain’s first-ever televised concert
In 1921 Malcolm Sargent was an unknown 26-year-old composer and conductor when he was invited to conduct his own composition, An Impression on a Windy Day, at that season’s Last Night of the Proms. Sargent, by now Sir Malcolm, made history when, in 1947, on becoming conductor-in-chief of the that year’s season, he conducted Britain’s first-ever televised concert. Sargent remained in situ as conductor-in-chief until his death in 1967, but the Proms didn’t make it back onto television again till 1953.
9 BBC Proms Youth Choir launched in 2012
As part of its commitment to finding and nurturing new talent, the BBC Proms recruits up to 350 young singers from choirs and music hubs across the UK. These singers rehearse in their local areas with their own leaders throughout the year, then when the performance approaches, the BBC holds a four-day intensive rehearsal residency led by chorus director Simon Halsey. Rehearsals focus on the chosen concert repertoire and the week culminates in a Proms performance at the Royal Albert Hall. Set up in 2017, the BBC Proms Youth Choir Academy is a scheme that aims to discover new voices from all musical backgrounds and develop them in a choral setting. The age range for the Proms Youth Choir and Academy is 16 to 25 and anyone interested in learning more should email the Proms team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
10 The BBC Proms is the world’s largest and longest-running classical music festival
The Proms celebrated its centenary in 1994. It incorporates more than 70 main concerts every year, presenting an ever-widening range of classical and operatic music, and yet it continues to be faithful to its original aim: to present the widest possible range of music, performed to the highest standards, to large audiences. It’s arguably the world’s most egalitarian classical music event, with promming – cheap standing tickets – remaining an important aspect; around 1,000 such tickets are available for every main concert. The whole thing is broadcast on the radio, with much also on TV and the internet, making it accessible for just about everyone. And while the Royal Albert Hall remains the event’s home, concerts also take place at Camden’s Roundhouse, Cadogan Hall, Lincoln Drill Hall and the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios. There’s also a programme of talks, film screenings and family workshops.
Bonus fact: Last Night of the Proms
Many people’s perceptions of the Proms are based on the iconic Last Night. But this concert is somewhat different from the others. It is lighter in tone, concentrating on well-known classics in the first half and British music in the second. We largely have Sir Malcolm Sargent to thank for the sense of celebration that has become synonymous with the Last Night. Prior to the concert becoming annual TV viewing, it was a rather sober affair. But with TV in mind, Sargent encouraged the waving of bright flags and banners. Keen to present a musically as well as visually thrilling evening, he also introduced the now traditional sequence of Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs, Thomas Arne’s Rule, Britannia! and Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem.
Find out more about this year’s Proms.
The Royal Albert Hall, London, during the 2008 BBC Proms season (Amanda Slater via Wikimedia Commons).