OK, yes I admit it.
I, Olivia Clark, Soprano in the London Philharmonic Choir, am a Proms Virgin (aka PV). Don’t judge. Before writing this article, I am ashamed to say I hadn’t even bothered to find out who Henry Wood was.
Hey, I can feel the judgement burning through your screen. All I knew that he has a very nice rehearsal hall named after him in Southwark – Henry Wood Hall.
I have at least heard of the Proms, I mean, I haven’t been living under a rock the size of the Albert Hall, I’ve just been living in Scotland. Even north of the Wall we understand that the last night of the Proms is a big deal.
I should add for all you Sassenachs, that the Scottish version comes wrapped in tartan. ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ is replaced by ‘Highland Cathedral’, and ‘Rule Britannia’ gets passed over for ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and the Scots, like the Queen, have got the hand-holding down! (For anyone confused, you only exchange opposite arms with your neighbour during the last verse, ‘now here’s a hand my trusty fiere, and gies a hang o’ thine’. It’s a big hint)
That being said, when I moved to London just under a year ago, I was not prepared for the beast that is the Proms, nor did I ever think I’d be singing in them.
Right, so the Proms, or rather The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, started officially in 1895. The first question I have, as the resident PV, is why ‘promenade’? Does the Albert Hall morph into one giant pump room where the audience listens while taking turns about the room? My good friend, Mr W. Pedia, burst that Georgian fantasy pretty quickly.
It turns out ‘promenade’ originally referred to the eighteenth century tradition of outdoor concerts in London’s pleasure gardens, which might just top my pump room dream.
Next we need to clear up a little grey area: is the verb really ‘to prom’? Does one just prom, or go promming? Oh no. Promming actually refers exclusively to the standing parts of Albert Hall. Take that, seat-sitters! Get your own present participle. Turns out that standing audiences get all the best Prom vocab. They are the pure-blood promenaders, or if you want to save time and energy you may call them Prommers!
I think it’s probably time I learnt about the big dog, Henry Wood. He was destined to be the sole conductor of the Proms – a condition of another grand fromage in London musical circles, Robert Newman. Newman knew all about putting on concerts, and he decreed that he was “going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.”
Henry Wood was his man, and I think he’s probably achieved it. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that being a promenader (or a seat-sitter) is probably on most British people’s bucket list, along with going to Wimbledon and the Olympics.
Despite having never sung in the Proms, I have been taken to one. If anyone has not borne witness to the ultimate queueing system in the Classical Music world, then I will attempt to enlighten you. I hadn’t appreciated that mere mortals could just rock up and get a ticket, what a revelation.
I wasn’t just amazed by the idea of queueing outside the hall, but that people had picnics and were totally committed to said queue. Tuxedoed tourists, suited workers, and students alike lined the Kensington streets already, and it was only just gone 6pm. These were 100% authentic Prommers, and I was one of them.
For someone who’d only ever seen the Proms on the BBC, I was intrigued by the standing area, or perhaps we should call it The Prommers’ Perch. Too far? Everyone got pretty comfy. The atmosphere was incredible, bubbling chatter crescendoed until finally the performance began, at which point an electric silence passed over the audience.
It was only about 20 minutes into the violin concerto that I spied the lovely old man behind me lying on his back, with his thick walking socks strapped into his hiking sandals, reading Proust. How sublime.
The Royal Albert Hall
So, that was my first time across the threshold of the Royal Albert Hall. To say I was amazed is an understatement. I was utterly overwhelmed. The music was played to perfection, but it’s also a humongous building. I didn’t realise that was a real organ, I thought the wee arches at the top were just a frieze, and boy I was not prepared for those purple lily pads dangling from the ceiling. Oh, and the sheer amount of red and gold. Hands down, the most impressive building I’ve seen in London.
So now, almost a year on, armed with my utterly flawed knowledge of the great event, I’m preparing my sustained top A’s and cultivating my romantic, German alter-ego for Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 for Prom 13! We’ve had our first rehearsal and I can safely say I’m rather excited. I’ll be losing my Proms virginity in style, singing a pretty epic piece with the lovely LPC.
Win Tickets to see us on Sunday
Tell us below why you love Beethoven and you could win two tickets to see us (including Olivia) perform with London Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms on Sunday 24 July. The competition closes at 11pm on 20 July.