The Proms

"BBC Music presents the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts"

The Proms are a popular programme of classical music concerts that run daily from mid-June to mid-September every year in London. Run by the BBC for radio, internet and television broadcast, they are a cheap way to enjoy the finest musicians in the world playing a mix of well known classics, new compositions and illuminating rediscoveries.

The Proms Today

The 2007 season features performances from the various BBC Orchestras and Choirs, and performers from around the UK and France, Boston, Frankfurt, Lahti, Lucerne, Freiburg, Caracas, Amsterdam, Munich, San Fransisco, Vienna, and Leipzig; there are more than 80 concerts!  All are broadcast on BBC Radio 3; and many are also televised. Several days have lunchtime concerts, and the shorter evening concerts are followed by late-night concerts with small ensembles.

As well as the usual composer suspects like Byrd, Bach, Brams, Beethoven, Berlioz, Bartók and Benjamin Britten, this year sees several more populist performances. There is a programme of film scores, music by Nitin Sawhney, a jazz Prom featuring Cleo Laine, and a Blue Peter-branded childrens' prom. Some concerts are preceded by informative lectures.

Potted History

The Proms were founded in 1895 as the Promenade Concerts at Queen's Hall, Langham Place. The composer Sir Henry Wood is associated with their early years, and he had a huge role in organising and running the series. The BBC took over operations in 1927; although the corporation withdrew from the series during the war years; they continued due to private sponsorship. The Queen's Hall was ruined by enemy action during this interval and the Royal Albert Hall become their new home; the Proms have continued uninterrupted ever since.

Main Venue - The Royal Albert Hall

The evening and late-night Proms are performed in the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. Its unique features create some of the atmosphere of the Proms season.

It's a large round venue with the stage at the south end. The Southern entrance is up a broad, graceful flight of steps and across the road from the Royal College of Music. The north entrance is opposite the gilded spires of the Victorian-psychedelic Albert Memorial at the edge of Kensington Gardens. The centre of the hall is on a direct straight line from the centre of the Albert Memorial, the central spire of the Royal College of Music, Imperial College's Queen's Tower¹ and the dead centre of the Natural History Museum's twin towers. To the immediate west lies the cake-like Royal College of Organists and just beyond that is the Imperial College Union building with its handy bar.

From the outside, it's a red-brick and sandstone confection with a classical frieze running all the way round and a quartet of pillared porches at the four cardinal points. The roof is a glass dome (which is now covered by a ceiling). Inside, it's lavishly appointed- every surface is a rich deep red, gold or ivory colour.

In its Proms configuration, it has a large circular ground floor with a cooling water feature in the centre- this is the Arena, one of two standing areas. There is room for about 550 here. The stage is a 90° wedge shape in front of and above the Arena. Level with the stage, and completing the circle around the Area come the ten rows of swivelling seats that form the Stalls. Three stories of boxes rise from the top of the Stalls- the Loggia Boxes, the Grand Tier and the Second Tier. Above the stage, level with the Loggia and Grand Tier are two columns of Choir seats (available to the audience in non-choral Proms), either side of the recently-restored organ. It's thought to be the largest in Great Britain and Ireland. A bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood (dating from 1936) is placed before the organ for the duration of the season, on loan from the Royal Academy of Music.   It was displayed during the Promenades at Queen's Hall for a few years, and survived the bombing.

Above the Grand Tier is the Circle, a series of steeply banked rows of seats. Beyond that is the top layer is the other standing area- the Gallery, which is fronted by impressive arches and railings. The overall effect of the seating tiers, arches and rich upholstery is of a refined Amphitheatre of the arts. The atmosphere is of standing at the centre of a silent audience of 6,000 is electrifying.

The Royal Albert Hall was "was erected for the advancement of the arts and sciences and works of industry of all nations in fulfilment of the intention of Albert Prince Consort²" not for music. The huge central space is a huge acoustical problem for performers. The domed ceiling is half-concealed by an array of large suspended fibreglass discs, known as The Mushrooms. The stage has a kind of suspended "ceiling", tasseled and brocaded like the canopy of a throne. These two features are an attempt to improve the sound, but percussive performances in particular suffer from an off-putting echo. I've sung from the stage many times, and it's most off putting to be able to hear nothing whatsoever of what you're doing.

How To Prom

If you want a seat, attending a promenade concert is much like attending any other. You can book tickets in advance by web, phone, or from the box-office; or risk turning up on-spec on the day. There are always loads of ticket touts buzzing about like flies. Seats are available in the Stalls, the Boxes and the Circle for between £3 and £28 (at 2007 prices).

