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Home News Sir Snooty’s sour note for the Proms patriots

Sir Snooty’s sour note for the Proms patriots

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I CAN offer you the final word on Land of Hope and Glory and the elimination from the Last Night of the Proms of those anachronistic imperialist lyrics.

It comes from Sir Nicholas Kenyon, former chief of Radio Three, director of the BBC Proms for a decade, and now managing director of the Barbican Centre. A man who really knows about music, then.

Sir Nicholas writes in the Guardian that the controversy ‘combines knee-jerk BBC-bashing, a familiar and all-too-easy target, politicians meddling in concert programming, a laughable irrelevance and the hounding on social media of a conductor, a particularly unpleasant development’.


Let’s start by getting rid of the complaint on behalf of the conductor. The conductor of the Last Night of the Proms is a public celebrity whether she likes it or not, and social media trolling is now part of life for the famous and influential. All of them, including sensitive artistic types, so get used to it.


I would have thought that even a man as important as Sir Nicholas would have paused when he saw the poll figures showing that large majorities were angered by the knifing of the patriotic songs. But naturally, all those people are wrong, and Sir Nicholas knows why.

You see, as a national ritual, he explains, the event is always changing and must respond to the mood of the moment. Singing the words of Rule Britannia only dates from after the Second World War, that’s just 70 years or so, and before the war the words were never sung. Although Sir Nicholas concedes a 1933 recording demonstrates that ‘nothing could stop the audience joining in with the chorus’.

We get some examples of changes to the Last Night made to ensure relevance and meet the demands of the times. In 1997, we learn, under Sir Nicholas’s own direction, John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine was removed from the programme, owing to the unfortunate ending of a similar journey undertaken by Princess Diana not long beforehand.


There is a dull predictability about Sir Nicholas’s willingness to compare a snatch of fluffy California minimalism to singing Land of Hope and Glory. The first is a cultural foundation stone for Sir Nicholas’s sort. The latter is an embarrassment which matches Orwell’s view of the attitude of Left-wing London cinemagoers to standing for the National Anthem – they would rather be caught stealing from the church poor box.


But don’t panic, we have Panic. Sir Nicholas mentions how the Last Night promenaders of 1995 were ‘challenged’ by the inclusion of the piece by Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Lot of knighthoods about among these eminent music people, by the way.


There’s no point me going on about the merits or otherwise of Panic. If you were around at the time, you may remember being impressed by it yourself. I doubt whether many people will have heard it otherwise.


Philip Larkin used to argue against subsidised poetry on the grounds that it produces a circuit of decently-paid writers, critics and academics, all striving to impress each other. They tend to drop all sorts of high-flown references into their work, in order to show how deep it is. The only losers are the public, who used to enjoy poetry when it was written for them.


Here is Harrison Birtwistle himself, talking about Panic: ‘I have called the work a dithyramb, in Classical Greece a choric song in honour of Dionysus, whose wild exuberance here runs riot. The soloist, as chorus leader, is identified with the mythic god Pan, literally “spreading ruin and scattering ban” as in the quotation from Elizabeth Barrett Browning with which I preface this score. The title Panic refers to the feelings of ecstasy and terror experienced by animals in the night at the sound of Pan’s music.’

In case you haven’t got Sir Nicholas’s drift, he tells us that the Last Night ‘is a prime example of what that great historian Eric Hobsbawm called an invented tradition’.

Dear old Eric. Unreconstructed Stalinist. Wouldn’t have minded all those tens of millions of victims of communism, if only it had produced the promised perfect world. Never very good at explaining why it didn’t. 


Actually, Eric was also a music critic, who did jazz for the New Statesman. Here he is in November 1963, writing about the Beatles: ‘They are probably just about to begin their slow descent: the moment when someone thinks of making a film with a pop idol normally marks the peak of his curve. In 29 years’ time nothing of them will survive.’

The historian who knew in advance the inevitable course of history went on in the same piece to praise the permanence of a group of nice simple American black folk playing nice simple folk and country blues of the kind much encouraged by the Communist Party. 

You could probably guess from all this that Hobsbawm didn’t like Miles Davis much, and you would be right, and if you were me you would think that the complex, highly unsubsidised and immensely successful modern jazz of the Davis era, which you will hear everywhere today in one form or another, was a bit too uppity for the communists.

And you and I are a bit too uppity for Nicholas Kenyon, and if we like to hear the BBC just once a year allowing a little space for patriotism and the idea that not all of the history of the country is entirely a bad thing, then we have to be corrected.

The Proms are rubbish, and for years have been mostly a vehicle for whatever political cause BBC executives wish to promote, mixed in with some celebrity names and some nice light music they think might keep their ignorant audience happy. I will never buy a ticket to a BBC Prom concert.

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