Every night at the Royal Albert Hall during the BBC Proms season, a bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood, the legendary founder of this national institution, gazes down benevolently on his creation. On the final night each year, a chosen few of the Promenaders lay a wreath around the great man’s neck to commemorate his gift to the musical life of the nation. It’s a very un-British personality cult and it’s hard to think of anything else in our cultural life that quite matches it.
Sir Henry was undoubtedly an important figure in British music. He was the sole conductor of the Proms from 1895 until he took an assistant shortly before his death in 1944. At that point the season’s official title was renamed the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts by the BBC, who had been financing and broadcasting the concerts since the 1920s and took over their direction from that time on. During his time in charge, Wood is credited with taking the Proms from being a barely-rehearsed season of popular concerts to a highly-regarded series in which many important works from home and abroad were presented for the first time, always at the highest standards, thanks to the additional rehearsal time made possible by the BBC’s support.
According to the accepted version, the first lessor of the Queen’s Hall, Robert Newman, had the idea for a series of concerts, at affordable prices for a mass audience, with a proportion of the audience able to promenade in a designated space without seats. Newman hired Henry Wood as the conductor for these “promenade concerts”, and summarised his idea to Wood:
“I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music”.
But a review from their first Prom in 1895 makes it clear that at the time the pair were not considered to be founding anything. They were merely continuing a well-established series of concerts that had run for many years.
‘We are again to have the promenade concerts, but this season they are being held at the Queen’s Hall, Langham-place, under the conductorship of Mr. Henry J. Wood. If the initial programme on Saturday is to be taken as a specimen the series promises to be as popular as in past years.’ (Westminster Gazette, 1895)
In fact it turns out that it wasn’t even the first season of the Proms that Newman had presented. There had been no season in 1894, but in 1893 he had, as a partner of the impresario Farley Sinkin, co-promoted the final season of Promenade Concerts that took place at Covent Garden in August and September of most years from 1840 onwards.
That 1893 season contained all the elements that Henry Wood is supposed to have introduced to the Proms. Along with the evenings of more popular repertoire, there were whole concerts devoted to serious classical works, including several Wagner nights. Among the ‘novelties’ there was the (unstaged) British première of Saint-Saëns’ opera Samson & Delilah, and guest artists included the great Belgian violinist Ysaye.
The conductor for the season was Frederick Cowen. He is a forgotten name today but at the time he was one of Britain’s most celebrated musicians. His third symphony, the Scandinavian, was the most widely performed British symphony before Elgar’s appeared. A few years before, he had replaced Sir Arthur Sullivan as the conductor of the Philharmonic Society of London, but had been removed from his post in 1892 because he apologised to the audience before a performance of Beethoven 6 for the insufficient rehearsal allocated to it.
Standards at the 1893 Proms were high and attendances were good. Tickets were affordable, although prices were doubled for the comeback of veteran operatic superstar tenor Sims Reeves (1821-1900) who thrilled the audience with songs like Come Into The Garden, Maud and (pre-empting another of Sir Henry Wood’s traditions) Tom Bowling. Reeves made yet another comeback at the Proms in 1895.
Sadly the season made a loss. In early 1894 Newman was pursued through the courts by the Capital & Counties Bank for his share of the liabilities to a bounced cheque for £440 written by his partner Farley Sinkin. Despite his name appearing on adverts for the concerts, Newman claimed in court that he had nothing to do with them, that it was not ‘in the scope of their business that they should run Promenade Concerts’ and that he never agreed to become liable in any way for their expenses. Under cross-examination he went so far as to assert that he ‘disapproved of the Promenade Concerts’.
The jury found in his favour, presumably believing what he had said. They must have been surprised the following year when he promoted a series of Promenade Concerts similar in every respect to the one he disapproved of, albeit using a smaller venue and a cheaper conductor.
They would have been even more surprised to learn that in future years this young conductor would come to be venerated and credited with initiating all the traditions of the Promenade Concerts, when in fact they had been developing throughout the previous half century.
© Chris West 2020