Kate Chisholm

Programming the Proms

Critics of this year’s festival have missed the point, Roger Wright tells Kate Chisholm

Critics of this year’s festival have missed the point, Roger Wright tells Kate Chisholm

Where’s the meat, the main course, the epic single masterwork? asked some of the music critics after the First Night of the Proms. They’ve missed the point, says Roger Wright, director of the Proms since 2008, in defence of his evening of Stravinsky, Chabrier, Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Elgar, Brahms and Bruckner. The critics complained that a concert of seven works, with two intervals interrupting the flow, was not what they expected of arguably the world’s greatest classical music festival. They wanted a roof-raising performance of Verdi’s Requiem or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. But actually the musical taster devised by Wright felt very true to the Proms’ original mission as devised by their founder Robert Newman in 1895.

The Victorian impresario, with the financial backing of a London throat surgeon, wanted as wide an audience as possible to enjoy ‘serious music’. His idea was to put on a series of nightly concerts, ‘to train the public by easy stages…gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music’. He hoped to attract a different audience by selling tickets for just a shilling and creating a more informal atmosphere: eating, drinking and smoking during the concert were all encouraged.

In those early seasons, if you went to every concert you would have emerged in September slightly dazed but having had a complete education in the classical canon, explains Ivan Hewett, music critic of the Daily Telegraph and a historian of the Proms. Mondays were always devoted to Wagner, if it was Wednesday you knew you would get something from Bach or Brahms, and by Friday you were ready for a dose of Beethoven. But there was always also a modernising zeal to the Proms programmes.

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