The problem with the First Night of the Proms

 

The first night of the proms, Royal Albert Hall

Curtain-raiser: The first night of the Proms, at the Royal Albert Hall 

17 Jul 2015

How to begin the world’s greatest music festival? With a brand-new curtain-raiser, is one obvious answer. We have one this year, in the shape of Gary Carpenter’s Dadaville, and there have been quite a few new pieces commissioned for the Opening Night, in recent years. Writing a piece for the First Night is a big challenge for a composer, as a really good curtain-raiser is hard to bring off. It has to make a tremendous, optimistic noise, and indicate the scale of what’s to come, in a style that’s easily accessible without being banal. At the same time it ought to give the effect of somehow leading beyond itself. It opens the door, through which we walk.

Pulling all that off was easy, in the days when the musical language was tied to a social situation. Every Baroque orchestral suite began with a really rousing ‘curtain-raiser’, in the shape of a grand, pompous French overture. This was borrowed from the opening number of the French ballet, which accompanied the entry of the King and his retinue.

In later times, when sovereigns became too dignified to dance in public, and the middle-class took over, the fanfare took over as a way of signalling the start of something big. The noble body-language had gone, but the sense of making a grand entrance lingered. Even ordinary folk had one moment in their lives when they could experience that uplifting feeling, when Mendelssohn’s Wedding March pealed out at their wedding.

For decades, right up to 1968, the Proms launched itself in a similarly conventional way, by playing the national anthem at the beginning of the Opening Night. Just for a moment, the old feeling of symbolically rising to one’s feet came back to life, and the problem of how to begin the Proms was solved at a stroke.

First night, 1961: Until 1968, the national anthem was always played at the opening concert (Photo: BBC)

Without that conventional opening, any new piece played on the opening night is .....

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