This Week in Music History: The BBC Proms began (1895)

The queue at the 1945 BBC Proms © BBC

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark. First up? The 1895 founding of one of summer’s favorite festivals: the BBC Proms


August 10, 1895: The BBC Proms begin

London in 1895 was gradually starting to take its modern form. Its famous skyline, long dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral, had gained two landmarks in the 1870s—the Houses of Parliament and the Royal Albert Hall—and Tower Bridge had been completed the previous year. 1895 was Queen Victoria’s 58th year on the throne, and it was also the year of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for “gross indecency:” this wasn’t yet the London of today. But one festival began that year that is still going strong.

“I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages,” said the impresario Robert Newman. His plan was to educate British people in the joys of classical music, through a series of summer concerts, “popular at first, gradually raising the standard” until Newman had created an audience who loved their Beethoven, Wagner and so on as much as he did. He enlisted the help of the 26-year-old conductor Henry Wood, who conducted the first Proms concert at the Queen’s Hall on August 10, 1895. The programme was a collection of miniatures and extracts, ranging from Rossini to Wagner to folk song.

Planning to “train” people’s tastes sounds deeply old-fashioned these days, but Newman’s general approach is one still beloved by classical music promoters: start with shorter, more easily digestible pieces and gradually introduce the “harder stuff.” Artists have to negotiate the same balance between more and less crowd-pleasing content, as pianist Evgeny Kissin described in an interview discussing his 1997 Proms debut:

Newman’s strategy seems to have worked a treat: by 1938, Wood could proudly pronounce, “Great Continental artists envy us our Prom public… Their knowledge, the intent manner in which they listen, and the discriminating way in which they applaud, proclaim their great love of music.” 

Vaughan Williams conducts his Symphony No. 5 at the BBC Proms in 1943 © BBC

That year, a bust of Wood was unveiled in his honor: a bust that is still displayed every summer in the Royal Albert Hall, looking out onto the stage and into the vast auditorium, still packed with intent, passionate listeners. The Proms—officially the BBC Proms since 1927—have been housed there since 1941, and have hosted more classic performances than you can count. Most, though not all, have been orchestral concerts, and these have always mixed varied, bite-sized programs with heavy-hitting works—Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony, say, or Das Lied von der Erde with Schumann’s Fourth. Kissin’s 1997 Prom was the first ever for solo piano, and he held that legendary audience so enraptured that he had to provide a full hour of encores.

BBC Proms, 2005 © BBC

These days, summer is a big deal in classical music all around the world, whether in the bustle of London or the serenity of the Swiss Alps. Though many venues take a break from hosting regular concerts, their absence is more than compensated for by the vast international circuit of tours and festivals. With the possible exception of Christmas and the New Year, with their glut of Messiahs and Viennese waltzes (although they crop up at the Proms too), summer is surely the time of year when classical music is at its most popular, and its most mainstream. It’s strange to think that in 1895—a time when Brahms and Verdi were still alive—Newman was so cautious about introducing the London public to a serious classical programme. We’ve come a long way.

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