MUSIC / PROMS: Small ripples in a calm sea: As the 100th season of Henry Wood Proms sails into port, Bayan Northcott wonders if the programming is running out of steam

Call no man happy. Or, at any rate, no critic. For here we are near the end of not just any old Henry Wood Proms, but the 100th season, expressly planned as a retrospective of a century's changing tastes. And the atmosphere has felt good: large audiences responding warmly to a diversity of music from Palestrina to Peter Maxwell Davies. More conservative listeners might like to argue that such warmth has been directly proportional to the relative scarcity of modernist novelties this year, though John Drummond is promising a final fling of forward-looking commissions for next year's centenary season before handing the Proms back to the Controller, Radio 3, in the person of Nicholas Kenyon. All the same, surveying recent series, this critic finds it difficult to avoid a feeling of retrenchment on several fronts - even of retreat.

Where, for a start, has all the early music gone? Admittedly, as recently as the 1950s, one would have been lucky to hear at the Proms anything much before Handel and Bach. Steadily expanding the repertoire backwards was not the least of William Glock's achievements over the seasons he planned from 1960 to 1973. No doubt he was lucky to arrive at a time when audiences, sated by a decade of the same old classics, seemed ready for historical adventures; lucky as well that, thanks to the historically inspired new music of such composers as the old Stravinsky and the young Maxwell Davies, medieval and Renaissance procedures suddenly sounded remarkably up to date. So Purcell, Cavalli, Monteverdi - the 1610 Vespers under the young John Eliot Gardiner - Byrd and Palestrina were insinuated from the mid-1960s and, with the inclusion of Dufay, Dunstable and Machaut's Messe de Notre Dame in 1969, Glock could claim the season covered a 600-year tradition.

Indeed, by programming the 13th-century Play of Daniel in the 1976 season, Glock's successor from 1974, Robert Ponsonby, actually extended it to 700 years. And Drummond seemed mindful enough of this heritage when he in turn took over in 1987: his first two seasons including a fair sampling of medieval and Renaissance dance music and a 13th-century concert from Gothic Voices. Yet since 1989 there has been no medieval music at all, while this year's Renaissance complement comprises merely some 40 minutes of Lassus and Palestrina and a few dances. For those who believe that the succession of Perotin, Machaut, Dufay, Ockeghem, Josquin et al is as great as anything that came later, this must seem a grievous dereliction - and a surprising one, given the current popularity of such groups as the Tallis Scholars, the Hilliard Ensemble, the New London Consort, and many others. No doubt, as ex- editor of the journal Early Music, Kenyon will have his own ideas on these matters.

Yet it may be this has partly come about by default, as a consequence of the decision of the last five seasons to move everything back into the Royal Albert Hall. Long gone are those hectic days of dashing from the Roundhouse to Westminster Cathedral, from the Albert Hall to St Augustine's, Kilburn, set in train by Glock's pursuit of appropriate venues for ever more specialised programmes. After toying with St Paul's, Knightsbridge, and Kensington Town Hall, Drummond evidently concluded that, suitably lit, a late night Albert Hall could be still more 'magical'. And so it can, but this hardly solves the problems of projecting the sound of a small vocal group or a handful of period instruments to its farthest reaches. Granted, Glock tried programming classical chamber music and even piano solos such as Beethoven's Hammerklavier. But these were given on more penetrating, 'modern' instruments and often from a central stage built out over the fountain - another innovation long since abandoned.

One would have thought that the obvious remedy lay only a hundred yards and two flights of steps away. Radio 3 has broadcast before from the hall of the Royal College of Music; it has a sizeable promenade area and, with suitable screening, an acoustic nicely adaptable to small forces - to say nothing of the same Victorian ambience as the Albert Hall itself. No doubt it would be too naughtily 1960s-ish to suggest that the migration of audiences across the concourse between the two halls might even be accompanied by the odd, out of doors medieval music drama or Turkish wedding band.

Yet that raises something else. By including a late night Indian prom, this year just escapes censure; but it has been the first since 1989 to bring forth anything in the way of 'world' music - unless one counts the 1990 steel band in Kensington Gardens. Once again, it was Glock who initially introduced Imrat Khan in 1971, but Ponsonby who really developed this strand of programming over the years, including offerings of Thai classical and Japanese imperial court music, Balinese gamelans and several Indian classical evenings, culminating in the famous all-night session of 1983. But there remain vast regions even Ponsonby never got round to - and, doubtless, many listeners who would still rather hear an evening of genuine African drumming than the kind of bland Western minimalism supposedly inspired by it.

Which is not to suggest that the central function of the Proms should ever be other than the revealing, sustaining and replenishing of the Western musical tradition in all its inexhaustible richness. Impossible, of course, in any single season - which is why one can only fairly criticise trends over many.

Arguably, Glock's most important achievement of all was to expand the representation of absolutely central figures such as Bach and Haydn who had previously been known only by a fraction of their outputs. But again it was Ponsonby who risked outraging the traditionalists by arguing that, in continuing this process, certain readily available and really hackneyed items of the repertoire - the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, for instance - might have to be pushed aside. Has Drummond, by contrast, shown a certain tendency to slope back to the old warhorses? There are three Rachmaninov concertos in the current season. Yet it could also be argued that we take Rachmaninov rather more seriously as a composer than even 20 years ago.

In any case these comments are intended as notes towards a stock- taking, not as a personal indictment. The performing time available to a Proms planner has not changed much over the decades; there are more concerts now but they are also shorter. And by the time all the expected repertoire and available performers have been fitted in, the room for manoeuvre may be surprisingly small. Then there are the pressures: conservatives who only want to hear commissions in the style of 1940s film music signed George Lloyd; campaigners like Priti Paintal, who recently asserted that half the Proms ought to comprise music by women (it would be interesting to see her detailed programme proposals); and pests like this critic constantly going on about the scandal of 100 Proms seasons without a note of Franz Schmidt.

Doubtless there are more covert BBC constraints and pressures too, and not least, the Zeitgeist: hopeful and exploratory in Glock's time; turbulent and divisive for much of Ponsonby's, but today, if the almighty recording industry is anything to go by, increasingly geared to the familiar and the repetitive. Not, or not yet, at the Proms, however, according to the lively reception of some of this year's rarer and more abrasive items. But then the most heartening aspect of Drummond's time at the BBC has been his consistent resistance to the soft sell, his reaffirmation that great music is worth taking a bit of trouble over. Which is why, whatever the incidental quibbles, one awaits next year's consummatory season with real hope.

The 1994 Proms continue until next Saturday (box office: 071-589 8212).

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game