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History Of The Proms

The Proms celebrated its 125th season in 2019 yet still remains true to its original aim: to present the widest range of music, performed to the highest standards, to large audiences.

Sir Henry Wood surveys the bomb damage after an air raid destroys the earlier home of the Proms, Queen’s Hall, close by Broadcasting House in London, in 1941

The Proms and the BBC at 90

2016 saw 90 years since the BBC took over the Proms, and from the first broadcast concert of 1927, the UK has enjoyed a wide range of both new, well-known and much dearly-loved music from the festival.

This timeline made for the 90th anniversary explores the BBC’s ongoing relationship with a very British institution.

Visit the Proms performance archive, containing details of all concerts since 1895

The story of the Proms

In the beginning

The first Proms concert took place on 10 August 1895 and was the brainchild of the impresario Robert Newman, manager of the newly built Queen's Hall in London.

While Newman had previously organised symphony orchestra concerts at the hall, his aim was to reach a wider audience by offering more popular programmes, adopting a less formal promenade arrangement, and keeping ticket prices low.

Who was Henry Wood?

Born in 1869, Henry Wood had undergone a thorough musical training and, from his teens, began to make a name for himself as an organist, accompanist, composer and arranger, vocal coach and conductor of choirs, orchestras and amateur opera companies.

Newman arranged to meet Wood at Queen's Hall one spring morning in 1894 to talk about the project. 'I am going to run nightly concerts to train the public in easy stages,' he explained. 'Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.' In February 1895 Newman offered Wood conductorship of a permanent orchestra at Queen's Hall, and of the first Proms season.

The early days

The series was known as 'Mr Robert Newman's Promenade Concerts' and the programmes were perhaps over-generous by today's standards, lasting around three hours. The informal atmosphere was encouraged by cheap promenade tickets - one shilling (5p) for a single concert, or a guinea (£1.05) for a season ticket.

Eating, drinking and smoking were permissible (though patrons were asked to refrain from striking matches during the vocal numbers). The more 'serious' items were confined to the first half, and a major attraction of the shorter second half was the orchestral Grand Fantasia - choice morsels extracted from popular operas.

Developing public taste

Wood and Newman were keen to introduce audiences to an ever wider range of music. In the first seasons, a tradition was established of a Wagner Night on Mondays and a Beethoven Night on Fridays. Wood continued to present an enterprising mixture of the familiar and the adventurous, programming new works each season (referred to as 'novelties').

He also promoted young, talented performers, and he fought to raise orchestral standards, making himself unpopular in 1904 with a successful bid to scrap the system whereby orchestral players could send deputies to the rehearsals and appear in person only for the concert. By 1920 Wood had introduced to the Proms many of the leading composers of the day, including Richard Strauss, Debussy, Rakhmaninov, Ravel and Vaughan Williams.

World War 1

The onset of the First World War brought a public dislike for all things German, yet Wood and Newman - almost alone among the cultural establishment at the time - insisted that 'the greatest examples of Music and Art are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices of the hour'. In 1915 the publishers Chappell and Co., having earlier taken over the lease of the hall when Newman had run into financial troubles, also took over the orchestra, which was renamed the New Queen's Hall Orchestra.

Enter the BBC

But the Proms were running at a loss, and in 1927 Chappell's announced its withdrawal of financial support. In the same year the BBC had established its status as a Corporation with a mandate 'to inform, educate and entertain', clearly a vision that Henry Wood held for the Proms.

The BBC took over the Proms, and for three years the concerts were given by 'Sir Henry Wood and his Symphony Orchestra', until the BBC Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1930. The Proms now reached a far wider audience and although some feared that broadcasting would reduce audience numbers, Wood emphasised its role in achieving his aim 'of truly democratising the message of music, and making its beneficent effect universal'.

A new home at the Royal Albert Hall

Three days after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939, the BBC decentralised its Music Department and announced that it was unable to support the Proms.

With characteristic determination Wood found private sponsorship for the 1940 and 1941 seasons, and replaced the BBC orchestra with the London Symphony Orchestra. But air-raids intensified and the 1940 season lasted only four weeks. On 10 May 1941 a Luftwaffe bombardment gutted the Queen's Hall.

The only other hall available in London for orchestral concerts was the Royal Albert Hall, opened in 1871, and the Proms took place there in 1941. It was not until the following season that the BBC returned to sponsor the Proms.

The end of an era

1944 marked two anniversaries: the fiftieth anniversary of the Proms, and Henry Wood's seventy-fifth birthday. By now Wood's phenomenal energies were waning, and he passed away a whisker short of his half-century of conducting the Proms.

Moving forward

After the War, the traditional Wagner Nights became unfashionable. From 1953 Viennese evenings became popular and composer anniversaries were well catered for. In 1957 and 1958 the deaths of Sibelius and Vaughan Williams were marked by complete symphony cycles.

Malcolm Sargent, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1950, gave most of the performances, but the 1950s also saw a gradual increase in the number of orchestras taking part. Manchester's Hallé Orchestra, under Sir John Barbirolli, became the first non-London orchestra to perform at the Proms, and over the next few years concerts were given by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Liverpool Philharmonic. Basil Cameron featured prominently alongside Sargent, but other influential figures also began to appear: Charles Groves, Colin Davis, Norman Del Mar, Charles Mackerras.

New directions

With the arrival of William Glock as BBC Controller, Music, in 1959, the identity of the Proms began to change. The core orchestral repertoire, a mainstay of the Proms, was reduced to accommodate a more experimental style of programming, one which carried bold juxtapositions and reflected current musical trends from around the world. Between 1959 and 1964 the number of works new to the Proms had more than doubled.

The 1963 season brought international figures such as Georg Solti, Leopold Stokowski and Carlo Maria Giulini, and in 1966, the first foreign ensemble, the Moscow Radio Orchestra, appeared, followed soon after by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic. It was this period that saw the transformation of the Proms from a successful but relatively conservative enterprise into a major international festival.

Wider and wider still

Other major innovations since the 1960s were the introduction of complete opera performances (beginning in 1961 with Glyndebourne Opera's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni), concerts by ensembles from non-Western cultures (including India, Thailand, Indonesia and Japan), music for percussion, jazz, gospel and electro-acoustic music, and concerts devised especially for children.

The BBC has commissioned a number of new works each season, offering Proms audiences a chance to hear the latest in musical trends, and creating a unique platform for dozens of contemporary composers. The 1970s brought other new features such as a series of Late Night concerts and Pre-Prom Talks.

Beyond the Proms centenary

The 100th Proms season took place in 1994 and the festival now includes over 70 main Prom concerts every year, ever widening the range of symphonic and operatic music presented. The BBC Proms continues to welcome leading international performers whilst showcasing the best of the British music scene, including the BBC's own orchestras and choirs.

Yet although the scope of the Proms has increased enormously since 1895, Henry Wood's concept for the season remains largely unaltered: to present the widest possible range of music, performed to the highest standards, to large audiences. And promenading in the Royal Albert Hall's arena continues to be a central feature, lending the Proms its unique, informal atmosphere.

Promenaders queue outside the Royal Albert Hall in 1945