But if you want to do it right, Uncle Spiregrain suggests you Prom. Promming is the business of listening to the concert from a standing position in the Gallery or Arena. These spaces are always unreserved and you can only get to them by queueing up on the day of the concert and paying £5 in cash. An hour before is generally enough.

The Arena queue snakes round the southwest edge of the hall, down the southern steps, onto Prince Consort Road at the Royal College of Music, past the entrance to Imperial College Union at Beit Quadrangle, past the High-Anglican Edwardian splendor of Holy Trinity Church, and sometimes part way round the block onto Queens Gate, opposite Imperial's physics and computing departments.

The Gallery queue runs tangentially to the west down Kensington Gore, past a crude ventilation tower, the back of Beit Quad and along the faded frontage of Albert Hall Mansions, home of The Conspiracy in The X-Files Movie and scene of a shoot-out in The Ipcress File.

For popular concerts, a red-blazered member of staff hands out raffle tickets in sequence to limit the temptation of queue-jumping.

Each level of the hall has its own bar serving the usual theatre drinks at the usual theatre drink prices.

In the auditorium, several rituals are observed. Before each concert, the PA system plays an amplified mobile-phone ring-tone to encourage attendees to switch theirs off. Any lifting of piano lids is accompanied by a grunted "heave!" from the Arena, and "ho!" from the Gallery. The initial piano note, played to help the orchestra tune up, is greeted by rapturous applause as if it was a very short masterwork. Some of the regular Prommers organise to collect money for charity, and tell the rest of the audience how much has been raised so far. They do this all together in a clipped, shouted monotone- earning them the nickname "The Daleks". These characters issue occasional remarks to the audience, the BBC commentators and whoever else they think can hear them. On one memorable occasion, they taunted Margaret Thatcher, visiting with François Mitterrand³. More hi-jinks pertain on the famous Last Night of the Proms, more of which later.

Once the orchestra are on stage however, it's all about the music. The audience silence themselves quickly and prepare for the performance. They crane forward and show tremendous appreciation at the end of each number. It's quite possible to walk quietly around during less busy performances or to sit down on the floor. I've even seen couples waltzing during a visit from a Viennese orchestra.

The Last Night of the Proms

The Last Night of The Proms is a British institution. You cannot buy a ticket unless you can present 6 ticket stubs from other Proms- even then they've usually sold out within a few weeks. On the day, queuing for the best spaces in the Arena and Gallery start very early, and elaborate queuing protocols allow ticket holders to take breaks, which the whole queue materialising in order every few hours.

Less stringent requirements apply to the massive Proms in the Park events with a slightly different and more popular line-up of performers. They take place in Kensington Gardens, and a rotating selection of other UK cities. They join the Albert Hall by live big-screen link-up for the climax of the evening.

Two Prommers mark the start of the show by garlanding the bust of Sir Henry Wood with a laurel wreath.  The Last Night of the Proms is about the only event of the year when waving flags and singing jingoistic songs is widely acceptable in polite society. It begins as normal, with rapt appreciation of serious music. But in the last half hour, flags emerge, silly hats are worn and, after an address from the conductor, summarising the season, the orchestra launch into a ritual programme including:

There is a rote sequence of audience participation to these tunes, including hearty sing-along, a clapping/playing race with the orchestra, air-horn use, mock crying, and rhythmic bending at the knee.

Then it's a few choruses of 'Auld Lang Syne' amongst the Prommers, and it's all over for another year!



¹ - The rock act "Queen" are named after this tower.

² - From "The Triumph of Arts and Sciences", the external frieze.

³ - One of the Daleks' activities is playing "tennis";  The Arena Daleks chant "Anyone for tennis?"; then a racket-like "PONG!" sound.  The Gallery Daleks respond with a "PONG!" and the timing of the pongs gives an impression of lobs or fast-moving returns until one side cries "Oooooh!" indicating a point.   During Thatcher's visit the sequence was "Anyone for unemployment tennis?  One million!"  "Two million!" "Three million!" "Four million!" (beat) "Revolution!".  They also remarked in unison to the Prime Minister's empty, post-intermission box, "Was it something we said?".  This story courtesy of eyewitness Albert_Herring gives the lie to the idea that prommers are all venal old tories, flags notwithstanding.


Sources:

  • The BBC's Proms Page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms
  • Catalogue entry for the bust of Henry Wood: http://www.yorkgate.ram.ac.uk/emuweb/pages/ram/Display.php?irn=29&QueryPage=%2Femuweb%2Fpages%2Fram%2FQuery.php

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