Part of the Proms

Audiences have been central to the unique atmosphere of the Proms ever since the festival began 125 years ago. In this unprecedented year – as the Royal Albert Hall’s seats lie empty and as music-lovers more than ever experience the Proms on radio, TV and online – Leanne Langley explores the ways in which the Proms and its audiences have shaped each other

Last Night of the Proms crowd

Mark Allan/BBC

Mark Allan/BBC

Everyone knows the Proms is special, a thing apart from other classical music festivals, even those with adventurous programmes and brilliant musicians. Part of the difference lies in the Proms’ spectacular principal venue – that circular Royal Albert Hall decked in Victorian red and gold. Echoing through time with the sound of organ recitals, prize fights, political rallies and rock stars, the place oozes tradition and character. Another distinction is the Proms’ eight-week-long intensity, offering open access to a stimulating orchestral concert every night. Inexpensive standing (Promming) tickets for Arena or Gallery are much sought after through convivial queuing, adding to the informal atmosphere and camaraderie. Eagerness to return is palpable. Romances have blossomed.

These Proms fundamentals – the large curved auditorium with Promming area and the bewildering number of concerts packed into several weeks – attract a more varied audience than any other similarly ambitious classical series. And both features were central to the Queen’s Hall, where the Promenade Concerts were launched in 1895 by the hall’s manager, Robert Newman. 

Curiously, the same two elements might be thought to counter the high aims of attentive listening associated with ‘serious’ concert-going. Yet subverting expectations was Newman’s aim, drawing in every sort of ticket-buyer – real connoisseurs and total novices, the well-behaved, the inattentive, students, the elderly, office workers, bus drivers, singletons, couples, bankers, solicitors, clerks, clerics, teachers, tourists, the person on the street escaping the rain. To train them all in careful listening – never in one particular taste – he hired the unknown Henry Wood, who was building up the Queen’s Hall Orchestra at the time. Rapt attention to a vast range of music is precisely what transpired under the 26-year-old conductor, still a learner himself: more a hard-working, genial team captain than a prodigious musical star. 

The experiment worked. Hearing an orchestra in action was a new, visceral experience for most people around 1900. Listeners came to trust Wood and players (eventually) came to love him. The added delight Prommers felt when standing close to players and soloists, urging them on, was sensed by the musicians, forming a mutual bond of support and respect – one that remains electric today. With perseverance, sometimes against the odds, Newman, Wood and their sponsors created a body of open-eared musical adventurers keen for new works and core repertoire alike. Audiences in the Royal Albert Hall these days – up to nearly 6,000 a night, plus many more listening in via BBC radio, TV, Sounds or iPlayer – continue to refresh and extend that tradition. No wonder the broad diversity of its audiences, radiating sociability around music, is another defining Proms ingredient.

Prommers in 1960

Prommers getting noticed in 1960: ‘Flash for Brighter Orchestras’ refers to a popular cleaning product as well as to the sparkling stage personality of conductor Malcolm Sargent (affectionately known as ‘Flash’); ‘We Want 1812’ is an open request for Tchaikovsky’s popular overture of the same name. (Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)

Prommers getting noticed in 1960: ‘Flash for Brighter Orchestras’ refers to a popular cleaning product as well as to the sparkling stage personality of conductor Malcolm Sargent (affectionately known as ‘Flash’); ‘We Want 1812’ is an open request for Tchaikovsky’s popular overture of the same name. (Erich Auerbach/Getty Images)

Newman didn’t invent promenading, but he took considerable pains to invigorate it. The luxurious Queen’s Hall, opened in 1893 in upper Regent Street, next to All Soul’s Church, had a central, horseshoe-shaped floor area, below ground, that was wider than the Arena of the Royal Albert Hall (opened in 1871); its standing area was slightly larger too although total capacity at South Kensington was roughly twice that of Queen’s Hall. The point is that, at the Queen’s Hall, Promenaders could outnumber the seated audience (in fact, by around one-and-a-half times). It was for their comfort, and to aid crowd control, that Newman placed a fountain in the middle, enhancing it with flowers, greenery and ice to lower the hall’s summer temperature. Advertising ‘the coolest hall in London’, he soon hit on the idea of goldfish for the pond, generating publicity. 

Newman also lined the front of his platform with flowers and the back of the auditorium and stage with palms: garden scenery lifted spirits and relaxed the mood. Ices, flowers and cigars were sold at the interval and drinks could be bought at the bar. Such amenities welcomed ‘customers’ to a place akin to a high-class music hall, including the freedom to smoke in most areas, so long as matches weren’t struck during the music (signs and programmes carried rules). Clearly, Newman and Wood wanted people to enjoy themselves, to absorb the music, make new discoveries and pass along the pleasure to friends. Any group able to gather a guinea, for example, could share a transferable season ticket, bringing the cost of each concert down to just over fourpence, an extraordinary bargain. Actual promenading was unlikely, so jammed was the floor space. By the early 1900s, many would-be audience members had to be turned away. 

