Flags at the Proms: a few thoughts

  • Posted on 12 September 2017 at 9:07am
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Last Night Blues

Confession: I’ve never much liked the concept or the paraphernalia of the Last Night of the Proms, not because I’m a killjoy or have an antipathy to that strange bendy-knee jigging up and down the Prommers do, or clapping on the beat, but because it always seemed to me that the flag waving pantomime of it was at odds with it being the grand finale of the world’s greatest classical music festival. (Or, since it is way longer than any other music festival of any genre, perhaps just ‘the world’s greatest music festival’ is more accurate.) What the non-musical world out there saw as the flagship of the Proms was this thing that was nothing like the rest of it, a bit like tagging a huge fancy-dress tug-of-war & acrobatics display on to the end of the Premier League season as the outward manifestation of the footballing exploits of the previous ten months.

I thought we’d progressed, historically speaking, from music being a nationalistic thing, associated as it was in the 19th century with the self-determination of certain European peoples, to a point where it had become a thoroughly international endeavour, more or less everywhere. I’ve never met a musician who didn’t celebrate the non-nationalistic aspect of their work. During the Second World War you’d still hear the music of German composers at concerts in Britain, ditto Russian composers during the Cold War. A proper understanding of music’s history is that national borders are all but irrelevant to the way it has developed anyway. The great Russian composer Tchaikovsky, or the great Norwegian composer Greig were, by training, instinct and broad idiom, composing in a format that had been born and matured in other countries – Italy, Germany and Austria in particular. Elgar, composer of the tune of Land of Hope & Glory (and that other Albion soul-stirrer, Nimrod)  revered all things German (and was never comfortable about the jingoistic words added to his tune, either), and CH Parry, the composer of Jerusalem, wrote that magnificent, stirring setting of William Blake’s poem during World War 1 for the cause of women’s suffrage, not to bolster morale in the struggle with the Kaiser. Thomas Arne, composer of Rule, Britannia!, was an ardent Freemason and Catholic, two conspicuously pan-European, supra-national organisations.

But whenever I expressed this reservation about the Last Night shenanigans people said to me, don’t knock it, it’s just people having harmless fun, no-one takes the jingoistic thing seriously, there are loads of different flags, it’s for different people to enjoy than the rest of the festival, let it be, let it be. And I saw their point. Once, when I was presenting the Music for Youth Proms, a (superb) orchestra of young people from Northern Ireland were going to be the ones on stage for the final section of balloons, flags and Land of Hope & Glory, a role normally accompanied by the wearing of plastic Union Jack hats, and the organisers felt it appropriate and sensitive to ask the young musicians if they’d be more comfortable not wearing the Union Jack hats, or having a choice – depending on their community of origin – of wearing the Irish tricolour instead. The young musicians – from both communities – unanimously agreed to wear the Union Jack hats since they had correctly judged it not really to matter and that it was an inherited, quaint bit of jokey pageantry that they may as well go along with to avoid any awkwardness. The children of the Good Friday peace – young in years, mature in minds.

It now turns out, reading the ‘outrage’ about the European flag-waving at Saturday’s Last Night, outrage orchestrated by right-wing, BBC-hating tabloids, that all those folk who said to me, ‘no-one takes it seriously any more’ were wrong. They do. Just like it has poisoned everything else about our national life, Brexit has poisoned this event too: it turns out there are irate people who really do care about the patriotic flag-waving part of the Last Night, who really do take Land of Hope & Glory and Rule, Britannia! seriously, who really do think that a music festival should climax with a non-ironic, jingoistic sing-song, and that it really does matter what flags are waved. My question to Farage and his ilk ‘offended’ by the European flag-waving on Saturday is this: what on earth did you expect? Prommers, first and foremost, worship classical music, which, between the Renaissance and 1900 was an overwhelmingly European achievement. In my experience what they take very, very seriously is western art music. What they do not take seriously at all is the heroics of Empire. Hence the bendy knees thing. And anyway, what did we Britons do, for entertainment, when we were at the height of our Imperial pomp, and really did rule the waves, in the second half of the 19th century? We flocked, in our hundreds of thousands, to Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, the chief running joke of which, show after sold-out show, was making parodic fun of our institutions of power and of any whiff of pomposity in public life. Modern-day Prommers get the joke, and are being thoroughly British by doing so, in a way that the self appointed UKIP guardians of patriotism do not.

In 2012, I had a double career highlight by contributing in a musical way to the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony and to the River Pageant that accompanied the Queen on the day of her Jubilee. Both these events felt at the time like wonderfully joyous, patriotic endeavours. But their spirit of inclusiveness, diversity, good humour and a volunteering community felt like a modern version of patriotism that I thought we had all got behind. That spirit, post-Brexit, now seems unthinkable. Now, even the hitherto harmless spectacle of the Last Night of the Proms has been tainted by the fact that people actually felt it worthy of getting angry about, that they actually felt it worth their time and effort to attack and mock those who feel differently to them, having a laugh at a concert. How pathetic. How ignorant.

It’s not up to me, thank goodness, but if it were, this intolerant, tedious Brexiteer nonsense about the flags would cause me to re-think the musical content of the Last Night once and for all. The fact is, musically speaking, Britannia does rule (some of) the waves, being the world’s second biggest exporter of music after the USA, in large part thanks to our young, song-writing musicians. That’s reason enough to be proud, we don’t need the cheesy tub-thumping for a long-lost Empire as well. Those ‘patriotic’ songs have begun to have all the charm of a drunken, Eng-er-land supporters’ chant at an away fixture and I’d give them a rest for a few years.

And to those who think the Last Night of the Proms should actually be a kind of nostalgic, patriotic rally, above and beyond its musical content: get a bloody life.