Chopin – Ballade No. 1 in G minor, op 23; Etude in E, Op 10 no. 3

Debussy – Voiles, Pour le Piano: Prelude & Sarabande, Dr Gradus ad Parnassum

Poulenc – Suite in C

Gershwin – Prelude no. 1 from Three Preludes

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: 2ème année: Italie, S. 161: VI. Sonetto 123 del Petrarca

‘The Tingle Factor’ used to be a programme on Radio 4, a kind of second cousin to ‘Desert Island Discs’, on which reasonably well-known people (I hesitate to use the word “celebrities”), usually musical, artistic or literary personalities, discussed which pieces of music made them “tingle” or made the hair stand up on the back of their neck, and why. I expect most people have their own personal ‘Desert Island Discs’, and lists of significant songs and pieces. Remember the character in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity who made endless musical lists?  As a student, me and my friends were always making “mixes”, cassette tapes of our favourites, for parties, for driving, for working to, for chilling on a Sunday afternoon in bed…. Sometimes when I hear a song from that time (mid-1980s), I am instantly transported back to the attic room in my hall of residence, or to a pub, or a party, or a club somewhere in Exeter. I only have to hear ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Talking Heads or ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ by Simple Minds, and I am back in a crowded student club near the River Exe, on the dance floor, my doorkeys tucked into my shoe….

We gather music along the way and it forms a soundtrack to our lives, evoking memories, good and bad, and a few bars of a significant song or piece of music can create an instant reaction, a ‘tingle’. Music can arouse very powerful emotions. Psychologists suggest that there is something about the way music unfolds over time, as do emotions, and when we hear music we re-live the emotional sequence that happened the first time we heard it. This makes music so much more powerful than a smell or a painting: it draws us into a very special sequence of relived experiences. Music also raises our expectations, simply by granting or delaying a bar or beat in a piece, or by leaving a harmonic progression unresolved, or by using a device such as a Picardy Third. We would not be moved by music that fulfils our expectations; our emotions are at their highest when we are un-expected.

Then there is the music that seems to have seeped into the collective consciousness: Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ is synonymous with space travel, specifically the Apollo moon landings, after it was used in Kubrick’s film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, even for those people who are too young to remember the film or the moon landings. Or the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, often simply called ‘Elvira Madigan’ after the 1967 Swedish film of the same title in which the music memorably featured. Or the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (‘Death in Venice’). Or Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Hear just a few bars and one instantly thinks of poppies, the First War and the annual, sombre ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. And – dare I mention it? – ‘Nessun Dorma’, now forever associated with football. We are constantly bombarded with soundtracks and jingles, musical tags and cover versions, which induce an unexpected “tingle” in us.

The other week, I was listening to Radio 3’s Breakfast programme, as I often do when I’m surfacing for the day with my first of many cups of tea, and I heard a piece which immediately took me back to my family home in Rickmansworth, where we lived when I was at secondary school in the early 1980s. The piece, for solo oboe and orchestra, was ‘The Watermill’, by Ronald Binge, composer of “light music”, and was used as the theme tune for the 1970s children’s tv series ‘The Secret Garden’. I loved the series, and the book it was based on: as an only child, I had (and still have) a vivid and romantic imagination, and was used to keeping myself entertained, making up stories and plays on my own in the garden or at the piano. But I wasn’t remembering the tv series when I heard ‘The Watermill’: I was recalling my father playing it on the clarinet, with me accompanying him on the piano.

Another piece which always reminds me of my father and sends a distinct tingle down my spine, is Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. My father was an accomplished amateur clarinettist who, sadly, had to give up the instrument some years ago because it was affecting his teeth. We often used to play the Finzi Bagatelles together, our favourite movements being the Prelude and the Forlana (which formed part of my Grade 6 clarinet exam). Thanks to a neat little gadget on my computer, I have created a personal ringtone for my father, based on Finzi’s Prelude!

