Guest post by Adrian Ainsworth

It’s not often I take up my pen in literal anger, writing to purge myself somehow of an irritation that has been eating away at me for a day or two now. I speak – as you have no doubt guessed – of the latest BBC Proms recruitment ad, seeking candidates for roles in ‘Live Events and Communications’.

“Here’s a short video,” the BBC Proms Twitter account chirped, “to give you a taster of what it’s like working at the Proms.”

With a cute ‘technical-glitch’ shimmy, we’re immediately introduced to a freshly-minted young BBC publicist. Against a percussive, rhythmic soundtrack, she says: “One thing about the Proms that people don’t know is that it’s not all just about classical music like Mozart and Beethoven.” Cue frantic burst of definitely-not-classical music. She continues, over montages of Proms passim: “The Proms showcases so many different music genres and styles from House, Ibiza music, to Sci Fi film music, to breakdancing music. So there really is something for everyone, and you don’t necessarily have to have a background in classical music to work at the Proms.”

Then we switch to a colleague, whose ‘stand-out moment’ when working for the Proms was dressing up as an astronaut and jumping about on stage during a performance by the band Public Service Broadcasting.

Perhaps anxious to avoid the tone becoming any more ‘space cadet’, the video returns to our first correspondent, who says that “Working at the BBC Proms helped me to build up so many skills. This allowed me to get another job at the BBC working in publicity for TV programmes instead.”

We finish with the Spaceman warmly recalling the various teams within the overall Proms department feeling like a large, happy community, with further images from concerts in which, thankfully, some classical musicians are included.

It may be a feature of lockdown, and the slightly dislocated mental state it can produce, that the oddest and most unexpected things can really push your buttons. THIS really pushed my buttons. I checked to see if it was 1 April. On a second viewing, I felt like gnawing my own arm off, and by a blinking, disbelieving third, I wanted to cry. I assure you, my flippancy is disguising – perhaps not very well – a deep-seated hatred of this advert and the thinking that went into it.

When the ad first appeared, some people reacted with distaste, sadness or horror – similar responses to mine, in other words. Others played its impact down, more or less saying that it’s only aimed at getting a certain type of dynamic, can-do employee through the door and that the ‘audience’, in this case, is not the audience. And yet – it’s out there for all of us to see, isn’t it, as circulated by the BBC Proms team? They endorse this ‘message’.

And what a message. Taking it from the top, what have we got?

  • Luckily, the whole thing isn’t just classical music ‘like’ Mozart and Beethoven. Boooo-ring!
  • The Proms offer a wide range of musical genres, but I don’t know what any of them are. I thought they had quite broad, well-known names like jazz and soul, but someone handed me a piece of paper with ‘Ibiza music’ and ‘breakdancing music’ on it.
  • For those of you who aren’t really interested in the music aspect at all, there’s the jumping astronaut element.
  • After all, you’ll only be using the skills you learn at the Proms to get another job doing what you really want to do.

Forgive me: it turns out I am still angry.

This ad was put together by people who are, unaccountably, embarrassed by classical music – to the point where they feel the need to sideline it, to apologise for its irksome presence. They couldn’t be bothered to give their poor participants some kind of script or direction to sound at least vaguely interested – let alone well-versed – in music of any shape or form. Why bother, I suppose, if they’re only going to hang around for a minimum length of time before moving on?

The Proms is the world’s ‘largest’ classical music festival. I believe this claim is undisputed. Normally, I’d be the first to say size doesn’t matter, quality over quantity, and so on. But I think the sheer scale of the Proms says something positive. It would be pointless, unseemly and of course, wrong to say we have all the ‘best’ venues, singers, players, and so on: this is the arts, not sport. But the ambition shown simply to mount the Proms year in, year out – notwithstanding the virus wrecking the 2020 season – sends a signal about how much we care about classical music. Under the BBC’s stewardship, some 80 concerts take place each year, which reach well beyond the capital: every minute of Proms music goes out on BBC Radio 3, and a handsome amount makes it to TV on BBC4. Programming is deliberately wide, and at its inventive heights it seasons the classical music line-up (which, let’s get this straight, is the absolute backbone of the repertoire) with forays into other genres which complement the whole. The diversity can be itself diverse: macro – full concerts foregrounding musicians from all corners of the globe – or micro – lining up premieres from living composers alongside the old ‘warhorse’ pieces to ensure new music is heard. And as everyone involved knows, there’s still a lot more the festival can do, and a lot further it can go.

I try to get across in all my writing (and occasional speaking) that classical music is approachable and accessible as long as you treat it as such; as vital, vibrant and valid as any other style of music. As a result, the Proms recruitment ad felt like a kick in the teeth. It could have placed classical music proudly alongside the genres it inspires, supports, complements and interacts with… and accordingly, win over some applicants who would want to work in a classical music environment and stay there.

