Although happily ensconced at classicfm.com, when harking back to my days as a regular presenter for BBC Radio 3 among my fondest memories are two Proms ‘Last Nights’ that I hosted alongside the lovely Stephanie Hughes. Attitudes to these rowdy Proms ‘party bags’ vary from condescension and distaste to a heart-felt love for their unashamed popularism, but I can tell you that seeing and hearing the spectacle from an open presenters’ box in the Royal Albert Hall is an inspiration, the colour of it all, the waving of flags (not all of them Union Jacks by any means), the swaying minions that fill the arena, the cheers and heave-ho’s as the piano lid is lifted, the rapturous applause for almost everything – irrespective of musical quality – and, most of all, the sense of community. It’s the ideal series ‘encore’ beyond the stronger meat of the preceding concerts in the festival.
Once over and the crowds spill out into the night air, the feeling of having shared a great event remains. And the tuneful perennials? It’s easy to forget that in the midst of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and fears about igniting memories of colonialism that the words for ‘Rule Britannia’ were written by James Thomson whose The Tragedy of Sophonisba (1730) is based around a proud princess of Carthage who had committed suicide rather than submit to slavery at the hands of the Romans. What matters most on the Last Night are the tunes – you get utterly swept up in them – and as for ‘Land of Hope and Glory, mother of the free’ who could possibly object either to Arthur Benson’s words or the ennobling melody, the centrepiece of the first of five uplifting symphonic marches by the man many of us consider to be our greatest composer.
The whole business of judging whether, given their lyrics, certain old songs are still fit for purpose is complex, just as it is with literature, with Othello, Shylock, Fagin and the like. Years ago, as a sheet music archivist, I’d regularly encounter such ballad horrors as ‘The Happy Jappy’ and ‘De Gorn Coon’, occurrences gladly cancelled out not only by the ghastly lyrics but by the music’s substandard quality. Or there was another occasion when I was shocked to find, in a local thrift shop, a vinyl record of Dvorak’s 12th String Quartet called not the ‘American’ but the ‘Nigger’ Quartet, a nickname that had no negative connotations for the composition, and was abandoned after the 1950s. Although I was curious about the performance (by a highly reputable quartet) I couldn’t bring myself to buy the record. And take Debussy’s ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’, now commonly called just ‘Cakewalk’ or Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess. Most of the opera’s songs couldn’t cause offence but what about the immigrant illiteracy of ‘Bess you IS my woman now’? Shouldn’t we now be changing it to ‘Bess you ARE my woman now’? Maybe worth thinking about. When it comes to history, you can ‘right’ it for the present, or at least attempt to, but you can’t ‘re-write’ it for the past.