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The Lesson of the London “Proms”

ISSUE:  Spring 1931


To an American music-lover even a casual attendance at the Promenade Concerts given in Queen’s Hall during the London summer season is provocative of thought; to an American composer of optimistic temperament it cannot fail to be exciting, while to a pessimist it may well, like Wordsworth’s primrose, suggest “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” For here, to begin with, are concerts highly successful without recourse to the appeal, so taken for granted with us, to virtuosity, showmanship, and in extreme cases charlatanism, in the conductor. During no less than thirty-five years—this is the thirty-sixth—Sir Henry Wood has been conducting these concerts with admirable skill and authority and, as anyone familiar with New York methods cannot but notice, with an almost more admirable absence of pose and self-importance. He makes it clear at once that he is there to play not on the audience’s hero-worship and love of sensation but on the orchestra as a musical instrument; that he has selected his program not to show himself off but to set together various and effectively contrasting types of beauty; that to even the virtuosos—in spite of their inevitably, distracting attention from him—he is disposed to give their chance by including in his scheme both instrumental concertos and vocal arias, now nearly obsolete in New York; that, in one word, for him “Music’s the thing.”

And the audience respond to this treatment of them as mature human beings of taste rather than gaping children, as most audiences will if given the chance, with intelligent and on occasion with intense interest. The listeners at the Proms, in their alertness, their air of participating actively in the artistic experience, remind an American of the Stadium rather than of the Carnegie Hall public, with its fads, its snobberies, and its boredoms. To hear these Englishmen, conventionally supposed to be undemonstrative, bursting into cheers at the end of a piece, and that not a concerto but a symphony, and a symphony by a native composer, and insisting on recalling over and over again this composer to the stage, thrilling him with the realization that he has written not notes on paper but thoughts and feelings finding echo in the hearts of his fellows, is to awaken to what music in America might be if it could only be guided a little more by intelligence and artistic enthusiasm, a little less by fashion, routine, and the box-office.


The present hopeful stage in the long career of the Proms is by no means free from certain characteristic defects— characteristically different, of course, from ours—nor has it been attained without many vicissitudes. For years now, as any, candid London critic like Ernest Newman or Harvey Grace, or any open-minded musician such as Sir Henry Wood himself will tell you, orchestral music in London has been in a condition fluctuating from unsatisfactory, to precarious, owing primarily to inadequate financial support, secondarily to lax standards of performance and to certain abuses too long tolerated. For sheer technical excellence, for brilliancy and beauty of tone and finish of execution, the London Symphony Orchestra has never equalled, and does not now equal, such American super-orchestras as the Philadelphia, the Boston, and perhaps the New York Philharmonic. The whole traditional approach to music has been different. There has been less rehearsing than with us, and far less concentration on technical finish (with its often unnoted concomitant of limitation of repertory). No doubt the weakness has been toleration of sloppy playing, often much aggravated by the so-called “deputy system,” which allowed one player to attend rehearsal and an unrehearsed deputy or substitute to play for him in concert. An English orchestra, it has been jestingly said, can read anything, but can never do more with anything than read it. On the other hand, we pay too high a price for our technical excellence to throw stones at those who prefer more living qualities; and it might be said that if our American orchestras go much further in their present direction they will not need to be able to read at all, but can devote themselves to learning by rote and playing over and over again, with impeccable skill and no glimmer of artistic adventure, a dozen “war-horses”

such as Tschaikowsky’s Pathetique Symphony, Liszt’s Les Preludes, and Rimsky-Korsakofr’s Scheherezade.