There are many other pieces which induce a tingle in me, and some of these are distinct from my Desert Island Discs, which are pieces I simply cannot live without. Many of these pieces can transport me instantly to a point sometime in my recent past, others evoke a vague memory of a person or a place. Some are just heart-achingly beautiful: music that stops one in one’s tracks, or makes one cry. One or two are so painful I can hardly bear to listen them. Here is just a small selection of my ‘tingle’ factor music:

Beethoven – Opp 23 and 96 Sonatas for violin and piano

Beethoven – Op 110, slow movement and fugue

Schubert – D899 no. 4

Schubert – D960 1st movement

Schubert – D940 Fantasie

Schubert – Op Post 148 Notturno

Janacek – On An Overgrown Path (all of it)

Part – Speigel im Speigel

Mozart – Rondo in A Minor K511

Handel – Harp Concerto, first movement

Chopin – Impromptu in G flat, Op 51

Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now’

Ian Bostridge singing Handel’s ‘Ombra Mai Fu’

Franck – Sonata in A, last movement

It says something about the music of Schubert that I have highlighted four pieces by him. There are, of course, many, many more!

Last year it was Purcell and Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn. This year it’s Chopin, Schumann and Mahler, and next year it will be Liszt (and Mahler – again!). I am talking, of course, of composer anniversaries, celebrations to mark either their birth or death, or, in the case of Mahler, both.

The trend for marking such events with coverage on radio, tv and in concert halls and lecture theatres seems to have increased exponentially in recent years, the most significant, perhaps, being Mozart Year in 2006, marking the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which induced a veritable tsunami of ‘Mozartomania’, on the airwaves and concert platforms around the world. Classic FM went into daily paroxyms of cliché-ridden excitement about Mozart’s “laahvely melodies”, and wheeled out ‘Mozart favourites’ with such alarming regularity that one began to suspect the recordings were on a continuous loop. With increased coverage and focus on a particular composer, one is afforded the opportunity, without having to try very hard, to get to know that composer and his music better. Thus, last year, I properly discovered Handel, a composer whose oeuvre had been nudging at the edges of my musical consciousness for many years.

The same is true of Franz (Ferenc) Liszt, the larger-than-life towering intellectual genius of the 19th century, friend to Chopin, George Sand, and Delacroix, champion and benefactor of composers such as Berlioz, Wagner and Greig, lover of aristocratic women, trainee priest, phenomenally accomplished pianist and conductor, who contributed importantly to the development of the art, and who, almost single-handedly, made the virtuoso piano recital what it is today, an important teacher and a highly influential composer.

I rather facetiously said to a friend recently that I did not “do” Liszt, for which I was immediately ticked off. I am reasonably familiar with quite a lot of his piano music, though I will hold my hands up and admit that I have avoided his orchestral works. I could probably recognise and/or name quite a few of his piano works if a question came up on Brain of Britain. But he does not feature in my repertoire – yet. By the same token, I do not “do” Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, all fine composers for the piano (though I must agree with my piano tuner here, who once said “I cannot see the point of Rachmaninov”!!). In fact, there’s a lot I don’t “do”: as I have mentioned before on this blog, the trouble with, and the joy of being a pianist is the vast repertoire, and the lack of time to acquaint oneself with all of it.

I think my ‘problem’ with Liszt was that I had heard too many bad performances, too many overly romantic interpretations, and read too many urban myths about him. I suspect he was probably riotously good company (he was ridiculously portrayed by Julian Sand in a truly dire film about Chopin, who was, incidentally, played by Hugh Grant, for the Lord’s sake!); he was also very hardworking, if the other urban legends are true. It is said that he practised for 12 hours a day, that he had huge hands (often cited as the reason why so much of his piano music is famously difficult). Apparently, his concerts could go on for hours, full of pyrotechnic displays of virtuosity, improvisation and general showmanship. Today, most of us who enjoy classical concerts, would have no truck with this kind of extreme showboating behaviour (except perhaps fans of Lang Lang). He was also wrote essays on many subjects, was admitted to minor holy orders, though he never became a priest (he undertook no vows of celibacy), and was a highly committed teacher.

