The universal language of music – the Proms returns for its 119th year

The BBC Proms, or “The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”, to give them their proper moniker, are upon us again. It has become de rigeur in recent years to regard Glastonbury as the UK’s numero uno music bash, but three days of rock and roll in the rain of Somerset has got nothing on eight weeks of seriously good concerts in South Kensington.

A Great British institution

The Proms is one of our national institutions; it’s one of those occasions that make English people feel English. We might not all be hardcore classical music fans but we know a defining opportunity when it comes our way. The wider world knows “The Proms” mostly as “The Last Night of the Proms”, when, after a slew of one of the most thoughtfully curated series of concerts (by my esteemed colleague Roger Wright now making his last appearance in the curatorial role), the Royal Albert Hall lets down its hair and brings proceedings to an end with an evening’s joyful entertainment which is quite unlike all the other events.

The concept of promenade concerts was based on early open air concerts at which the audience was able to walk around, socialise and occasionally listen to the music. The redoubtable Sir Henry Wood pulled this concept into an entertainment package in the equally redoubtable Royal Albert Hall with its vast canyons of stroll-able space and instituted what now has become the cultural marker of a British summer. The hallmark of the BBC Proms season has become its diversity. In addition to a nightly evening Prom broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, there are early evening Proms, late night Proms, kids Proms, Proms in the Park, (that’s across-the-road in Hyde Park), Proms in regional centres, poetry Proms, electric Proms, the Prom experience ever evolves.

A global get-together

The main evening concerts feature the best the world has to offer in orchestras, soloists, choirs and ensembles. But the abiding image of the Proms is the last night shenanigans where people from all over the world who have all but sold their granny to get a ticket amass in the (rather refined) mosh pit of the Royal Albert Hall and waive aloft national flags to a selection of tunes that promote the spirit of Great Britain as a once-great super power.

The undisputed highlight of the evening is the often multiple rendition of “Land of Hope and Glory”. The title says it all, but to see flags from North Korea, Iraq and China being fervently waived in time to the blood-stirring introduction to a lyric worthy of Ghengis Khan – “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet”, either signals a rather large big-up for the UK or is an indication of ulterior nationalistic ambition. Time will tell. But it wouldn’t be a British summer without The Proms and I wholeheartedly recommend it as both a dose of sanity and silliness that we would all be poorer without.