It cannot but interest us in America to observe that England’s musical difficulties have been much complicated for a time, as have also our so different ones, by, the growing influence of radio and other mechanical devices. “Undoubtedly,” wrote Harvey Grace, one of the most observant local critics, in October, 1929, “the last few seasons in London have been disappointing, chiefly because enterprise was hampered by the uncertainty brought about by the competition of wireless and gramophone. Yet last year there was ample evidence to show that people were as ready as ever to attend a concert when they were confident of being given a finished performance rather than a demonstration of our orchestra’s now famous facility for sight-reading in public.” Grace goes on to attribute improvements at that time noted in performances to the object lessons afforded by visits of the Berlin Philharmonic and the Halle Orchestra of Manchester. “The standard of orchestral playing in London during recent years,” he continues, “had, for economic reasons that reflect no discredit on the parties concerned, steadily deteriorated. . . . It is significant that the reconstitution, under a no-deputy system, of the London Symphony Orchestra followed hard on the loudly voiced public discontent with the standard of playing in London that became vocal just after the visit of the Berlin orchestra.”

Even more significant, however, is the fact that the force which seems finally to have brought about a crisis and to have started the definite movement toward better standards now in full swing, was precisely the radio interests that had at first so added to the confusion. There may here be a portent for us. Before radio could exert so beneficent an influence with us, however, we should have to transform radically our organization of it. In the fall of 1927 the British Broadcasting Corporation, familiarly known as the B.B.C., the supreme power in the English radio world, and far more public-spirited than our highly divided and competing private companies, announced that it would take over the old Queen’s Hall Symphony Concerts and give them with a renovated and enlarged orchestra, both the summer season of what are now known as the B.B.C. Proms and the regular winter symphony concerts. The keenest observers of English music, though naturally regarding the wielding of such immense power by any one commercial company with some apprehension, on the whole welcomed the experiment as hopeful. “If things go on as at present,” wrote Mr. Francis Toye, “the B.B.C. will soon represent the most important facet of British music. . . . How can it be otherwise? They have all the money, they are the only people who can afford to experiment. Equally important, they have facilities for publicity unobtainable by the ordinary promoter. For this reason—and, be it remembered, I write before the event—I feel that the B.B.C. Proms will provide, perhaps for the first time, a satisfactory test of how far London wants good music. . . . If these concerts are not a great success, I shall despair of orchestral music in London.” The very first season under the new conditions, 1928, in spite of the fact that some of the B.B.C.’s innovations were severely criticized, sufficed to prove that the Jeremiahs who expected the mechanization and the prostitution of music in England were wrong, and those who hoped for it a new health as a result of the infusion of fresh blood were not far from right. By the end of the second season, 1929, high hopes for future development seemed justified. That season ended, as Harvey Grace describes in the course of the article already, quoted, with scenes of extraordinary enthusiasm. To read his account of the last concert makes an American realize rather wistfully how far our cosmopolitanism is from reproducing anything like the intimate localism, rich in art-nourishing traditions, of a smaller and more compact country like England. The traditional singing of “Rule, Britannia”: the salvo given by custom to each orchestral player as he made his appearance: the time-honored tattoo of heels with which the audience participated in the sailor’s hornpipe in Sir Henry Wood’s “Fantasy on British Sea Songs”—all these quaint doings seem to set the scene of a country where art is a living experience, has not been allowed to petrify into a museum piece. At the close of the concert Sir Henry Wood was recalled over twenty times, and as he left the hall and the still cheering crowd in his car with Lady Wood, responded laconically with the words, “Till next year!”

Even more remarkable was the concert of the evening before. The program consisted simply of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, given in its entirety for the first time in the history of the Proms, thanks to the at last adequate financial backing, with the final movement sung by the B.B.C. Chorus. Here was good cheer for those who had been afraid the radio interests would vulgarize the programs; and there was better in the eagerness of the reception. We read that the queue for the purchase of tickets began to form at midday, twelve hours before the concert; that the floor was so crowded that one could literally have walked on the heads of the promenaders; that such enthusiasm had not been shown since pre-war days. Here was a sweeping answer to Toye’s question whether London really wanted good music, with ample support for his high estimate of the importance of publicity in settling it satisfactorily. An official of the B.B.C. called attention to the interesting fact that the increase in broadcasting from two concerts a week in 1928 to five a week in 1929, far from decreasing actual attendance at the concerts, had notably increased it, the figures for the entire season of forty-nine concerts being 125,000, or about 8000 a concert. Finally, let the pessimists consider that the Beethoven nights, Fridays, steadily gained in popularity as the season progressed, while the most popular evenings of all, mirabile dictu, were the alternate Wednesdays devoted to Bach!