Instead, everything good the Proms sets out to achieve, this unthinking dumbshow throws into reverse. I hope they accidentally recruit some excellent communicators.

(This article first appeared on the ArtMuseLondon site)

Adrian Ainsworth is, by day, a copywriter specialising in plain language communications about finance and benefits. However, he spends the rest of the time consuming as much music, live or recorded, as possible – then writing about it, often on Specs, his slightly erratic ‘cultural diary’ containing thought pieces, performance and exhibition write-ups, playlists, and even a spot of light photography. He has a particular interest in art song and opera… and a general interest in everything else. He is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist and a reviewer for its sister site ArtMuseLondon.

Twitter @Adrian_Specs

We all knew the Proms would be different in this, the year of coronavirus (or The Virus, COVID-19, the Rona….). Rather than cancel the entire festival, the BBC came up with a compromise – a truncated festival which involved, in the first weeks, broadcasts of previous Proms, not necessarily a “best of the Proms”, but rather a selection of memorable or particularly striking performances and performers. I enjoyed these broadcasts, revisiting Proms of years past and recalling the excitement and pleasure of attending Prom concerts, which I have done since I was a little girl – that special atmosphere in the Royal Albert Hall which is like no other (for all the right, and wrong, reasons!).

For the last fortnight of this year’s season, the BBC broadcast live Proms from the Royal Albert Hall and a handful of other venues around the country. These included performances by the LSO with Simon Rattle, the Aurora Orchestra playing Beethoven 7 from memory (why?!), Benjamin Grosvenor and Mitsuko Uchida, violinist Nicola Benedetti, and Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason. Some performers originally booked to appear were not able to travel to London due to the UK government’s confused, scattergun quarantine rules, so others valiantly stepped in at the last minute. The programmes often reflected our strange times – music of quiet intimacy (Kurtag’s … quasi una fantasia …, performed with incredible delicacy by Mitsuko Uchida, following an equally compelling and introspective first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata), hope (Vaughan Williams’ 5th Symphony, first heard at the Proms in the midst of the Second World War), reflection and memorial (Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin), confidence (the rollicking joy of the finale of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony gave a much-needed boost to those of us who feel utterly ground down by the long months of lockdown and restrictions on daily life – including concert-going). The Last Night of the Proms, this year the subject of even more pearl-clutching and eye-pulling than usual, ended up as a compromise; bereft of its usual jollity and silliness (at least in the second half), it felt restrained and subdued, as if too much exuberance and celebration, balloons and whistles, flag-waving and a good old massed sing-along were inappropriate in these corona times.

There is no question that in all the live concerts the music was performed with absolute commitment. Watching the musicians (and thanks to lots of clever camera work, it was possible to read the range of emotions experienced by the musicians as they played), one sensed a collective sigh of relief, that they were working again, doing what they do best, united after long months of separation.

But something was missing. A very big something – and that was an audience. The Proms aren’t really the Proms without an audience, some 5000 people filling the Albert Hall’s vast auditorium with an infectious enthusiasm for the amazing shared experience that is live music. Admittedly, the BBC and Proms organisers tried their best this year to inject some “atmosphere” into the concerts by placing members of the brass section or singers in the boxes around the hall, enhanced by sexy lighting effects and clever camera angles. But for me all this did was to highlight the sad fact that there was no audience presence. It looked contrived, artificial – and perhaps the worst thing, in my humble opinion, was that it seemed to reinforce the notion that classical music is a ‘museum piece’, to be admired, revered even, from afar, instead of a living, breathing, vibrant artform.

The Albert Hall is vast; it would not have been impossible to bring in a limited, socially-distanced audience, but the organisers’ timidity regarding this reflects, to me, a general timidity amongst bigger organisations and institutions towards the resumption of live performance. It is possible to present live concerts within the current government restrictions – and the Proms could have led the way in this, signalling that live music, with an audience, is far from dead.

Let us hope that the 2021 Proms festival is able to go ahead in its “normal” format, with a full Albert Hall, a roster of fine musicians and a varied programme of great music.

All the performances are available to listen to/watch via the BBC Proms website

(Header image: BBC)

The marketing department at Phase Eight, a women’s fashion label which does a nice line in evening wear, clearly hadn’t done their research when they tweeted this:


If you turn up at the Proms dressed like that, especially if you have a ticket to promenade (stand) in the arena, heads would turn, eyes would roll…. because the Proms is surely the most relaxed and casually attired of any classical music event. By all means don a scarlet evening dress to attend the opera at Glyndebourne or Grange Park, but maybe not for the Proms.