Listening to the Années de pèlerinage, one has a sense of a man more closely aligned, spiritually and artistically, to writers such as Byron, Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth, the French artists Jacques-Louis David, Eugene Delacroix (who was a friend of Liszt’s) and Théodore Gericault, and English painters JMW Turner and William Blake. He is defined as a ‘Romantic’ composer, which slots him neatly into the shared chronology of Chopin and Schumann, though he far outlived these contemporaries, and his music looked far beyond the confines of 19th-century Romanticism. The Romantic period in music falls later than the Romantic period in art and literature, yet I feel Liszt is more in tune with the aforementioned poets and artists. Some of the pieces in the Années suite are subtle, imaginative, and deeply poetic musical visualisations of works by Michaelangelo and Raphael, while others are inspired by the Sonnets of Petrarch. Later pieces, from the third year, such as “Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este” (“The Fountains of the Villa d’Este”), seem to prefigure impressionist works on similar subjects by Debussy and Ravel (La cathédrale engloutie, Jeux d’Eau to name but a few).

My Dover edition of the complete Années dropped through the letterbox the other day (actually, the postman had to ring the bell, but I like the idea of Liszt dropping through my letterbox!), and I spent a happy hour browsing and sight-reading my way through it. The ‘Sonnetto 123 del Petrarca’ is on the approved repertoire list for my Diploma, which is as good a reason as any to learn this piece, aside from the sheer, unadulterated beauty of it, but I suspect my teacher will tell me off for selecting yet another slow Romantic piece, so something with a little more pace may be more appropriate. In the end it doesn’t matter: the entire suite of pieces is wonderful, worthy of months – years! – of exploration. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon listening to Lazar Berman’s fine recording while watching a slide show of my holiday photographs (courtesy of my swanky Apple TV gadget), appropriately pictures taken in Liguria two years ago, and shots of snowy Alps in France. Indeed, listening to the Années is a little like going on holiday to the most beautiful, cultural parts of Italy and Switzerland, taking in the art and literature on the way – oh, and the music too.

Being a professional musician is regarded by many as a highly self-indulgent activity: doing something you love and enjoy, and being lucky enough to get paid for it. The long training, which often begins early in childhood (I started taking piano lessons aged five or six), and can go on for many years post-college, conservatoire or university, is reduced to the preparation for a hobby, for clearly music is not “real” work.

Talk to any professional musicians, or music teachers, or indeed anyone involved in classical music, and you will find highly professional and committed people who believe making music is an important cultural gift to be shared with others. But many of us also wish our art and craft was properly valued by the community which we aim to serve. Music teachers are famously underpaid (a recent survey revealed that the average rate for an hour-long private music lesson is around £25), and only the very top flight musicians can secure top flight fees for their performances. A handful are lucky enough to gain handsome recording deals.

I am often told I am “very lucky” to have turned my “hobby” into a business. Never mind the hours of work I put in every week, for which I am not paid, to ensure my studio runs efficiently and my lessons are successful, meeting the needs of each individual student (and they are all different!) every week. Apparently, I am also very “lucky” to be so “talented”. Many people forget that talent has to be nurtured: there are only a very few people out there who are so naturally talented that they do not need to put the hours in. The rest of us work hard, for hours and hours, days and months and years to feed the talent. A serious, committed professional pianist practises for five or six, or more, hours a day to ensure, in performance, that one never plays a wrong note, mindful always that one is only as good as one’s last performance or review. Aside from that, there is all the painstaking work to be done away from the keyboard: reading, analysing and annotating scores, marking up fingering schemes which, once learnt, remain embedded in the memory and the fingers forever. Note-bashing is simply no substitute for the hard graft of learning new work in depth: working, with pencil and score, cutting through the music to the heart of what it is about. Living with a piece to find out what makes it special, studying style, the contextual background which provides invaluable insights into the way it should be interpreted. The endless striving to find the emotional or spiritual meaning of a work, its subtleties and balance of structure, and how to communicate all of this to an audience as if telling the story for the very first time. There is new repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going, a vast repertoire “in the fingers” which can be made “concert-ready” for some kind of performance within a matter of days, depending on one’s schedule.