This plan of devoting certain evenings to certain composers or schools, above all the setting aside of Thursday evenings for British composers, was one of the most criticised procedures of the B.B.C. Dr. Vaughan Williams made himself the spokesman of his fellow composers in a letter to the Times protesting against the “segregation” of English music, and pleading for its inclusion as a matter of course in general programs—an attitude which will remind Americans of MacDowell’s actual withdrawal of one of his compositions from an “Ail-American Program.” In conversation with the writer of these impressions Dr. Vaughan Williams later supplemented this argument with another based rather on consideration for the public. “Some of these people,” he said with a wry smile, “have to think twice before they spend their scanty shillings. Why should they be expected to choose Thursday evenings, and listen to a lot of unfamiliar stuff, good, bad, and indifferent, instead of Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays when they can hear some old favorites they have good reason to love?” (New Yorkers will recall a piano recital of Josef Hofmann’s in Carnegie Hall some years ago, ostensibly devoted entirely to American piano compositions, but in effect rather giving them all a black eye by, the simple device of concluding with a few encore-pieces from Chopin. Nationalism can be a knife that cuts both ways.)

With Vaughan Williams’s view Harvey Grace is in agreement to the extent of insisting: “What many of us feel (and no doubt folk on your side feel pretty much the same about contemporary American music) is that British music doesn’t need propaganda, which implies opposition and even has an unhappy way of evoking it.” But he goes on to present another aspect that also has its truth, as anyone will feel keenly who actually sees and hears one or two of these Thursday evening concerts for himself. “If we alter our terms,” he says, “and say that the British composer is not being ‘segregated’ but ‘insisted upon,’ we shall see the value of the publicity side. Any advertising expert knows that the essence of publicity is to keep on ‘telling’ people . . .; and there can be no doubt that a large proportion of the crowds who flock to Queen’s Hall night after night for eight weeks are not unimpressed by the fact of one evening in each of those eight weeks being devoted regularly to British music, largely by living composers. At all events, the British evening was so successful last year [1929] that the B.B.C. was able to confound the critics by pointing to the undoubted popularity of these particular programs.” A practicable compromise between the two extremes of policy is suggested by W. J. Turner. “If the B.B.C,” he says, “do not wish to distribute their British music inconspicuously among the programs of each week, but quite rightly wish to give it publicity and make an attraction of it, they might do so not by wholly excluding other music from the program of the British composers’ night, but by giving prominence to the British work or works by making them the important feature, and retaining the description of British Composers’ night.”

Yet that these British Composers’ concerts on the whole bore well the pragmatic test, anyone who had the privilege of hearing some of them during the summer of 1930 will probably agree. In the two Thursday evenings, August 14th and 21st, for example, while one undoubtedly had to sit through some boring pieces, the whole experience was admirably worth while for the sake of two splendid symphonies, which will bear comparison with those of any contemporary nation. These were Mr. Arnold Bax’s First Symphony, in E flat minor, and Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony. Bax’s music has undergone a curious evolution from extreme complexity to comparative or at least increasing simplicity. A brilliant youth, famous at the Royal Academy of Music for his uncanny power of reading the most complicated scores at sight, his characteristic fault was turgidity and over-elaboration. In his first symphony there is a good deal of over-writing, and there are too many ideas and a lack of directness. Sir Henry Wood pronounces the third, dedicated to him and to be played at the concert of September 25th, a great advance in these respects. But even in the first symphony, besides an orchestral brilliancy and effectiveness not uncommon nowadays, there is a boldness of thought and feeling, a sturdy self-reliance, that are always rare and that make the work deeply impressive. This directness of appeal it was that reached the hearts of the audience and aroused that storm of applause, mingled with shouts when the composer appeared on the stage, referred to already as the kind of thing that makes music come alive in any nation.

