Festival of Britain

For too long the Proms showcased foreign music. Now, under Roger Wright, it is well and truly a Great British festival

Culture & Anarchy Music
Beyond Jerusalem: Under Roger Wright, the Proms have rediscovered British music

The Proms is the greatest British music festival. In recent years, under the direction of Roger Wright, it has also become the greatest festival of British music. Mr Wright’s immediate predecessors — Sir Nicholas Kenyon, John Drummond, Robert Ponsonby and William Glock — were not known for their interest in British music from the period of its great rebirth after the 1880s, unless they had commissioned it. Sir Nicholas deserves credit, though, for his programming of John Foulds’s Three Mantras during the 1998 season, after Foulds had suffered decades of unjust neglect in the concert hall. 

Mr Wright understands the British musical renaissance, and loves many of the works produced during it. More to the point, during his tenure of the Proms he has, with great success, lured many of the finest under-performed works out of the cupboard and put them on at the Proms. They include a definitive performance of Moeran’s Symphony in G (which, since the compilation by Martin Yates of sketches for a second symphony by Moeran, we had better get used to calling Moeran’s  First Symphony); an electrifying performance — during an electric storm — by the hugely talented Ashley Wass of Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto in C, the first time the revised and completed work had been performed at the Proms; and a first Proms performance, two years ago, of the Dynamic Triptych, John Foulds’s masterpiece. Perhaps most important of all, Mr Wright has reminded Proms audiences that Sir Hubert Parry was a composer of true greatness who wrote more than just “Jerusalem”, with performances two years ago of his Symphonic Variations and Fifth Symphony, among other works. Yet for all these and other imaginative programmes, much still remains to be rediscovered.

This season, which begins on July 13, includes a number of exceptional concerts, but two British programmes especially that have a historic resonance in the context of the Proms. On August 16 Mr Wright undertakes the daring experiment of presenting the middle three Vaughan Williams symphonies — the Fourth of 1935, the Fifth of 1943 and the Sixth of 1948 — in the same programme. This has been done before — the greatly missed Richard Hickox did them at the Barbican one evening a decade ago — but never at the Proms. The Fourth broke the mould of Vaughan Williams’s symphonic writing: it is a work of aggression and violence that shocked contemporary audiences, and was attributed to the composer’s reaction to the rise of fascism in Europe. However, whether mischievously or not, he told friends that his anger was provoked by a decision about the siting of the Dorking by-pass. The Fifth is a supreme, but at times tense and melancholy, pastoral; and being premiered when the composer was over 70, it was taken as a swansong. However, there were four more symphonies to come, and the next, the Sixth, had the effect of a bomb going off in the musical consciousness. Vaughan Williams denied that it was about the war, but the saxophone solo in the scherzo reminds us of the death of Ken “Snakehips” Johnson and members of his West Indian Dance Orchestra when the Café de Paris took a direct hit in the Blitz in 1941. To hear these three symphonies one after the other is to relive the most turbulent years of 20th-century Britain. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, under Andrew Manze, has performed these works superbly in recent months — this will be unmissable.

However, the high point of the season for lovers of this repertoire will come on August 29. A performance of Elgar’s majestic First Symphony is always special, and Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra can be relied upon to do it justice. However, in the first half of the concert the soprano Miah Persson, the tenor Andrew Kennedy, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the London Philharmonic Choir join the orchestra for the first performance at the Proms of Herbert Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi, a work made for the Albert Hall, with its capacity for a huge choir: some of us have been waiting years for this.

Howells and his family went on holiday to Gloucestershire in early September 1935, in a break from his work at the Royal College of Music and as a music examiner. One morning his nine-year-old son, Michael, woke up feeling unwell. By the next evening he was dead, of spinal meningitis. This would have been a devastating blow in any circumstances; for Howells it had the additional effect of silencing him as a composer. The block lasted for nearly three years, until his daughter Ursula — who would later become one of our most celebrated actresses — urged him to get the grief out of his system by writing a piece of music about it. That was the genesis of the Hymnus Paradisi, a work in six parts that, as well as conveying a shattering sense of loss, also has the theme of light — lux perpetua — running through it.

The composer was an agnostic, or possibly even an atheist, yet the words he set are sacred. And although the work has moments of blinding light within it, articulated by the soprano not least in a great climax in the second movement, it ends on the same phrase of deepest sadness with which it opens. It is a work that serves as a constant reminder of mortality but, beyond that, of the fear that, in death, there may after all be no consolation, just resignation. It is a peculiarly English articulation of loss.

When Howells completed the work in 1938 he put it in his drawer, deeming it too personal to be performed. In 1949 he was asked by Herbert Sumsion, the organiser of the Three Choirs Festival, to provide something for the 1950 season at Gloucester. Having shown Sumsion the score of the Hymnus, with a view to offering it, he changed his mind. But Sumsion called in Gerald Finzi and Vaughan Williams to twist Howells’s arm, and he conducted it at Gloucester very close to the 15th anniversary of Michael’s death, in September 1950. A process of mourning was complete, and music had acquired another work of genius.