Come hear the music play: The Proms are an essential antidote to current intellectual laziness

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The Independent Online
I have such vivid memories of my first Prom; it was in 1949 when I was 14. With a schoolfriend I took the train to London, went to the National Gallery and then walked (oh to be young again]) to the Royal Albert Hall. There was already quite a queue even at 4.30pm, since the evening's soloist was Kathleen Ferrier. Nevertheless, we got very near the front.

Malcolm Sargent was conducting, and Ferrier was to sing his orchestration of Brahms' Four Serious Songs. Apart from her extraordinary radiance, I remember particularly the dress Ferrier wore. In the post-war years, it seemed very glamorous - green and gold. Eighteen years later, when I was planning to make a film about Ferrier's life, her sister, Winifred, opened a wardrobe in her flat in Kingston-upon-Thames and there was the dress. It is now in the Theatre Museum, the board of which I am a member.

You can never tell from the first splash where the ripples will end.

Going to the Proms was different from just hearing them on the radio, although that was an integral part of my childhood summers; back from the beach, a sort of 'high tea' as we called it, and then the radio on for the Proms. Part One only for me, but that was longer than many concerts today. By 9pm it was bedtime.

I bought the Prom prospectus each year - two shillings - and chased the concerts across the dials. If I remember correctly, it was the Third Programme on Mondays, Wednesdays and

Fridays, the Home Service on Tuesday and Thursdays, and the Light Programme on Saturday. Unthinkable today, but then that was before the age of niche marketing and the kind of person who talks solemnly about programmes destined for the age group 21 to 44.

In 1951, up for a week to enjoy the Festival of Britain, I went to hear Constant Lambert whom I much admired. He was almost carried on to the platform and conducted the Rio Grande and La Valse sitting down, which I found extraordinary. None of us realised how ill he was, and he died a few days later. Exceptionally, I was sitting in the stalls and made my first acquaintance with the echo. I simply could not make head or tail of the piano solo in the Rio Grande. How could Kyla Greenbaum be repeating all those notes? I could not see it happening, but I could hear it.

Years later after acoustic mushrooms suspended in the roof cured the echo, I remember sitting in the balcony for the first Prom performance of Stockhausen's Gruppen, because I wanted to see what was happening with the three orchestras, and not just hear.

This of course is the key. Music is as much a visual art as an aural one. A very few can read music on their own. Many listen on the radio or the gramophone. Much the best for me has always been to be there, to watch music being made. There were such extraordinary differences in the platform manners of conductors or soloists: Barbirolli with his swooping gestures and little jumps; the Olympian Boult, immobile, except for that baton which seemed about three feet long; Myra Hess with her great braid of hair watching the conductor with an intensity one rarely sees today; Dennis Brain who made you feel that playing the horn was not only fascinating but somehow rather funny, and not only when racing home in a Mozart finale. This was real music, not the loneliness of the long-playing record collector.

Today I am told that concerts are boring and that we have got to do something about making them more tolerable; dress differently, or play with coloured lights, jolly the public along in case for a single moment they might get bored with anything lasting longer than a few precious minutes of their oh-so-crowded lives. I think that's all tosh.

Of course you have to start somewhere, and lighter music or shorter extracts may be a way in. Concertos may be easier to begin with than long symphonies, but ultimately there is no substitute for preparation, concentration and silence. It's like learning a foreign language; there is no short cut on the road to Bruckner. Beethoven and Mahler with their violent changes of mood perhaps approximate more nearly to contemporary demands, but Bruckner is a great mountain peak from which you can see the landscape stretching away for miles in all directions. Getting to that peak is one of the most satisfying of all experiences. And it does not require anything but to take the music seriously, to give it time and trust.

The recently appointed Head of Youth Programmes at the BBC was reported as saying that he had much in common with the young audience in his impatience, adding that he had never watched a television programme from start to finish. What a splendid inspiration that must be to the young audience, how much it tells us in its shallow, subjective pandering to the most basic levels of intellectual laziness about the kind of person now responsible, even in public service broadcasting for the young.

Thank goodness not everyone, especially not the young share those views. As usual, I shall spend the summer in the Royal Albert Hall surrounded by people of all ages intent on listening. The Proms are informal, relaxed, inexpensive, unsnobbish, accessible. But above all, they demonstrate through their rapt, intense attention to music the power it has to reach into the finer parts of the human mind.

John Drummond CBE is Director, BBC Promenade Concerts.

(Photograph omitted)

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