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Beyond the chinless wonders: the radical face of the BBC Proms

The last night of the Proms is one of the UK's most flagrant displays of imperialist nationalism, steeped as it is in red-faced nostalgic veneration of Britannia. But this vulgar finale stands in stark contrast to the Proms programme itself: a nuanced and daring selection of music sensitive to historical circumstance and charged with emancipatory potential.

Tristan Burke
26 July 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

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Of all the British summer’s ordinary displays of patriotism, the Last Night of the Proms is perhaps the most offensive. Even in 2012, a year that has provided a smorgasbord of flag-waving opportunities for the jingoistic, the Last Night of the Proms is set to be the most uncomfortable and brazenly offensive. Beneath all the repressive politics of the Olympic machine, a sense of internationalism and global siblinghood through sport can still be excavated; the jubilee at least paid lip service to multicultural Britain (and I don’t pretend this lip service doesn’t have its own problems); the Last Night of the Proms, meanwhile, is an unabashed celebration of the white, metropolitan bourgeoisie. The sight of a legion of ‘straight-backed chinless wonders’ drunkenly waving union flags and bellowing that they will never be slaves is infinitely more offensive than a Routemaster bus driving slowly around an athletics stadium. The rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ back to back with the national anthem must have William Blake clawing at the earth of his lost grave, clamouring to explain that this was never, never what he meant. I don’t like the Last Night of the Proms, I think it’s vile. It’s a sort of orderly, establishment sanctioned carnival, if this isn’t a contradiction in terms.

And within this most militantly nationalist of festivals, its most offensive moment: ‘Britons never shall be slaves’. There are two reasons why this is distasteful. The first, obviously, is that untold numbers of people all over the globe, who were subjects of the British crown, were slaves, or were kept in conditions of virtual slavery in order to profit the British Empire. That the programme for the Last Night became fully established in 1954 makes ‘Rule, Britannia’ look like a sort of desperate, imaginary recouping of the rapidly dissolving British Empire. This year, too, was at the height of the first wave of African Caribbean migration.  It hardly needs to be said, it is pointed out so frequently, that the Last Night of the Proms is an assertion of white British identity that is broadcast on BBC 1 every year.

Secondly, the Proms were set up in 1895, essentially to introduce the working classes to classical music in a series of affordable and informal concerts. Of course, it has all the problems of any programme (Victorian or otherwise) instituted by the bourgeoisie to teach the plebs about ‘proper’ culture, but nor does this mean that its educative potential should be dismissed out of hand. The offensiveness lies in the manner in which the bourgeois spectators reterritorialise the concert series. Essentially, the Last Night is an attempt to render null any radical or liberating potential that one may have found in the preceding two months of concerts. It is a reminder that so many of the working class audience in the early years of the concerts (and even now) were also in a state of abject wage slavery. That essentially, the middle classes own this culture, and they might let others in, but they’ll always remind them who is boss.

Is it possible to find anything redeeming in the Proms then? It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of Proms concerts aren’t anything like the last night. For example, the last few nights have seen the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performing.  Set up by the critic and theorist, the late Edward Said, along with the conductor Daniel Barenboim (an outspoken Israeli supporter of Palestine who has brought musicians to perform in Gaza and the West Bank), their concerts (July 20th, 21st, 23rd, 24th, 26th and 27th) have been every bit as exciting and radical as their founders’ pedigrees would suggest. This series pairs Beethoven with the contemporary French composer Pierre Boulez, who studied twelve-tone music with Messiaen, before going on to compose works that mix traditional instrumentation with electronics in strange, clashing and disorienting arrangements. It’s difficult, shamelessly intellectual and often very beautiful.

Pairing these two composers introduces Boulez, and contemporary music to a far wider audience, who broadly speaking are likely to have tuned in or attended the concerts for Beethoven. But it is also a reminder that Beethoven himself was once an experimental composer. It historicises him, reminding us that he isn’t a transhistorical genius, but reflects the conditions of his own time just as Boulez is a composer for our time. This is exactly where the homely middle class nature of the Proms can be subverted. The Radio 3 announcers have been fond of reminding the audience that the final concert in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra series will be Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which ends with the setting of Schiller’s hymn to universal brotherhood ‘Ode to Joy’, on the same day that the Olympics begins. The presence of Boulez puts this in a quite different light. The unity of Beethoven is set against the alienation of Boulez. Boulez’s work emerged from memories of the Nazis co-opting composers like Beethoven (which wasn’t difficult to do). In the 1960s, with Stockhausen, he was involved with the serialist Darmstadt School, who sought to confront the Nazis’ musical legacy.  He reminds us that any performance of Beethoven now must also contain the memories of Nazism, as indeed do the modern Olympics.

Hence, it it’s perhaps more useful to think about Boulez capturing the spirit of the Olympic Games, or at least the ugly side of them. In his drifting, in his clarinets playing to their uncanny, shadow brothers on tapes, I hear the violence done to so many people across the globe and our powerlessness to do anything about it. I hear the contradictions between the Olympics’ claims to be bringing people together in peace, under the shadow of multinational corporations. And this too is what the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra seems to be about: a dream of peace, yes, but a reminder that while musicians may be able to come together, an apartheid state is operating in Israel and shows little sign of lessening its grip. This is one way that the Proms can be interpreted as radical, no matter how much the BBC and the rest of the politico-cultural establishment wish them to be conservative.

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