Last Night of the Proms let-down

Tonight was the annual Last Night of the Proms, the finale of the BBC’s famous concert series. While the Last Night featured the usual eclectic collection of music: the old, the newly commissioned and the bizarre (for example, Sir David Attenborough “playing” the floor polisher) the BBC managed to spoil it by messing about with the traditional end to the concert.

The Last Night used to end with Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. While rarely played outside of the Proms, the piece provides the perfect opportunity for the prommers to join in: pretending to cry into handkerchiefs during one section, attempting to keep up with the orchestra in another, and humming along in another. It also concludes with See the Conquering Hero Comes, the perfect accompaniment to the entrance of the singer performing Rule Britannia. Unfortunately, in recent years, the BBC decided that the Fantasia was inappropriate to play at the Last Night as the tunes it contains only came from English songs. They added some Welsh, Irish and Scottish tunes, which would have been fine, only instead of adding short orchestral segments as in the original part of the Fantasia, they added songs sung by children’s choirs, broadcast by video links from “Proms in the Park” events from across the UK. This spun out the Fantasia into a work more than twice its former length, which did make it drag on a bit. Last year, the Fantasia was omitted from the programme for, it was said at the time, one year only, so that it could be replaced with sea songs by Vaughan Williams on his anniversary. Unfortunately, the BBC didn’t keep their word, as the Fantasia was missing from tonight’s programme. If I’d queued up for a whole day for a ticket to the Last Night, I’d feel cheated if the programme didn’t contain the Fantasia on British Sea Songs.

However, the end of the concert still had one redeeming feature: Jerusalem. Now to be honest, the words have never meant much to me – fancy naming a patriotic song after a city in a foreign country, especially one that, let’s face it, isn’t in a particularly stable part of the world, and certainly not one that any other country would aspire to become. As for the tune, I find it slightly dull, dreary even. But what made Jerusalem a great ending to the Last Night was Edward Elgar’s orchestration. With its crashing chords and soaring strings, Elgar’s score makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up in a way that Parry and Blake alone fail to do. Unfortunately, this year the programmers saw fit to replace Elgar’s version with one by Parry himself. I was actually pleasantly surprised that Parry’s version wasn’t as bad as I’d feared, yet somehow it still sounded like it should be played by a school orchestra, not as the finale to one of the world’s most famous concert series. There is a reason why Elgar is one of Britain’s most famous composers and Parry is not.

The Last Night of the Proms is watched and listened to by millions of people around the world. Its second half is the only part of the Proms to be broadcast on the BBC’s primary British TV station, BBC One, so is the only part likely to be seen by the wider public. Removing traditional, fun elements from the end of the concert does nothing to encourage them to explore classical music further. So please, BBC, revive the Fantasia – in its original form it would hardly take up much time in the concert – and please go back to Elgar’s wonderful arrangement of Jerusalem that has always brought the concert to a fitting close. Otherwise, why not just go the whole hog and fill the arena with chairs for the Last Night?

23 responses to “Last Night of the Proms let-down”

Showing comments 1 to 10

  1. Mr Hornblower

    Entirely agree about the loss of the Fantasia — it contains music that is both moving (Tom Bowling), uplifting (Saucy Arethusa) and festive (Hornpipe). Also, it feels like music that’s drawn organically from the nation’s long maritime/naval history and so it’s entirely appropriate to the occasion, without being tub-thumpingly jingoistic. It’s about Britain’s cultural/historical roots.

    My issue, though, is with the last piece: Rule, Britannia! — it’s kind of cringey, particularly when the singer indulges in am-dram costume changes, reminiscent of Mrs Antrobus from The Archers. Pur-lease!
    If they ditched Rule, Britannia! and the kept the rest, I’d be very happy. Though I guess that’s not really an option.

    I agree about Elgar’s arrangement of Jerusalem. Also like the fact that it’s specific (“England’s green and pleasant land”), yet contains a universal message.

    Must dash, there’s a gale blowing and I’m needed on deck.

  2. Jonathan

    In recent years, the full Rule Britannia! with costumed soloist had been replaced with Henry Wood’s short version at the end of the Fantasia, with just orchestra and audience singing the chorus, much for the reasons you give. I’m surprised they’ve revived the full version. I’d prefer to go back to the shorter version, which rounded off the Fantasia nicely.

    It’s really the title of Jerusalem that’s inappropriate. Why not call it “Green and Pleasant Land”?

  3. Mark Savage

    I have to admit I hardly noticed the difference between the Parry and Elgar versions of Jerusalem- indeed, I didn’t even know that Elgar did orchestrate a version of it.
    As far as I was concerned, the tune was composed by CHH Parry, and that’s what we always get. I agree that the words are probably inappropriate for a 21st century context, but that hardly seems to matter- it’s the words and music together that give it such power and force. Indeed, it’s the almost understated “In England’s Green and Pleasant Land”, which rather than being triumphalist, is musically somewhat modest as a last line, which makes the song for me.
    Jonathan makes no reference though to that other great “Last Night” favourite, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March number 1, which most people of course know far better by its words “Land of Hope and Glory”. Now surely, if you listen to that carefully, that’s a great English tune which could serve fine as any nation’s national anthem.

    I was disappointed too by the lack of the Fantasia, but a few changes and surprises are acceptable, and Handel with Fireworks was fine by me.

  4. Mrs ita O'Carroll

    I have wished for many years to atttend the Last night of The Proms and this year my son gifted me a ticket to accompany him there. I loved it but I felt there was not as much atnosphere as I had seen on TV in previous years. A fewf fun things were missing. I felt the conducter was dull and I missed the sparkle from previous conducters also lack of The Fantasia.

    However at 72 years old I felt it was a great privledge to be there and I just loved it. I would dearly love to make the trip again from Aberdeen.

  5. G Sherman

    And again in 2010 we missed the Fantasia of British Sea Songs.

  6. Jonathan

    Well, yes and no. I was there last Sunday when they repeated the Last Night from 1910, and enjoyed joining in with all the traditions during the Fantasia. It was on TV on Thursday night, so catch it on iPlayer now:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00tp1wn/

    I also put the question to Roger Wright, Proms director, in a Q&A session on Thursday as to whether it would return to its rightful place in future. Unfortunately his reply wasn’t encouraging.

    At least we had the Elgar version of Jerusalem back this year.

  7. C Bird

    I have just sat down with my husband to watch the Last Night (infortunately we have been remiss in the last couple of years) so we were quite excited for the Sea Shanties and had our wine and cheese at the ready! What a disappointment to not have this on the schedule – who can we complain to?!!! Many thanks

  8. Jonathan

    As I said above, you can see it on iPlayer until next Thursday!

    The man to complain to is Roger Wright, Controller of BBC Radio 3. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, mind.

  9. Chris

    Problem was some of the audience ruined it during the sailor’s hornpipe.

    Haven’t really missed it.

    I see it’s not on the programme for this year either.

  10. Jonathan

    In what way ruined it? You mean hooting their hooters so you couldn’t hear the music? The idea of playing that piece was for the audience participation. And while seasoned Prommers might not miss it, the next generation don’t have the chance to experience it, and the traditions are lost. You should have seen the audience during the 1910 Prom last year. While most people joined in, the youngest members of the audience looked on with bemusement. They had never seen the Fantasia performed at the Last Night on TV, so they didn’t know what to do.

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