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:

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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.”