Not only had Wood become famous, but programmes had grown more challenging, orchestral playing more cohesive. Last Nights were never raucous, more like glorifed Popular Nights. In 1942, the second Albert Hall season, Wood gave his first audience-directed Last Night speech, beginning a new tradition: ‘I must thank you and tell you what a wonderful audience you are. How you listen! Your attention is so encouraging and exhilarating.’ It was in 1947, three years after Wood’s death, that balloting for the First and Last Nights started: 10,000 people applied for 6,800 seats. By 1951 an all-night queue for the First Night was standard. In the 1960s, under William Glock’s enlightened planning and Malcolm Sargent’s charisma, die-hard Prommers camped out for a week. 

During wartime, audience camaraderie struck an entirely different note: the Proms offered a solace that seemed essential even under the threat of Zeppelin or aircraft raids. Shrapnel incidents occurred in 1917, yet Wood kept playing; the brief 1940 season saw stoppages. Audience members remaining after an air-raid warning were treated to quizzes and entertainment long into the night. Who wouldn’t be cheered by community singing, the pianist Gerald Moore taking song requests and orchestral players mimicking musical celebrities?

From the very start of the Proms a large audience of new concert-goers had to be trained in communal listening, much as an orchestra required practice in ensemble playing. Newman and Wood understood this and sought a path between unbridled enthusiasm and buttoned-up silence. Too much indiscriminate applause intruded, as did endless shouts of ‘Encore!’, conversing, coughing and other music-disrupting noises. 

“Hearing an orchestra in action was a new, visceral experience for most people around 1900 … The added delight Prommers felt when standing close to players and soloists, urging them on, was sensed by the musicians, forming a mutual bond of support and respect – one that remains electric today.”

Worried about licensing regulations, Newman appealed in the programmes for fewer encore requests, in order to finish performances on time. Wood alighted on Haydn symphonies as ideal for an audience challenge, asking concert-goers to suppress applause between movements so they could follow a work’s sustained drama. Far from being killjoys or in any sense elitist, both men wished to enhance the listening experience for the majority, elevating music’s ability to cast a spell. Spontaneous intermediate applause for a truly pleasing performance, notably in a concerto, was always welcome. 

Audience-training paid dividends after the financier Edgar Speyer took over funding the concerts in 1902, following Newman’s bankruptcy. Issuing a prospectus to entice higher-paying seat-holders, his team made the Proms a leading test-bed for new music in London, as well as the place to make one’s debut. Concentrated listening became the norm, followed by a burst of warm applause at each work’s end. Notable exceptions stand out: irrepressible exuberance at the double encore for Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (1901); frank bewilderment, with laughing and audible hissing, at Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces (1912); and, more recently, conspicuous objection, by loud departures and booing, in Peter Maxwell Davies’s Worldes Blis (1969). 

At other times, singular interjections made an impact: the heckler who shouted at Wood for ‘mutilating’ Handel and Wagner (1934), an over-eager fan clapping prematurely near the end of Stravinsky’s Les noces (early 1970s) – ‘I could have thrown all four pianos at him!’ said the conductor Pierre Boulez. Strong political responses registered too. No better example exists than the appearance by the USSR State Symphony Orchestra on 21 August 1968, the day after the Soviet Union invaded Prague. Although tension was heightened by audience shouts of ‘Go home!’, ‘Russians out!’, Mstislav Rostropovich played a Czech masterpiece, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, committedly, bravely, through his own tears. The notion that every Prom is a collaboration between audience and performers took on layered meaning.

Queen's Hall ruins

The ruins of Queen’s Hall, home of the Proms from 1895 until the building’s destruction by an air-raid in 1941 (BBC)

The ruins of Queen’s Hall, home of the Proms from 1895 until the building’s destruction by an air-raid in 1941 (BBC)

A rise in audience participation, some of it silly, is often attributed to Malcolm Sargent, playing to television audiences in the early 1950s. It was he who invented the Last Night as we know it, its second half a knees-up of patriotic songs, party hats and flag-waving (or ‘increasing hysteria’, as one BBC boss saw it). 

But the original champion for audience engagement was Henry Wood: ‘And away we go, getting faster and faster, with that great audience stamping and clapping and enjoying themselves enormously, and the orchestra winning by a neck. For me, that riot of noise and happiness is the way they have of saying “thank you” at the Proms.’ Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (1905) started the ball rolling. Sea-Songs didn’t appear on a Last Night until 1908 or become regular until the 1920s, but it promoted group singing through Rule, Britannia!. Later accretions – bobbing heads, honking horns, mock crying, humming – enhanced the fun, even if things occasionally got out of hand. When the authorities tried to curb or replace Sea-Songs, rebellion ensued. 

