It’s not a bad way of getting a discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme I suppose.
Get the conductor of an event (Dalia Stasevska) to say something provocative about the content of a much-loved institution; make sure it taps into the public conversation; invite on a couple of contributors with opposing views; be sure to make one of them an out-dated representative of the industry.
Result? A bit of PR for the approaching fortnight of live Proms concerts. Job done. Little wonder Martha Kearney trumpeted (boom, etc) the introduction to the ‘debate’ with “There’s always a row about the BBC Proms” to which Norman Lebrecht responded, “Well it’s the only way the Proms can get the attention it needs.” Such nonsense.
I digress. The focus of the ‘debate’ was the issue over whether or not the Last Night of the Proms should ditch Rule Britannia, the words of which celebrate slavery.
Norman disagrees of course, saying that the words are ‘innocuous’ and the song unifies people. Wasfi Kani from Grange Opera suggests replacing the song with Jerusalem and the Beatles classic ‘All You Need Is Love’.
According to Norman who can’t help but have the final word, Jerusalem will cause people to fall asleep. He’s obviously overlooked the fact that Jerusalem has featured in the Last Night for decades already.
It’s probably not seriously being considered anyway
What’s important here is that – as far as I can decipher from the statements in the broadcast and what I’ve seen online – this isn’t an official decision being made, soon to be made, or made already by the BBC Proms team.
The prepared statement read out by Kearney during the feature was from the Head of BBC Music (commissioning – does Kearney mean Jan Younghusband?) dodging the question with a response that the BBC is currently trying to figure out what musicians they’re able to have for the audience-free live broadcast anyway. Meaning, that the decision maybe down to the musicians allowed on stage due to COVID regulations rather than an editorial decision.
In other words, no one is seriously thinking editorially about whether or not to include or not include the song, and nobody wants to comment on that either. It’s bluster – sort of dog-whistle journalism – inviting those with a view to join the debate. Hence the Express – that bastion of journalism – wading in with a headline and an online poll.
Rule Britannia should be ditched though
Our willingness to cling on to an outdated and unrepresentative piece of music in order to celebrate an anachronistic view of identity is embarrassing. That we would be debating it in light of George Floyd’s murder and the protests which resulted seems blinkered, bloated, and self-satisfied.
It is right that attention is drawn to the way that something like Rule Britannia is dissonant with present-day discourse. And now that it has been there is, regardless of any campaign mounted by a newspaper, only one course of action which is to bin the song entirely. To keep it in would only provoke even more ire.
Time to change the Last Night of the Proms completely
But there’s another perspective to bear in mind here. The endless sniping that is made about the BBC Proms by those who have never attended, watched or listened to them, is based on a perception formed by the most visible concert in the entire season, the Last Night. Those who dismiss classical music do so because they assume that all classical music experiences are like that seen on TV during the Last Night.
The Last Night isn’t representative of the Proms season. Arguably it does more damage projecting an incongruant image of the classical music industry by continuing in the format that it is.
The Proms season, this year more than any other, is a shop window for the industry. It is the starting point for orchestras, ensembles and artists appearances activities scheduled for the forthcoming season (though this year those seasons are understandably going to look very different from previous years).
It is therefore time for the Last Night to be treated less like a concert made for television, and regarded more like a concert at which television cameras are present. Create a concert programme that is more aligned to the Proms season as a whole.
When we achieve that kind of transformation then some of the assumptions held about the classical music world in the UK can be overcome for good.