Then there is the travelling: the Sisyphean accumulation of airmiles, nights spent in faceless hotels, sometimes a different hotel every night, fine, historic cities viewed through the fatigue of travel, for a pianist, playing an unfamiliar instrument in a foreign concert hall of uncertain acoustic. Having to produce a faultless performance on the concert platform every time. Never having permission to be less than perfect; always feeding the artistic temperament. To begin every practice session with the question “What can I do that’s different to the others?”, the pressure to achieve matched only by the pressure to sustain.

And one is not paid, retrospectively, for all the practise and preparation time. Concert fees are not huge, and sheet music and clothing and travel have to be paid for. And the instrument upon which one works, day in day out, must be maintained with regular visits by the piano tuner. Superstar soloists, like Chinese poster-boy-pianist Lang Lang, have an entourage of staff to support and cosset, but most international performers take responsibility for themselves, turning up on the appropriate day, with very little time beforehand to get to know the instrument. In the old days, one selected one’s instrument at Steinway Hall or the Yamaha showroom, it was prepared to one’s particular specification (there is a lovely scene in Bruno Monsangeion’s film about Sviatoslav Richter, showing him choosing a Yamaha in the showroom in Japan), and it travelled with one to engagements. These days, the soloist arrives at the venue and hopes for the best, knowing that most concert Steinways or Yamahas are largely the same.

During term time, when I work eight to ten hours a week teaching, I am “on duty” much of the time, my head full of information about my students, where they are in their learning, what needs to be done with them at forthcoming lessons and beyond, assessing which students will be ready for exams and when, and then remembering to do the online entries. At the most basic level, when I’m teaching back-to-back for three afternoons a week, there is rarely even time to dash to the loo or make a drink. I need a butler to answer the door and a maid to keep my teacup replenished! Sometimes, my mother comes up to stay and helps me by greeting students, chatting up parents, and making me tea. But I often don’t even have time to drink it, and at the end of the afternoon, the table in my piano room is littered with half-drunk cups of cold Lapsang Souchong. After three or four hours of explaining and demonstrating, listening and critiquing, I am so tired I literally cannot speak and often want to simply lie on the sofa in complete silence for an hour or more, preferably with a chilled glass of something in my hand. But I also have a family to look after: there’s homework to be supervised, and taxi-ing to Scouts or other after school clubs, and dinner to be cooked.

That is not to say that I don’t enjoy my work as a piano teacher, because I do. I enjoy it immensely: it is rewarding (seeing students improve and achieve), entertaining, challenging, emotional – but don’t let anyone kid you it’s easy!

Aside from the teaching, I also need to do my own practising. I am fortunate, as an amateur, albeit a very serious amateur, that I am not enthralled to the fickleness of audiences and reviewers; instead, I am my own fiercest critic and I set myself extremely high standards. Putting the hours in at the keyboard every day, if possible, is crucial to my continuing improvement and my ongoing ability to tackle the bigger and more complex works of the standard repertoire. Many people seem to think I just sit at the keyboard and the music flows magically out of my fingers. If only! For example, I have worked, virtually every day for several hours a day, for six weeks on Chopin’s First Ballade, and I am now up to page 9 (where the iconic second theme makes its grandiose reappearance), and the real pyrotechnic passages still await me. Alongside the Chopin, I have three other reasonably complex works, which may or may not form part of my diploma programme, to be learnt, finessed and kept going. I enjoy the work hugely: it is stimulating, both mentally and physically, but it is also very tiring.

When I go to a concert, I am more than aware of the hours of work and study the soloist will have put in to produce a performance lasting just under two hours. Learning some of the workhorses of the piano repertoire has given me a much greater appreciation of the amount of work that is required to be concert-ready: I worked for over eight months to learn one – just one! – of Chopin’s Etudes, and even after I’d performed it, at which point one might be able to consider the work “put to bed”, I still found things I wanted to do to it – and will go on doing so. I doubt the Chopin Ballade will be anything near to concert-ready before Christmas. Thus, when I go to a performance and witness a memory lapse or errors, I can only sympathise with the performer. Considering the amount of material one is required to hold in one’s head and fingers at any given time, is it any wonder that sometimes the mechanism stalls?

So the next time you’re at a concert, or listening to a performance on the radio, spare a thought for the hours of effort and commitment the performers have put in, for relatively little recompense, to produce that sublime sound, and be thankful that we are able to share in that effort and that unique cultural gift.

