The Promenade Concerts

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Though we may deplore the absence of a National Music Festival, and the consequent loss of prestige of music among the arts, there has been something to compensate individuals among musicians, and especially those who, more successfully than their fellows, make a path for themselves through a world of indifference. Some may be in doubt as to whether the Promenades made Wood, or whether Wood made the Promenades. There had been Promenade concerts before, but none so lasting as chose organised by Henry Wood at Queen’s Hall, so there can he no doubt that Wood made the Promenades and incidentally found himself in the process.

The Promenades are a one-man show, and at the same time an epitome of Wood’s artistic outlook and character. A similar object organised by a committee would have gone down after its first or second season. The ‘Proms’ are now a national institution: and as such are a fruitful nursery for British orchestral music. Compare the encouragement given to our native composers at the ‘Proms’ to what has been meted out by the various other series of established symphony concerts, and any objector to my statement would fumble for words in explanation. But for the ‘Proms’, British orchestral music would today be almost non-existent. To have a work accepted and performed at this series of concerts has been the great ambition of every British composer these many years: and that fact alone is a tribute to Wood’s fine independence.

The remarkable thing is that at the ‘Proms’ the native composer has never been pampered, and consequently we have been saved the bathos of nationality in art. Wood’s policy has evidently been to take an average of all schools, both of familiar works and novelties, giving indigenous works a fair share. This in itself is no light task, especially when we consider the magnitude of the undertaking: between three and four hundred works each season.

The bulk of these, of course, are well known and drawn from the classics; but the management has never lacked enterprise in presenting the works of famous contemporary composers. To be just to other concert enterprises one must admit that the programme-space of a two months’ season may call for more inclusion than exclusion: but, all the same, works of the finest creative minds in France, Russia and Germany have been played often enough at Queen’s Hall to become familiar and understood.

The educative influence of Wood’s policy on the native musician is incalculable. The British composer of today does not, like his grandfather, think of music in terms of church music, though some may rightly and with our good wishes continue to do so. But our composers now think in the secular idiom and have the technique of men great in the art without regard to race or nation, and may live in that sphere where there is no foreigner. For this change of heart and spirit we owe much to Sir Henry Wood and his Promenades. These concerts have prevailed in spite of all world-changes: and yet they have changed while still enduring, as we note when remembering that what was once a novelty now comes before us as a familiar friend, though not necessarily old.

For some years now we have heard ‘asides’ about the passing of French music from all London. I do not suppose that Wood was or could be influenced by any coterie operating in the metropolis: but it is a fact that the balance is seen to be redressed in the forthcoming concerts. It may have come on the air, although I seem to feel the influence of Toscanini's great performance of Debussy’s La mer_3. I an not, for fear of putting myself out of school, going to say that it was epoch-making: but I knew in my bones that something was going to happen, and that something turns out to be the promise of these programmes to give us some of the finest French music composed during the past fifty years, and these include _La Peri (dance poem), an orchestral masterpiece by Paul Dukas4.

  1. Toscanini had performed La mer with the BBC Orchestra in June; Brian attended his rehearsals. ↩︎

  2. This issue of Musical opinion also included Brian’s analytical article on this work of Dukas. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, August 1933, p. 914