Perhaps someone in Phase Eight’s marketing department read that silly article in The Guardian last week which claims that classical music is for the elite, monied class, the “yachts and have yachts” and decided that classical music afficionados leave their yachts and Porsches and head for The Proms, dressed in full evening dress. Or perhaps they’ve confused The Proms with the school prom, that dreadful American import which has infiltrated our UK schools, where teenagers celebrate the end of term by dressing up to the nines and arriving at a local hotel in a stretch limo.

There’s also another tired old misconception at work here, that one must “dress up” to attend a classical music concert. The Proms in particular is very much a “come as you are” festival, and of course if you want to wear a full-length evening gown to a concert at the hot, airless, crowded Royal Albert Hall, by all means feel free to do so, but you’ll probably feel more comfortable in shorts and a tee-shirt!

Sadly, the kind of attire Phase Eight is promoting does rather perpetuate the tedious stereotype that classical music is somehow far grander than other artforms and that one must dress and behave in accordance with strict codes of conduct. This doesn’t really help those of us within the profession who are keen to promote classical music as something for everyone, and where everyone is welcome.


The launch of the new season of the BBC Proms is always met with excited anticipation. I had a preview of this year’s programme late last night, thanks to an article on the Classical Source website. Glancing through the “highlights” my heart sank a little, then a little more…..By this morning, having read more detailed surveys of the new season, I felt rather deflated.

Every spring, when the Proms season is announced, there is a chorus of disapproval about the programming – and every year it seems that the Proms have to try harder than ever to justify their existence. There are always howls of complaint about the Proms being “too populist” or “gimmicky” , or not populist enough. Or too inclusive. Too much, or too little new music. Too few works by women composers. Too little coverage on BBC television – and so on. The adage that “you can’t please all of the people all of time” is particularly apt for the Proms.

When the Proms were founded by Robert Newman and Henry Wood, their stated aim was to bring classical music to a wider audience, and the concerts were, by all accounts, quite lively, eclectic affairs, with big programmes and an audience who were permitted to eat, drink and smoke during performances (though patrons were requested not to strike matches during quiet passages). Do the Proms succeed in doing this today? It’s hard to tell, without some rigorous audience surveying (“Is this your first time?” etc), and I’d very interested to find out what percentage of the audience are genuine classical music ingenues. Also, do those people who attend the Ibiza Prom or this year’s hip hop Prom actually then book to hear a mainstream (or even non-mainstream) classical music concert? Are these types of concerts really a “gateway” to classical music for younger audiences? I’m not sure….

I used to argue quite vociferously for as broad a range of concerts as possible in the Proms, my view being that if you could get young people or those who wouldn’t normally attend classical music concerts through the doors of the Royal Albert Hall for Jarvis Cocker’s late night Prom or the Strictly Prom, they might return for a drop of Beethoven or a healthy dose of Tchaikovsky, but I don’t think this is borne out in actual ticket sales.

A few years ago I attended an all-Brahms Prom performed by the OAE with Marin Alsop (I was there because a friend of mine was playing double bass in the orchestra). I happened to be sharing a box with a family for whom this was their very first visit to the Proms, or indeed a classical music concert. They were anxious beforehand: out of their usual comfort zone, they had arrived at the concert full of the usual preconceptions about classical music – would they applaud “at the wrong time”, would they be able to “understand the music” etc etc. I told them to simply sit back and let the music wash over them, and that if they were worried about when to applaud, they could follow my lead. In the interval they turned to me and beamed with wide-eyed delight – they were loving it! As a mark of our new-found joint pleasure in the music, they shared their box of chocolates with me. This to me more than demonstrates that one doesn’t need to programme trendy or gimmicky Proms to engage people in classical music – and I am sure my experience is not unusual.

My feeling on looking at this year’s programme is that the planners are attempting that impossible task of trying to please all the people all of the time, and as a consequence, the programme feels like a rather weird mish mash of mainstream classical music, a few novelties, some great warhorses of the repertoire, and a whole bunch of disparate “populist” oddities. More often than not these days, I feel the BBC is almost apologetic about classical music – an attitude which is fairly common (cf. Radio 4’s Today programme whose presenters frequently snigger or smirk when talking about classical music, as if is some kind of weird taboo). And then the BBC broadcasts something so splendid and moving as the recent programme about Janet Baker by John Bridcut and just for a moment, it feels like the good old days of high-quality cultural broadcasting….. Those days are gone of course, but why can’t we celebrate classiccal music for what is really is? It’s wonderful, it’s fantastic, it’s epic, it’s heart-stoppingly dramatic, tear-jerkingly beautiful, tender, poignant, funny, bizarre and so so varied. It’s not all written by dead white guys in periwigs and not all contemporary music sounds like a “squeaky gate”. There is something for everyone in the vast canon of classical music and a way to bring that to “a wider audience” would be to curate a festival that demonstrates and confirms this without the need to resort to “crossover” or gimmicks.

