Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Delius’s A Tune of Summertime, Kodály’s Dances of Galanta, Elgar’s Pomp and Scenario Marches, John Ireland’s London Overture and John Tavener’s The Safeguarding Veil: simply a handful of the 500 world premieres carried out at the Proms over the last 100 years. Responses have actually varied from the ‘serene loveliness’ that Sir Adrian Boult felt in 1943 at hearing Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony, to the heckling that accompanied Birtwistle’s 1995 Panic!
Accepting the brand-new has actually never been a simple option, as Henry Wood grumbled in 1899: ‘The old, old story; as quickly as novelties appear, box-office receipts vanish.’ But the conservative taste of the general public never stood in his way. The works that were presented to this nation in the early years of the Proms concert speaks volumes for his vision: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade (1896), Mahler’s First Symphony (1902– the first Mahler ever to be heard in Britain), Sibelius’s First Symphony (1903), quickly followed by Tapiola and En Saga, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (1907) Debussy’s Iberia (1913), Bartók’s First Suite for Orchestra (1914) Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique (1914), Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead (1915), Janácek’s Wallachian Dances (1930) and Britten’s Piano Concerto, performed by the young author himself in 1938.
It is hard now to picture any of these works triggering offence, but there was frequent resistance, as critic Felix Aprahamian recorded in his journals of the 1930s: ‘I stood in the Promenade through a saccharine performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto … my persistence being amply rewarded with Bartók’s provocative Suite from the Miraculous Mandarin. It turned some individuals white and speechless with hatred.’ One can feel the neophiliac champing at the bit to obtain through the Haydn-Mozart Proms that ‘have the tendency to drag when one is waiting for the first two Debussy Nocturnes in part 2.’ After a night of Brahms on 15 August 1934 he is rewarded by ‘Honnegger’s Chant de Joie– well worth the effort. A Brahms audience discovered it all really overwelming and understood not whether to clap or no. Another pearl cast before swine!’ No one present will quickly forget the outcry brought on by Birtwistle’s saxophone portrait of Pan, Panic! at the Last Night in 1995. But one presumes that Sir Harry was rather chuffed that 10,000 mad listeners jammed the BBC switchboard in outrage at this disrespectful attack on their ears, or that the Daily Telegraph handled a leader on the scaries of modern music …
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Though Wood had flawless taste, a lot of the commissioned premieres, or ‘novelties’, throughout his tenure were lightweight truffles which have not withstood the test of time: one can’t assist discovering that a specific Percy Pitt holds the world record for the number of Proms premieres, with no less than 11 new works configured between 1900 and the early 1920s. It paid off when he was appointed the BBC’s director of music in 1924, however he can’t be implicated of abusing his post, considering that his own Dance Rhythms Suite, Serenade or Coronation March do not appear after that date. Works with titles like Harlequinnade (George Clutsam) and The Vicar of Bray (Ernest Austin) dominate the novelty list prior to World War I, and spring up once again in more professional dress in the 1920s when Armstrong Gibbs and Eric Coates took the program, though now interleaved with the more serious work of Ireland, Moeran, Howells, Rubbra, Bax and Bliss. Lennox Berkeley offered some rigour and elegance to several operate in the 1940s and 1950s, however even as late as 1957, long after the values of Darmstadt had swept through contemporary music, light, patriotic works such as John Gardner’s A Scots Overture and Malcolm Arnold’s pleasant Tam O’Shanter surpassed any international masterworks in the bests list.
The arrival in 1960 of William Glock as controller of music at the BBC marked a transformation of direction. Glock’s passions for brand-new music skyrocketed, and he finally laid to rest the old concept of a commissioned ‘novelty’ as a fanciful entertain bouche between the real ‘meat’ of performance works. He made his mark instantly and in 1961 Alexander Goehr’s uncompromising Hecuba’s Lament was included. Glock presented audiences to the young Turks of the day. The appearance of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Fantasia on an In nomine by John Taverner in 1962, Harrison Birtwistle’s very first commission Nomos in 1968 and John Tavener’s In Alium in the same year expose that Glock had identified the most distinctive skills amongst younger authors.
Glock’s successors Robert Ponsonby (1973-85) and John Drummond (1986-92) advanced with an extensive stream of commissions from prominent, frequently British authors. Robert Ponsonby was accountable for Oliver Knussen’s Third Symphony in 1979, one of his finest works, and in the same year commissioned Nicholas Maw’s La Vita Nuova and Anthony Payne’s The Stones and Lonely Places Sing. Jonathan Harvey’s 1986 Madonna of Winter and Spring can be viewed as a traditional in his oeuvre, while Drummond hit the mark in 1989 with John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, a luminescent meditation for cello and orchestra, the recording of which went on to be a big seller. In 1990 a young Scot released the highly-charged The Confessions of Isobel Gowdie onto an unsuspecting Proms audience: James Macmillan had shown up. Drummond followed this by commissioning him to write
a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie. Veni, veni Emmanuel was the outcome, a work which has received a staggering 350 performances around the world– certainly the most successful Proms commission ever?