The second of the two concerts opened with the Prelude to Elgar’s oratorio “The Kingdom,” a fine piece of orchestral writing even if somewhat unfortunately reminiscent of Wagner’s scoring and of his grail motive, and with an aria from the same work. If there is any species of concerto more boresome than a cello concerto, it is probably one for the viola. It was therefore an odd experience for a listener from New York, where even the most effective concertos for violin or piano by Beethoven, Brahms, or Tschaikowsky are now virtually taboo, to find a viola concerto by a native composer—William Walton—filling nearly half an hour and being listened to with keen interest. Mr. Walton shows himself in this piece, even more than in “Portsmouth Point,” an adherent of that modern school whose motto seems to be, “Every voice for itself, and the devil take the dissonances.” He is also rather over-fond of stopped trumpets, and in general of the grotesque and the macabre. Nevertheless his concerto has individuality and an elusive sort of charm. In the second theme of the first movement, reappearing in the last, are some fascinating “false relations,” and the long quiet coda with which the work ends, bringing forward prominently the solo viola, is truly impressive.

Something of the same striving for effect, all the time and at all costs, which marred the concerto as it mars so much of the work of the younger men, was again apparent in the “Mai Dun” of John Ireland with which the English part of the concert closed. It seemed to “protest too much,” piled up the brass and the percussion relentlessly, and allowed the listener never a moment of rest or relaxation.

Dr. Vaughan Williams is an older man, of riper experience, more of the romantic period, and more mellowed in emotion. Perhaps partly for these reasons, his Pastoral Symphony was what one’s memory took away from the concert. It is a beautiful work, that somehow manages by a very reticent and suggestive method, without any pother and without any overt references, to arouse all one’s associations of the quiet gray-and-green landscape of English fields, and of the unobtrusive friendliness of English people. An elusive work that as little wears its heart on its sleeve as its shy and somewhat inarticulate composer in a casual meeting—Vaughan Williams has as little small talk as big talk, though he can talk enlighteningly on what interests him—it is hard to say why, it makes so deep an impression of something quintessentially English. The harmonic manner is certainly not particularly English—one would rather say modern-French-impressionist—in its clamping together of triads that move about as wholes like those of Debussy or Ravel: an idiom that seems sometimes in its unchangingness to verge on automatism. Melodically, to be sure, there is a strong tincture of English folk-song. But what seems more directly productive of the deep emotional appeal is a sort of hypnotic insistence on very quiet, almost drab, but won-drously imaginative and magical instrumental refrains: the poetic soliloquy of the English horn in the first movement; in the second, the E flat trumpet with its monotonous obligate in its natural series of overtones, with the dream-like “flat seventh”—a tone usually modified to conform to our artificial system; the delicious celesta passage at the end of the scherzo; above all, that unique, that unforgettable effect of the solo soprano, distant, wordless, at the beginning of the finale and again at its end. At the beginning, with masterly economy, it is accompanied only by a drum roll; at the end by long-held high unisons of the violins. As this finally died away, one was transported from the concert hall to some dim imagined field in a gray and cloud-rimmed English countryside; voice and violins became doubtful if not unreal horizon sounds; one seemed to hear not music but silence. . . . It was a moment of high art. No wonder the listeners fairly held their breaths, seemed almost audibly to sigh with their perception of this so native and peculiar beauty, before they burst forth in cheers for the unostentatious man on the platform, conducting like some friendly bear, who could perform this miracle for them, translating into tones what was most individual and most dear to them in their native land. And the music, one may add, took something from their friendly understanding; they gave as well as received. Twice before had one heard it: first of all when it was conducted by, the composer at one of the Norfolk, Connecticut, Festivals for which it was commissioned by Mr. Carl Stoeckel; later at Carnegie Hall. In neither case did it seem so illuminated by those who heard it, its essential character so emphasized by their response, as here in Queen’s Hall, speaking to its own people of their common country.