The BBC Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, launched today with concerts featuring hip hop music…” (paraphrase of announcement on Radio 4 Today programme, Wednesday 17th April).

I’m tired of people (presenters, promoters, marketers, critics, audiences, even some musicians) apologising for classical music. Instead let’s celebrate it.

Nearly a month into this year’s Proms and the debate about clapping between movements has reached nigh on fever pitch, and is showing no sign of subsiding.

Rather like Brexit, there’s no middle ground in this debate: opinions are thoroughly polarised into two camps – those who don’t object to applause between movements and those who do.

This habit of applause between movements seems largely confined to Prom concerts: you’d never get it at the sacred shoebox of the Wigmore Hall, for example. Some would point to the fact that the Wigmore audience is “better educated”, or “more intelligent”, or “well behaved”. This implies that the Proms audience is ignorant, badly behaved, or just plain rude.

In a way, Prom concerts are not like other classical music concerts in the UK. Originally conceived by Robert Newman and Henry Wood to introduce classical music to a wider audience, the atmosphere at the Proms tends to be rather more relaxed, though often no less reverential, and the audience demographic far broader. The Proms attracts the classical music newbie and the committed classical music geek, who goes to every single concert in the season, and in between there’s a whole host of other people who enjoy the Proms experience. The etiquette is less rigid at the Proms – it’s much more “come as you are and enjoy yourself”, but in spite of this, the issue of applause remains a tricky one.

The custom of not applauding between movements of a symphony or concerto or other multi-movement work developed during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Both Mendelssohn and Schumann made attempts to prevent audiences from applauding between movements. Mendelssohn asked that his ‘Scottish’ Symphony, premiered in 1842, should be played without a break to avoid “the usual lengthy interruptions” and Schumann took charge of the matter in a similar way in his piano and cello concerti as well as his Fourth Symphony, but it was Richard Wagner who really instigated the custom as we know it today during the premiere of his opera ‘Parsifal’. By the turn of the twentieth century the concert hall had become the hallowed place it is today, and the conductor Leopold Stokowski even went so far as to suggest clapping be banned altogether lest it interrupt the “divinity” of a performance (there’s the reverence thing again….). This view persists today, particularly amongst the most trenchant anti-clapping faction of concert-goers.

The curious thing is that this attitude would have been totally alien to Mozart or Beethoven, Brahms or Grieg. In an earlier age, concerts were noisy affairs, the music played to the accompaniment of people talking and laughing, eating and drinking, and wandering in and out of the venue (indeed, at early Prom concerts, patrons were requested “not to strike matches” during quiet passages in the music). Applause was given freely and spontaneously, indicating appreciation and enthusiasm for the performers and the music. There was numerous applause during the premiere of Grieg’s piano concerto, while Brahms concluded his first piano concerto was a flop because there was so little audience response (except for the hissing, that is….). Today the pauses between movements are often filled with the sound of guttural throat-clearing or noisy unwrapping of cough sweets (far more intrusive in my opinion than the sound of clapping), and applause is reserved for the end of the work being performed. In the last 100 years, we have settled into this relatively recent habit of remaining silent during a performance, but maybe it is time for these habits to be reviewed and “modernised” a little?

Personally, I don’t have an issue with applause between movements. At the Proms I regard it as a sign of spontaneous appreciation and a sense that people feel relaxed in the atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall. I don’t join in myself, nor do I squirm inwardly while thinking “blooming ignorant oafs!”. I’d never mention applause between movements in a review I’d written of a concert and I certainly wouldn’t describe the offenders as “selfish”, “ignorant” or a “Saturday-night tourist crowd”.

“this selfish group never left any of the silences alone”

“Encouraging this plays into the Classic FM-isation of music”

Sadly, such snobby attitudes towards those who applaud between movements only serves to reinforce the long-held and now very firmly entrenched notion that classical music is elitist and accessible to the few, not the many. And to link such people with a classical music radio station other than hallowed BBC Radio 3 is, in my opinion, offensive and patronising.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that Classic FM enjoys an audience amongst the under-35 age group of c1.2m (figures as at August 2017), and I like to think that these listeners also attend the Proms. After all, we’re supposed to be encouraging a younger audience to engage with classical music. Reminding them of the stuffy snobbish “etiquette” exercised by some at such concerts is not helping attract new audiences: many classical music ingenues (my husband included) have strong pre-conceived ideas about the habits and rituals surrounding classical music, the most frequently-mentioned being “I wouldn’t know when to clap”.

So please stop sneering at the clappers and consider instead of how to allow people to enjoy classical music in ways which make them feel comfortable, excited, engaged and eager to return for more.

I will end with a quote from David Pickard, Director of the BBC Proms, on the subject of applause between movements:

“I think that it is a wonderful sign of excitement and respect from the audience.”