Affection for Wood rocketed in 1938, his jubilee season. To curtail foot-thudding ovations, he improvised a visual gag: return first with overcoat, next with scarf, finally with hat and gloves. Soon afterwards, post-war Prommers invented responses to ordinary platform actions. Edgar Mays, a BBC Symphony Orchestra staffer, would be applauded as he raised the piano lid or brought in batons or music for the rostrum. Sargent encouraged the routine, which survives today with a Prommers’ chant. Before a piano concerto, the instrument is wheeled into position and a stage assistant lifts the lid. The Arena cries ‘Heave!’ The Gallery replies ‘Ho!’. The Leader then plays an ‘A’ on the piano for his colleagues to tune to, evoking rapturous applause. 

Witticisms in the form of telegram-like chants were enjoyed from the 1960s (see bottom). These may have gradually dwindled in number, but one Prommers’ announcement can be heard today at every Royal Albert Hall Prom: the appeal for contributions to a collection for musical charities and the tally so far raised. The earliest collection followed Sargent’s death in 1967. Last year, Proms audiences gave a record-breaking £121,842.95. Prommers also ceremonially place a chaplet round Henry Wood’s bust on the Last Night. 

Perhaps the most remarkable individual Prommer’s contribution occurred in August 1974, when Patrick McCarthy, a young baritone barely out of music college, jumped up to replace Thomas Allen, who had fainted partway through Orff’s Carmina burana, conducted by André Previn. The feat surprised no-one more than McCarthy’s mother, listening at home on the radio. The performance was saved; the audience went wild. 

Public voting entered the Proms in 2001–7, when Radio Times readers and BBC website users were polled for their choice of arias and overtures for the Nation’s Favourite Prom. In 2011 the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer, offered on-the-spot programming, when the pieces, selected by tickets drawn from a tuba’s bell, were then put to a vote. Robert Newman never did such a thing, but he and Wood certainly trusted their engaged audience members in even larger artistic judgments. And why not? The collective sum of their listening experience, and the social diversity in their ranks, combined to make a considerable public resource. They still do.

The latest wind of change, Covid-19, may seem to threaten everything. Things are certainly different this year, with a sustainable mix of archived and live performances – old and new, planned yet spontaneous – that will utilise the BBC's world-leading broadcast and digital capabilities. As ever, audience interactivity remains crucial: orchestras, soloists and conductors will participate virtually, as they must, and listeners can too. Tuning in, watching, commenting, sharing memories on air of favourite Proms moments will all help to keep music-making and its values alive for everyone, including new listeners who may never have set foot in the Royal Albert Hall. Such self-renewing, public-facing collaborations represent sanity in our confused world. Still more, they show hope in the larger Proms project, supporting the art we all hold in awe: music itself. There is everything to play for.

Leanne Langley is a social historian of music and Hon. Librarian of the Royal Philharmonic Society. She contributed a chapter to ‘The Proms: A New History’ (Thames & Hudson, 2007) and continues to write on London concert history and audience development.

This is a lightly revised version of an article originally written for the BBC Proms 2020 Festival Guide, which was not published this year owing to the change of programme following the coronavirus epidemic.

Prommers’ Wit and Wisdom
A selection of quips, chants and messages heard from the Royal Albert Hall’s Arena and Gallery over the years

Crowd of Prommers

Chris Christodoulou/BBC

Chris Christodoulou/BBC

A Last Night banner in 1960, when Malcolm Sargent (aka ‘Flash’) was conducting: ‘Flash for brighter orchestras’.

The day in 1974 after Prommer Patrick McCarthy replaced the collapsed baritone Thomas Allen in Carl Orff’s Carmina burana: ‘A Promenader has fainted; please ask one of the soloists to take his place!’

In the mid-1960s when stereo broadcasting began: All: ‘Here is a stereo transmission test’ Stage Right: ‘Left channel’ Stage Left: ‘Right channel’ Stage Right: ‘Left channel’ Stage Left: ‘Right channel’ All: ‘End of stereo test.’

In 1977 Christopher Seaman conducted the BBC Scottish SO when the Merchant Navy was taking industrial action. The orchestra gathered on stage and waited. After a lengthy pause: ‘Is Seaman on strike?’

When Andrew Davis, known as ‘Goldilocks’, returned to the Proms in 1988 sporting a beard grown while away in Canada, the Arena cried: ‘Who’s a Golden Oldie now, then?!’

Produced by BBC Proms Publications