Naturally there are not many works so intensely English as this reserved, almost monotonous Pastoral Symphony of Vaughan Williams. Even his own London Symphony is English city rather than country—and the countryside is the essential England. But there are plenty of fine works to afford nucleating points for the six other programs of the British Composers’ series, as we shall realize if we look through the list: Elgar’s two symphonies and his splendid Enigma Variations; Bax’s Third Symphony; William Wallace’s fascinatingly orchestrated, too seldom heard symphonic poem, “Villon”; to say nothing of lesser things by Bantock, Delius, Berners, Goossens, Constant Lambert (the much discussed recent “Rio Grande” for Piano, Chorus, and Orchestra), Boughton, Bliss, Grainger, Hoist, and others. How long will it be before we can make so impressive a showing? Vaughan Williams has said that our American school is only about a generation behind the English—let us hope he may prove to be right.

A point of perhaps subordinate importance to the national significance of such a scheme as this, but nevertheless well worth considering, is the opportunity it gives for solo work with orchestral accompaniment, a delightful department of music nowadays practically banned in New York. Not only in the British programs but in the general ones much greater place is given to soloists than is possible with us. In the four concerts on which these impressions are based, for example, there appeared no less than four concertos (Hindemith, organ; Elgar, violin; Tschaikowsky, piano; Walton, viola) not to mention Cesar Franck’s “Les Djinns,” with its prominent solo piano part. It is true that Hindemith’s Organ Concerto was more interesting than beautiful, but its interest was great; it is true that Elgar’s concerto was boresome, and that Tschaikowsky’s was interpreted in rather a pounding and slapdash manner by Miss Elly Ney. But all five of these works were, for one rer. on or another, worth hearing. Of singing, the same four concerts contained: two songs with orchestra by, Strauss; the Smyth Benedictus; an aria of Donizetti that was tiresome, and poorly sung; and the aria from Elgar’s “The Kingdom.” Roughly, five instrumental and four vocal groups, in four concerts. What would you get in four Carnegie Hall concerts? Four guest conductors, very likely, each, like the princesses in the fairy story, more remarkable than the others; but you would be lucky if you got a single concerto, and as for arias, if you dared confess an interest in them the snobs would set you in your place as a vulgarian. Finally, you could go to Carnegie Hall for an entire season without having a chance to hear such a work as Mahler’s First Symphony—not an inspired or even a highly significant work, but one that a music-lover with normal curiosity wants to hear just as a normal lover of letters wants to dip into Beaumont and Fletcher once in a while as well as Shakespeare, and cannot accept any amount of Browning and Tennyson in lieu of the chance to find out for himself about, let us say, Walter Savage Landor or Thomas Liove Peacock. In short the Prom programs are not standardized and stereotyped by the box-office and the prejudices of the snobs. They fit happily into the living artistic experience of anyone who loves music better than musicians.