Moderato (It.)

‘Moderate’, ‘restrained’, e.g. allegro moderato (‘a little slower than allegro ’).

adv. & adj. Music (Abbr. mod.)
In moderate tempo……. Used chiefly as a direction.

‘Moderato’ is one of those rather nebulous musical terms, like andante (“at a walking pace”). If I ask one of my students what it means, they say “moderately”. But what does it really mean? At the most basic level, it is a tempo marking, slower than allegretto, but faster than andante. The modern metronome gives a marking of 96 to 100, a very narrow range – and I would always guard against assigning a specific metronome mark to a piece marked moderato, or allegro moderato, or molto moderato. Like so much else in music, moderato is not just a tempo marking; it also suggests mood and character. It is personal feeling and sense of  music, and one person’s moderato might be rather different from another’s, both in terms of tempo and character.

The opening movement of Schubert’s last sonata is marked molto moderato, literally “very moderately”. And taken literally, that could result in a very slow tempo, virtually alla breve (two beats in a bar), which can make the music appear to drag. Schubert also used the German term mässig, implying the calm flow of a considered allegro. But the word “allegro” suggests a certain character as well as a certain speed, and so the moderato marking is more appropriate, Schubert suggesting in it a graceful strolling tempo. There are many, many different interpretations of Schubert’s marking, resulting in some wildly varying lengths of the first movement. Richter’s is an almost self-indulgent 25 minutes – listening to it, you get the feeling he is thinking about every single note and where to place it; while Maria Joao Pires brings it in at 20 minutes, which feels both fluid and eloquent, and Imogen Cooper at 16 minutes, which is thoughtful and serene. In another recording I have, one which I listen to most often, and used as a benchmark when I was learning the piece,  the movement lasts just over 21 minutes, yet at no point is there a sense of the music stagnating, even in the most poignant sections; it moves forward with grace.

Of course, at the end of the day, all these timings are rather meaningless: one would not notice the time passing at a good performance unless one was pedantic enough to sit there with a stopwatch – and if one was doing that, one would not be concentrating on the music! Creating a sense of the music and conveying mood, colour and shading is more important. One pianist, who shall remain nameless, did take it far too fast for my liking at a lunchtime concert at the Wigmore, and the music just felt rushed, as if he couldn’t wait to finish it. (He also omitted the repeat of the exposition, which is inexcusable, in my view. Without the repeat and the absolutely transcendental bridging figure, one does not achieve a full appreciation of the composer’s intentions in the development section.)

When I was learning the sonata a couple of years ago, I had a tendency to play the opening movement “molto molto moderato”! This was partly to enable me to cope with some of the more tricky measures in the development section, but whenever I played it, I had a terrible sense of the music plodding. When I listen to the piece, I always feel the opening movement suggests a great river broadening into its final course before reaching the sea: unhurried but with continual forward motion. There are moments of “other-wordliness” in this movement as well, which demand sensitive rubato playing and some very fine pianissimos.  There are storms too, but these are short-lived, and do not disturb the overall, almost hymn-like, serenity of the movement. But no matter how often I practised the wretched movement, it always sounded chunky, and “notey”, as if the river was made of treacle through which one was wading painful step after painful step!

Discussing my difficulty with my friend Michael was more a discussion of the meaning of moderato in a literal sense rather than in relation to Schubert. In the end, Michael suggested I tried playing the movement quicker: the difference was instant. Never mind that some passages were still very rough in my hands, the overall sense of the music was of a relaxed serenity and spaciousness. There was still time to hear every note and to enjoy each one, but there was also a much greater forward propulsion, especially in the climactic passages of the development section, which highlight Schubert’s long lines of melody and the overall evolution of the movement. Armed with Michael’s helpful advice and my renewed interest in the work, it was one of the first pieces I presented to my teacher when I started having lessons again, nearly two year’s ago.

