Proms 34

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

As the next extract shows, the programmes of the Proms were as much a subject of contention 50 years ago as today: but at least then the man who chose them was also the man who stood up and conducted most of them himself

It would be interesting to seek the cause of changing fashion in music-worship and music heroes. The great popularity of the Promenade Concerts shows the conductor as a modern arbiter with immense powers of direction; but as so many disputants about relative values speak with a marked gramophonic accent, one can only think that the narrowing of musical sympathies has something in common with the limited supply of disc music compared with that available in printed score. Personally, I have a great regard for Robert Schumann, but the newer body of music writers do not stand in support. We hear less of his music, but nothing can loose the attachment which bound us to him in our childhood days. Schumann’s music is so inseparably woven into his private life that the man and his music are at one with us always. The story of his love pursuit of Clara, their marriage and domestic happiness, then the final tragedy, we feel it all, and in fancy picture each moving scene as his music is unfolded before us.

Those who can take the broad view backwards as well as forwards will agree that orchestral music in England has slowly moved to a highly creditable position. Vauxhall Gardens and Covent Garden were stepping stones to higher things, though the old men say that there was a lamentable amount of backsliding when Crowe introduced ‘See-Saw’ and dance measures of a similar nature. Jullien earned a certain amount of kudos by the names and works on his programmes and the diamonds in his shirt front; but here again it is said that Beethoven or Mozart according to Jullien was a sorry travesty of the truth. Jullien, however, was a busy man, and in the hurry of selling music and flowers, had only time for les morceaux choisis of the great masters. But these conductors walked the stage for a little while only, while Wood was with us when most of his present audiences were lisping monosyllables and is now a great institution in the world of music. The fame of many composers has come out of his presentation and conducting: and the names of other men would still be unknown had not their works come under the eye of Sir Henry Wood.

The programmes of the forty-nine concerts of the new series of Promenade Concerts show that each is a standard orchestral concert. Doubtless we shall hear something about the standard of occasional performances; but to carry on for two months with a new programme nightly drawn from three hundred works, — who else could do it? If a conductor descended on America with a similar repertoire, I verily believe that a solemn stillness would come over all that land and headlines would disappear, beaten; but here we have grown so used to these feats of physical and mental endurance (evidently possible in few other conductors), added to great artistic activity, that all is accepted as usual; they are simply carrying on.

The present long series of Queens Hall Proms have grown by such imperceptible degrees that we take for granted the quality and ability of the man who has established them: they are in truth an expression of his views on art. All the things he loves and cherishes are exploited: those things he does not like are not there. I like to see Wood at rehearsal, where he goes right through everybody and every difficulty before another man would have said, ‘Now, let me see!’.

I am perfectly certain that no outside influence would ever move Wood to alter his opinion. For that reason it is useless for you or me to grumble because the classics get away with eighty per cent of the programme space, and the others only get in by the skin of their teeth. There’s the programme: take it or leave it: and always we take it with acclamation. Wood is vitally interested in his Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. Like Richter and Nikisch, he is a conductor only, and thus can only live his life once. From the orchestral scores of Wagner and Berlioz we see them leading their forces to the grand and triumphant climax. I am sure that while orchestral music lasts in England, the fame of the Promenade Concerts will endure, remarkable as the achievement of one man in the land and city of his birth; and when the time comes for a change, as change there must be, we know that there will he men present. Englishmen, who will continue the great tradition of Sir Henry Wood. England had no such beacon of broad efficiency when he went to the conductor’s desk in 1895.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, August 1934, p. 939