What, then, in last analysis, are the lessons to be learned from the Promenade concerts by American music-lovers? We cannot, of course, imitate literally in New York what works so well in London, not only because literal imitation is never creative but more particularly because our conditions are fundamentally, different, so that what works in one environment would not work in the other. America is infinitely and bafflingly more complex than England—even though England is of course far more complex than it appears to an American. Thus for our composers there is no such clear, common, universal emotion to be expressed as the sentiment of the English countryside, appealing more or less to all Englishmen, that Vaughan Williams has expressed in his Pastoral Symphony. The point is not, as used to be thought widely among us, and as our snobs still think, that American life is prosaic, commercial, and vulgar, and that there is nothing in it worthy of artistic expression. So far is this from being the case that the trouble with American life, to the artist, is that there is too much in it clamoring for expression: too much, too widely scattered, addressing too diverse groups, so that it can nowhere be unified. American life is vulgar and prosaic only to the dull and the conventional, to those devoid of fresh imagination; but to us all it is many-sided, nowhere nucleated, and as subject for art chaotic. What is American, as a meadow in Kent or Surrey is English? A New England hill pasture? A Southern plantation? A Colorado canyon? The fierce turmoil of Chicago? The careless easy life of New Orleans? The nervous glitter and clamor of Broadway? A mesa in New Mexico or a mountain in California or Oregon? . . . All of these things are American, but no one of them is exclusively American, and no one appeals to all Americans. When Sir Henry Wood picked out Arthur Shepherd’s “Horizons” (four Western pieces) as his one American novelty, this year, he made a good choice, for it is a characteristic and effective work by one of our most serious composers; but he might have found quite as much local color, though of a different shade, in Kelley’s “New England Symphony,” or in Powell’s “Old Virginia Overture,” or for that matter in any one of half a dozen pieces not geographical at all in their connotation but none the less unmistakably American. We cannot afford, then, in theory any more than in practice, to narrow down American music to any one comparatively simple formula, such as can hold English, or French, or German, or Italian music without constricting them. This impossibility of narrow definition brings with it much bafflement and bewilderment of spirit for our creative minds, grave practical inconveniences and impediments; but also unique opportunities, and a stimulating challenge to self-reliance and to ceaseless experiment.

The cosmopolitan and miscellaneous character of our audiences involves us in as many quandaries as the diversity of our composers and of what they have to express. Inspiring as it may be to an American composer to witness such complete community, of feeling between artist and audience as that testified by the reception at the Proms of Vaughan Williams or Arnold Bax, it would be an idle day-dream for him ever to expect such a reception in America for any of his own music, or for that of any of his fellows. How could any one piece of music ever speak thus completely to any Carnegie Hall audience, made up as it is of the races, groups, cliques, the varying points of view and biases of temperament of the whole world? Here again the comparative simplicity of the give and take of artistic experience in a European country is unthinkable in our medley of peoples. All that we can hope is that our geniuses may one day find some way to take compensation for this very disability, to stamp with the unity, without which art cannot exist a diversity which offers possibilities of such rich relationships, such exciting confrontations.

In the meantime, even if such higher syntheses must await the geniuses alone capable of making them, there are humbler yet important trends of development in our American music to which all sincerely music-loving and intelligently patriotic people may contribute. To put the matter as briefly as possible, everyone helps and forwards our music who makes the effort to value it for itself, as a sincere and unique expression, no matter how immediately successful or unsuccessful; everyone confuses and retards it who distracts attention to the manner of its performance, to the mere personalities of its creators and performers, or to its commercial returns. Here again, it must be admitted, our melting-pot public puts us at a disadvantage in comparison with more homogeneous European groups. A New York audience has almost no loyalty, public spirit, artistic piety. Made up as it is of Tom, Dick, and Harry, here today and gone tomorrow, it is a gaping, curious, cruel public, avid of sensation, eager for thrills and excitements, but too restless for deep emotion. In short, it is a public fated to idolize personalities and to ignore art, a public on which virtuosos and guest conductors thrive as gross weeds thrive in a marsh. And it cares as little about the fascinating evolution of art itself as children at a menagerie care about the evolution of the animals they regard so idly.

How are we to combat this incubus of a miscellaneous, untrained, traditionless audience, how are we to create an atmosphere less negatively, smothering or positively poisonous to the best potentialities of our music, an atmosphere in which it can grow normally? Possibly we may be obliged to give up altogether the professional concert hall as the medium of growth, as our dramatic art has largely given up the commercial theatre, and fall back on amateur groups like school and college choruses and orchestras. Or, if this does not satisfy us, as it is hard to see how it ever can, we may gradually learn how, by understanding them, to reduce the virtuoso worship and the box-office servitude of our public concerts, and painfully to guide them into more disinterested and creative attitudes. In this latter case, we may find help and hope in the example of the Promenade concerts. For they show us how healthily music may develop when composers and public work together in good understanding for its development, and when virtuosos, whether of an instrument, the voice, or the baton, are relegated to their proper subordinate place, and made the happy servants rather than the vain and discontented tyrants of musical art.


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