In Chopin’s Ballade in G minor, a piece of fluctuating tempos and ever-changing moods and textures, the first theme is also marked moderato. Here, I would read this marking as a much slower tempo than in the Schubert sonata. The mood is very different too: the key is darker, and the off-beat quaver figures and the rather uncertain harmonies, with the prominent use of diminished and dominant seventh chords to add moments of tension which are not always resolved immediately, create a sense of hesitancy in the music, as if it is not quite sure where it is going. After the fioritura, the opening theme returns, slightly elaborated with a sighing quaver figure, but rather than increase the sense of forward motion, I feel the music becomes more suspended; thus when one reaches the direction agitato, there is a far greater sense of climax. This continues right through to the arpeggiated figures and onwards, in a section marked sempre piu mosso. After the great, memorable second theme is heard, the first theme returns, this time in A minor, and the music returns to the moderato tempo and mood of the opening. Here once again, uncertain harmonies are used to contrive a feeling of suspense, while the insistent repeated low E’s in the bass tether the music even more firmly in one place. This is a useful device for introducing another climax, which seems to suddenly free itself from the restraints of the moderato marking; the restatement of the second theme on a far grander scale than its first appearance. So, one could argue here that the use of moderato at the opening of the piece, and its reappearance later on, is a very deliberate device which serves to create moments of great tension, suspense and climax.

An interesting discussion of tempo came up during the piano course I attended in the spring. One of the students played some Bach, one of the French suites, I believe, the opening movement of which he took at such a lick, we could hardly hear the notes. When asked to put the brakes on, the result was charming: measured and elegant. This led to a discussion about “comfortable tempos”: just as one person’s moderato may be different from another’s, it is also true for presto or allegro. Nimbleness of brain and fingers can result in very lively, speedy, clean playing: if you feel comfortable playing at that speed, good for you. But speed at the expense of accuracy or musicality can wreck a piece.

The opening movement of Poulenc’s Suite in C, which I am currently learning, is marked Presto, and on my recording Pascal Rogé takes it at an alarming presto, far quicker than my 44 year old brain and fingers can manage – at the moment. Thus, I am practising it at a “comfortable” tempo; eventually, I hope that comfortable tempo will be quicker – the music needs to sound light yet sophisticated (its C Major key gives it an innocence which should shine through all the time)  – but for the time being I am concentrating on accuracy, with a beautiful sound. It ain’t easy: sometimes just learning the notes is hard enough, without all the other attendant directions and markings one has to take note of and execute!

On the pages of Musbook.com, a sort of “Facebook for musicians/musical people” to which I subscribe, there has been some interesting and rather heated recent discussion about the rightness, or otherwise, of the Royal Albert Hall continuing as a venue for the Proms. Two journalists, Matthew Tucker and Jessica Duchen, have argued eloquently and thoughtfully for a change of venue (see http://www.classicalmusic.org.uk/2010/07/new-direction-for-bbc-proms-change-venue-south-bank-centre.html and http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/classical/features/classical-music-venues-not-for-the-fainthearted-2036136.html for their articles), and I have to say I agree with them. I have avoided the Proms in recent years because I find the RAH so uncomfortable: it is airless and hot, with insufficient loos and not enough places to have a drink/snack beforehand, or during the interval. I find those corridors that run around the auditorium rather like a dog track, full of shuffling, befuddled people trying to find their seats, and the numbered and lettered entrances are incredibly confusing. The auditorium itself, more like a giant ‘corrida’ than a music venue, is stuffy and on several occasions, I have nodded off during a performance, only to be woken by the applause at the end of a piece. Rather galling to have missed much of Maxim Vengerov playing Mozart when I spent £25 on a ticket!

The real problem though is the acoustic. Despite various attempts to improve it, such as the “mushrooms” suspended from the ceiling, the RAH still ‘boasts’ an appalling acoustic. In a recent interview in International Piano magazine, pianist Paul Lewis talked about performing the Beethoven piano concertos at the RAH at this year’s Prom season: “you need a big piano and you just have to play it loud”. At first I read this remark as simply facetious, but on reflection, I think it is an example of just how up against it performers are with the RAH acoustic. It’s a great venue for music on a vast scale, such as Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (which I have performed at the RAH with massed school choirs), or Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand which opened the Proms this year, but it lacks the appropriate intimacy for smaller scale chamber works or solo recitals.

