qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Book Review: The Proms - A New History, edited by Jenny Doctor and David Wright (with consultant editor Nicholas Kenyon)
To some extent, this is a coffee-table book: it certainly merits the description "lavishly illustrated". Nevertheless, it's a useful survey of the Promenade Concerts instituted by Robert Newman and Henry Wood in 1895 and continued under the BBC since 1927. It takes the form of chapters by different contributors, each tackling (after an introductory chapter, in which Paul Kildea concerns himself with E M Forster's views on class and culture) a fairly well-defined era of the Proms. So we begin with Newman and Wood in the newly built Queen's Hall, seeking a revenue source in the out-of-season months over the summer; after Newman's death in 1927, the newly-conceived BBC takes the financial responsibility, in an era when the management of Chappell's (the lessees of the Queen's Hall) were deeply concerned about the new technology of broadcasting and the effect it might have on revenues for artists and sheet music; the disruption during the Second World War, including the destruction of the Queen's Hall in 1941; post-war stagnation in the 1950s, abraisive brushes with modernism in the 1960s and 70s, industrial strife in 1980; through to the present day. These chapters are woven into a more-or-less consistent style, with occasional cross-references that highlight their different authorship. A curious omission is that there's no mention anywhere of "Diogenes", the nom-de-plume of a music critic frequently cited in current Proms programmes referring to historic performances (quite possibly, judging from his citations, an in-house plant from the Proms management), whose mention always makes me think of Mycroft Holmes (I believe it's the name of his club).

There are interesting reminders of the constant change in what the BBC now brands "The world's greatest music festival", such as the changing format of the concerts, the introduction of visiting and international orchestras, and late-night Proms. It's also interesting to consider the ways in which the Proms have remained true to their founding, quasi-Reithian principles to "democratise" serious music. It's certainly true that the Arena and Gallery remain excellent value for money, probably more so in this age where the Proms is intensely professional and can attract the best musicians in the world. On the other hand, its concerts are less ubiquitously populist, and as Tom Service points out in a chapter describing changes to the Last Night (which is never capitalised earlier in the book), the Proms in the Park (yuk!) are in some ways more authentic to the original programmes, artists and informal atmosphere.
Tags: books, music
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