It’s that time again. The Royal Albert Hall, the world’s greatest festival of music – greatest in terms of pedigree, quality and range – will soon bring down the curtain for another year. The Last Night of the Proms will be broadcast all over the globe for the pleasure of viewers and listeners who regard this end-of-term jamboree as an unmissable event.
As always, there is a strong international flavour to this British feast. Sakari Oramo, the Finnish music director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, will conduct works by French, Russian and Italian composers, and Juan Diego Florez, the Peruvian tenor, will scatter some stardust before the communal singing of Jerusalem and Rule, Britannia! Among the 6,000-strong audience will be more than 1,000 foreigners, singing as lustily as the natives.
They will wave flags, and though they’ll be outnumbered by the locals, with flags of their own, everybody should by now understand the international character of the occasion. Everybody except the wowsers who were on the wrong side of the Brexit vote in June and are now determined to show the rest of us how broad-minded they are.
Before the concert these dreary folk will be pestering the Prommers, handing out EU flags to counter the enthusiasm of all those Little Englanders who, decked out in red, white and blue, and not being quite so progressive, send out the wrong message to the world. And what is the right message? That we’re European!
Actually, you cloth-eared twerps, we ghastly reactionaries who attend these concerts know that very well. Take a look at the composers whose music has been performed this season: Bach, Bartok, Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, Borodin, Boulez, Brahms, Bruch and Bruckner. And that’s just the Bs!
Sir Nicholas Kenyon, a former controller of the Proms has even said there might be a sense of foreboding about the Last Night in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU.
A sense of what? In the last week, when the great orchestras of Leipzig, Berlin and Dresden have visited, there was only a sense of joy. It is hard to recall a happier Prom than the all-Beethoven programme performed by Herbert Blomstedt and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig; and the last time I looked, Beethoven was German.
According to Kenyon, Britons should be showing the world we are open, welcoming and innovative. We are. That’s why so many people want to live and work here.
Elgar was indeed, as Daniel Barenboim likes to say, a European composer, as many Europeans are beginning to realise. But his musical voice was English; it grew out of his childhood in Worcestershire. There’s nothing provincial about that, any more than there is anything provincial about Flaubert or Cézanne.
Hark to Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose Serenade to Music will be sung tomorrow, before the Prommers let their hair down and put their flags up. I believe that one’s own community, one’s own language, customs and religion are essential to our spiritual health. Without local loyalty there can be nothing for the wider issues to build on.
Siegfried Sassoon said something similar. A Herefordshire apple is itself, and so is a Burgundy vine. We write our lines out of our bones, and out of the soil our forefathers cultivated. But they were Little Englanders, so what did they know?
European culture, to which this country has contributed in full measure, has given so much to the world. We shall hear that again on the Last Night. The European Union, on the other hand, has given us nothing in terms of culture. And as another pesky provincial Englishman wrote, nothing can come of nothing.
We are in awe of you, Barenboim told the Prommers who had stood silent and attentive throughout four evenings of the Ring cycle in 2013. That is the spirit of the Proms, the spirit of musical love and intelligence that has no equal anywhere.
Outside the Albert Hall the wowsers will stand, cloaked in robes of unimpeachable virtue: joyless Europeans whose knowledge of Europe could be printed on the back of a tram ticket. Take your bats home; you’ve broken your wicket.
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