Music is Last but not Least

As another Prom season is planned by the gods that deliver these concerts and their minds ponder what the programmes will contain, worry passes over their decision-making brows as they consider the Last Night. The lower case – last night – will not do to describe it, nor will what it was first described as, ‘the last concert of the series’. Upper case it has to be. And, as everyone one knows, the Last Night does not mean the whole concert but just the second half.

So traditional, so British as eggs and bacon, has the Last Night come to seem that one might imagine it has been the same since Queen Victoria hummed ‘Rule Britannia’ to herself in the bath. But like many traditions it is a much more recent invention. Every one knows, as Henry Wood knew, that you have to end with a party, but what kind of party should it be? Initially the Proms under Henry Wood and Robert Newman had been much more populist than nowadays. Somewhere in their background there had been experience of organising concert series involving promenading audiences (standing, or rather walking around – forbidden now), as well as popular ballad concerts. The latter lay behind the idea of having the audience join in singing, perhaps in preference to coughing or fainting. But the adventurousness and high-mindedness of Wood led to an expanding repertoire of classical music including new works by Richard Strauss, and cycles of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven symphonies. All the more reason to let one’s hair down at the last concert to emphasise that work was now done and it was time for a party.

The first element in the current Last Night sequence was Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs of 1905. Initially this had been written as another piece in a series introducing the orchestra to new listeners: Wood often included an operatic fantasia at the beginning of concerts for this purpose. Each player who played a solo was named in the programme and newcomers to symphony concerts could learn how to appreciate the joys of concert-going. By the 1930s the Fantasia had become entrenched as the first piece in the Last Night. Too entrenched for some, as there was a move in 1953 to remove the Fantasia from the Last Night, a move which was bitterly opposed by some Promenaders. Who won is history.

The second element to appear (of course apart from the National Anthem that ended the concert and the series) was ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. This had been first performed in its instrumental form in 1901, when it was encored twice, and then conducted by Elgar in 1902 with the words as part of the Coronation Ode, for which they were written. It appeared again in 1945 in the Last Night as part of the victory celebrations marking the end of World War II. But it still was not enshrined as a permanent fixture at the final concert.

The last piece to be part of the ‘traditional’ Last Night was Parry’s Jerusalem. A strange inclusion in some ways as it is not ‘patriotic’ in the way ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ are, and there is an irony in the way half-crazed audiences filled with flag-waving euphoria shout the words ‘nor shall I cease from mental strife’. But, then, not knowing what Blake’s words mean when you sing them has become another British tradition not confined to the Proms.