BBC Proms 2016: Some Thoughts

There is a deliberately forgotten truth that needs rescuing from its postmodern captors: most classical music is better than most other music. It has centuries of tradition and theory on its side, years dedicated to achieving the most profound, beautiful, evocative, and intimidating music ever heard. Its use of harmony, its written tradition, and the passion of its creators and admirers sets it apart from all other music.

So, we have a new BBC Proms to celebrate this wonderful music. And I have been, of course, terribly excited for the programme announcement today. Then I see the BBC news headline: BBC Proms 2016: Strictly, Bowie and music in a car park. You couldn’t make it up. (Maybe one day the tide will turn and we’ll actually think the headline ‘BBC Proms 2016: Stravinsky, Brahms and music in a concert hall’ to be the transgressive novelty.)

There is indeed a sizeable amount of populist crap this time round. On top of the Strictly Come Dancing and David Bowie Proms, there are some other themed Proms: a gospel Prom, a two jazz Proms and what looks to be a lame Jazz-Classical hybrid. And there’s a CBeebies proms, though to reject that one feels rather cruel, like taking candy away from a baby, as it were.

Of course there’s also the motherload of gimmick, that tiresome national embarrassment that is The Last Night of the Proms. For those who blame dodecaphony for the supposed death of Classical Music, I say you’re ignoring the flag-waving exercise in cultural suicide with which we end an otherwise-excellent classical music festival.

[ETA 16/02/2017: my hostility to Last Night has lessened. I’ve no desire to go, and the programming could most certainly be improved, there must be a place for light or popular classical and for patriotic sentiment. In this sense, it is gratifying to see the music having a social function.]

We do nevertheless have some exciting concerts. There are thirteen world premieres and quite a number of UK premieres. I very much do appreciate this, and the organisers deserve much credit. But, as the Guardian laments, ‘there is an absence of big, ambitious new orchestral works, which the BBC has the resources to put on better than anyone else in the UK, and in the Proms, the perfect platform on which to do it.’ More on that in a minute.

First off, there is, suitably, a late-night tribute to Boulez. However, there are no works by Peter Maxwell Davies, former Master of the Queen’s Music who also died this year. His death was later than Boulez’s, so I can partly understand the omission. But it is nonetheless discomforting to see a prominent classical composer like him neglected while David Bowie gets a headline act.

We all know the ostensible reason for having these non-classical Proms. It isn’t because of a lack of classical music — there’s several centuries of work to choose from. And I don’t think it’s due to finance, as most of the classical concerts have little problem selling out. It’s about image. The Proms want to diversify, with the worthy ambition of trying to evangelise those who otherwise don’t like classical music. And it looks like this is set to become an even bigger part of the Proms experience. David Pickard, the Proms’ new director, has said that ‘there are areas that it would be nice to explore in the future … for instance, I accept that in world music there are probably great riches out there to be discovered.’

The trouble isn’t only that this isn’t exactly the point of the Proms; it’s that it doesn’t work. This is not bringing people into classical music. It is accommodating the Proms — a classical music festival — for non-classical tastes.

I don’t even particularly like the focus on the ‘great’ works of classical music (great as they most certainly are). If you want to attract a new audience — a younger audience, even — you need something unexpected, something very distinctive in character.

I did not fall in love with classical music a year ago because of Doctor Who-themed concerts, and neither did I fall in love with classical music because of another bleeding performance of Ravel’s Bolero or Beethoven’s 9th. I fell in love with the music when I heard striking, exciting classical works. Kalevi Aho’s Symphony No. 9, Thomas Ades’ Violin Concerto, James Macmillan’s The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (which I’m happy to say is in fact on the programme), Debussy’s Nocturnes, and so on.

When I first heard Mozart I didn’t at all understand it; when I first heard Ives I was astonished. Classical music, in my mind, was all about florid melodies, musical rigidity and an over-abundance of major keys. When I heard modern, relevant pieces — say, Steve Reich’s 9/11 remembrance piece — I became aware of just how important classical music could be to my life. Then, afterwards, I was able to go back and understand the pre-20th century works I found culturally inaccessible, and I now adore them just as much.

I know I am not the only one like this. A common misconception about classical music is that it’s old and poncey. Playing newcomers Mozart’s Jupiter or hosting a David Bowie tribute concert will not change that. You’d be much better off, for instance, replacing Verdi’s Requiem with Ligeti’s much more frightening, unique one. You could cut out Ravel’s Bolero and replace it with La Valse. Instead of the traditional Last Night, end the Proms with a massive work like Messiaen’s Turangalila. Or if we’re forced to keep the Last Night, at least start it off with something youthful and arresting such as Ades’ dance-music infused Ecstasio from Asyla, or Ives’ wildly dramatic orchestral version of his song General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.

But instead of using the diversity of classical music to draw new people in, we have pop and jazz and gospel and Strictly, as if that will somehow expand classical music’s reach.

Still, I must emphasise that there’s still a lot I look forward to. Four Henri Dutilleux works, Mahler 3 & 5, Bartok’s Bluebeard Castle (which I’ve never actually heard before), Beethoven 5 & 7,  Tchaikovsky 4, Bruckner 9, Boulez night with Elliot Carter’s Penthode too, The Sixteen, Hans Abrahamsen’s Let me Tell You, Nielsen 5, the aforementioned world premieres, and probably many other works unknown to me that I’ll fall in love with.


4 thoughts on “BBC Proms 2016: Some Thoughts

  1. Steven, if you haven’t already discovered the music of Carl Nielsen, I recommend to you his Symphonies,his Clarinet Concerto and his Flute Concerto. For my money, you hit the nail on the head in this post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, David. I keep meaning to get around to Nielsen after having enjoyed thoroughly his 5th a while back. I’ll try and give the works you recommend a listen over the weekend.


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