What a relief that the Proms are back. Granted there is no audience present, and the great auditorium of the Royal Albert Hall is plunged in darkness, but the orchestra is there, and the music is live. Over the last couple of months Radio 3 has broadcast some magnificent historic Proms from the archive; I think especially of Barenboim’s Wagner feast with his West-East Divan Orchestra, and Dudamel’s showcase of Latin America with the Simon Bolivar, which brought the house down. All well and good, but there is nothing to surpass live music, which has been such a great miss for nearly six months now.
So on Friday the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo performed at the First Night of the Proms. Aaron Copland’s Quiet City, with these poignant solos for trumpet and cor anglais, seemed apposite. And they played Beethoven’s Eroica. I’ve heard the Eroica a lot during Beethoven’s 250th anniversary, but it never fails to have an impact. Was it my imagination, or did the requirement for social distancing actually lend clarity to all the orchestral lines?
Last night, Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra played Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony. Another inspired choice. The spiritual nature of the music suits this vast, deserted space. I remember going to the Albert Hall to hear RVW 8. The eighth is dedicated to John Barbirolli, and Sir John was supposed to conduct it that night, but he had passed away in the interim, and it was Charles Groves who at the end of the performance, I remember, held the score up before the audience in a gesture of acknowledgement to “Glorious John”.
Then in 2008 I was back in the hall for the fiftieth anniversary of RVW’s death. The BBC Symphony with Sir Andrew Davis played the Tallis Fantasia, the Serenade to Music, Job, and the Ninth Symphony. Extraordinary. What a responsibility that night for the orchestra’s leader Stephen Bryant, who had extended violin solos in every piece. I remember Andrew Davis pointing at him with a wry smile, so to say, I told you you’d be wonderful.
And in the same 2008 season I was back to hear the rarely performed Sinfonia Antarctica, as it so happened, the night the conductor Vernon Handley passed away. I recall the uncanny ethereal quality of the wordless voice of soprano Elizabeth Watts, coming from a gallery on high, and conjuring the pitiless majesty of the inhospitable southern continent.
Why, last night, was RVW 5 so apt? It seemed to me to be a reminder of all that is to be cherished in England. Post Covid, let’s hope our dear English cousins don’t get “back to normal”. Let’s hope they get back to RVW.
Of course two weeks is a short season. The Last Night will be here in no time. The singalong, with these bellicose party pieces, has become controversial. The silver lining to the cloud of Covid, you might say, is the opportunity to hear the music without the words. The question is, will six thousand souls be back in the hall in 2021 to declare that, whoever else in the world may be enslaved, so long as we rule the high seas, it won’t be us?
I’m not holding my breath. The BBC have tried to put a stop to it before. Sir Malcolm Sargent died in 1967, and in 1969 it was mooted then that Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory be scuttled. But the audience were having none of it.
North of the border, we have similar running sores. The Scottish Government tried to legislate against the singing of sectarian songs at football matches, and failed. We agonise about our National Anthem. Flower of Scotland? Wee bit hill and glen? No wonder our rugby players keep dropping the ball. Highland Cathedral? What a dirge. Scots wha hae? Bit bloodthirsty. Welcome to your gory bed.
Maybe we shouldn’t take the thing too seriously. Most National Anthems are humbug. I’d sooner sing The Drunkard’s Raggit Wain than Flower of Scotland.
He stands at Jimmy’s corner,
Till Jimmy cries him in,
To see if he’s got ony bits
Or mibby, ony shin…
(Or, in another version, gutta-percha shin. Other translations are available. My grannie in Saltcoats used to sing it to me, and then say, “Is that no pitifu’?”)
Personally, I favour Auld Lang Syne. So, incidentally do the prommers. It ends the Last Night every year, even if the prommers don’t know the words. They are kindly, and of gentle sentiment. It might be argued that Auld Lang Syne is an international rather than a national song. That’s just fine. Anybody in the world can feel free to sing Scotland’s National Anthem. Let’s bring it home.