Like many ostensibly ancient British rituals, the Promenade Concerts were founded towards the close of the 19th century, shortly after the Queen's Hall opened as a new musical venue in 1893. As such, they may be regarded as a classic instance of what is sometimes called 'invented tradition', where venerable antiquity is less in evidence than is often popularly supposed; and where change and adaptation are at least as important as continuity and survival, even though the former are often disguised or mistakenly perceived as the latter. Thus regarded, the history of the Proms is an intricate and many stranded subject, which has recently been brilliantly treated in a collection of essays edited by Jenny Doctor, David Wright and Nicholas Kenyon.[*] In terms (for instance) of its performing space, the crucial dates were 1893 and 1941 (when the Queen's Hall was destroyed and the concerts moved to the Albert Hall); in terms of sponsorship and organisation, the key years were 1927 (when the BBC first became involved) and 1942-44 (when the corporation's commitment was reaffirmed and effectively became permanent). Moreover, the evolving production of the Proms, along with the developing audience for them, must be set in a broader historical and geographical context: namely the state and self-image of the nation in which the concerts have taken place almost uninterruptedly for a century and more. For the imperial Britain in which Henry Wood's Proms began in the summer of 1895 was a very different place from the post-imperial Britain in which the BBC Proms have been performed in the summer of 2007, and this in turn helps explain why the Proms, like other regularly repeated rituals, have not only meant (and mean) different things to different people, but have also meant (and mean) different things at different times.
LRB 6 September 2007 | PDF Download