I am not sure why we sentimentally cling to the RAH as the natural home of the Proms. The concert series originated at the Queen’s Hall (which was bombed in 1941 and subsequently demolished), under the direction of not Henry Wood, but a Mr Robert Newman. In those early days, the programmes were far more varied, and somewhat eccentric or lacking in coherence (a trawl through the new BBC Proms Archive site reveals some interesting programmes, cram full with a huge variety of music in one single concert), and often included unscheduled musical offerings. For example, the violinist Fritz Kreisler liked to warm up both himself and the audience with an unprogrammed “appetiser” such as his own ‘Praeludium’. Robert Newman conceived the Proms to encourage an audience who would not normally attend classical music concerts, enticing them with the low ticket prices and more informal atmosphere. From the earliest days, promenading was permitted, as was eating and drinking. Smoking was also allowed, though patrons were requested “not to strike matches between movements or during quiet passages”.

After Newman’s sudden death in 1926, Henry Wood took over the directorship of the concert series. The Proms took up residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 1942 after the destruction of Queen’s Hall, though they moved again during the war to Bedford Corn Exchange, home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1941, and remained at this venue until the end of the war.

So, the Proms have existed at the RAH for less than 70 years, so pressing the case for “historical precedent” seems a little weak to me. I’m all for a complete rethink of the Proms, and have joined in the lively discussions on Musbook.com, arguing for consideration of the South Bank and its excellent venues as a new home for the Proms. Not only does the Royal Festival Hall boast a fine acoustic, but it is also centrally located, being close to Waterloo, is a lively arts and cultural centre, and has many good restaurants and winebars close by, whereas the RAH is out on a limb in South Ken, devoid of eateries and other amenities for pre-concert drinks or suppers.

Supporters of the RAH claim that the “spirit” of the Proms would be lost in a change of venue, but I do not see why this should be the case. The flag-waving can continue, as well as yelling “heave-ho!” as the lid of the piano is raised. Indeed, why not spread the Prom concerts around the fine concert venues of London, places which tend to close down during August, such as the Wigmore and Cadogan Halls (which is currently used for some Proms), or St John’s Smith Square and St James’s? Rather like the London Open House and Art Open Studios events which take place periodically, I would love to see as many music/arts venues as possible across the capital throw open their doors to concert-goers. London is blessed with so many great venues, but which are only known to a select few. One could enjoy a sort of “musical safari”, going from Handel at Cadogan Hall (Chelsea) to Haydn at the Wigmore (West End), Vivaldi at a City church, then up to Highgate for Schubert at The Red Hedgehog, heading south to the Purcell Room for a drop of Bach, east to Shostakovich at Sutton House (a charming National Trust property in Hackney with a very nice, intimate concert space), finishing off with Korngold at King’s Place…..

Another argument for the continuation of the Proms at RAH is its inclusiveness. Anyone can attend a Prom, everyone is welcome, and it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Actually, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing at any concert venue – and I believe that it’s often the personality or manner of the soloist/orchestra/musical director which sets the tone for the evening rather than what the audience are wearing. Mitsuko Uchida can, for example, make the large space of the Royal Festival Hall feel as intimate as Schubert’s salon. Maria Joao Pires at the Wigmore made us feel we were enjoying music at home with her and her friends, while Stephen Hough turned the hall into a vast, cold and unfriendly place, and Paul Lewis always looks as if he’d rather be anywhere than on the concert platform. When I heard Daniel Barenboim play the Beethoven piano sonatas a couple of years ago, when he presented the entire cycle at RFH, the sense of awed reverence had begun even before we entered the hall, and it felt as if a vast barrier had been put up between him on the stage and us, the audience.

Of course, this whole argument for a change of venue for the Proms is hypothetical, as the process of moving such a great leviathan as the Proms would be far too complex and expensive, and I suspect the vast majority of people – audience, performers, concert promoters – are quite content to remain at the RAH, accepting its shortcomings and embracing its (few, in my view) benefits (capacity being the main one).

But we have a coalition government, which somehow, seems rather daring and new (though not unprecedented). So, why not a coalition of music venues with the single purpose of presenting music for all?

Just a thought……!