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?