A subdued version of The Last Night of the Proms has been held in London, after a row over Rule, Britannia! threatened to overshadow the event.
It saw a pared-down version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra play to an empty Royal Albert Hall, in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions.
After a very public row, the patriotic songs Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory were sung by a small choir.
The BBC was criticised for plans to omit the lyrics last month.
Critics said the words evoked a British colonial, imperialist past that is at odds with the values of modern Britain and the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Last Night of the Proms will play Rule, Britannia
- Proms concerts will change depending on Covid rules
- Proms to open with Beethoven ‘mash-up’
The BBC insisted its original decision had been driven less by politics than by the limitations imposed on musicians, and choirs in particular, during the pandemic.
But after a backlash in the press, and an intervention by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it reinstated the lyrics, saying socially-distanced members of the BBC Singers would perform in the Royal Albert Hall’s otherwise empty stalls.
The 2020 Proms season was drastically curtailed by the coronavirus epidemic, with the usual six-week season cut down to a fortnight of live shows, performed without an audience.
The programme was simplified in other ways, too – mostly featuring smaller works, with UK-based soloists and orchestras.
A reduced orchestra of 65 instead of the usual 300 performed live at the Royal Albert Hall – with the singers stood in the stalls to ensure social distancing.
However, there were some successful attempts to make the best of the situation.
On the opening weekend, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra positioned their brass players in boxes around the Albert Hall, answering and colliding with each other as they played Giovanni Gabrieli’s brass Canzons.
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Folk singer Laura Marling also made her Proms debut, playing an intimate set of songs accompanied by an un-conducted string orchestra the 12 Ensemble.
And the Aurora Orchestra played Beethoven’s 7th Symphony from memory while standing (as has become their trademark) drawing praise and admiration on social media.
The Aurora Orchestra's performance @bbcproms last night was mesmerising. Their Prom is always one of the highlights for me. And they were playing my favourite Beethoven Symphony. I loved it! https://t.co/bOZlfNYncT
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@auroraorchestra @nicholascollon and Tom Service have me totally hooked on Beethoven 7 as they unpick its rhythms, textures and themes.Ages ago I used to produce Discovering Music on @BBCRadio3 and so I was in 7th heaven..brilliant enlightening broadcasting @bbcproms
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Their performance was paired with a new work by Richard Ayres who, like Beethoven, has suffered from hearing loss for the last 20 years.
In three separate pieces – subtitled “dreaming, hearing loss and saying goodbye” – the players evoked the experience of degraded hearing, with string lines infiltrated by the high-pitched whine of tinnitus, and musical motifs blurring and breaking down.
The Last Night opened with Mozart’s perennially popular The Marriage Of Figaro, and featured South-African soprano Golda Schultz singing Sondheim’s The Glamorous Life, and a new arrangement of Jerusalem, by composer Errollyn Wallen.
Violinist Nicola Benedetti was a last-minute replacement for Lisa Batiashvili, who pulled out due to illness, playing Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending.
In a pre-recorded video segment, the conductor, Dalia Stasevska, said: “During these challenging times, we musicians have been longing so much to be able to play together again and to play live.
“Being able to play together again during these last two weeks has felt like drinking water after a long thirst.”
- BBC Proms – official site
The BBC said next year’s Proms would see Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory sung in full, replicating a tradition that dates back at least to the 1950s.
Why is Rule, Britannia! so controversial?
Rule, Britannia! was set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, and its lyrics were based on a poem by James Thomson.
It contains verses such as: “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves / Britons never will be slaves.”
Land Of Hope And Glory makes similar reference to the “might” of the former British Empire, which some people today find problematic.
Speaking in August, Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder of Chineke!, an orchestra that has performed at the Proms and whose musicians are majority black, Asian and ethnically diverse, said Rule, Britannia! was “offensive”.
She added that any black person “aware of their history, the empire and colonialism” would “struggle to enjoy the patriotic jingoism of these songs”.
Broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby said he had always found that part of the last night “uncomfortable”, suggesting the “delusory” second line be changed to: “Britons never, never, never shall be knaves”.
The BBC said it had originally planned to play the songs in an orchestral version due to coronavirus restrictions – although singers were due to perform on other nights of the Proms.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson voiced his objection to the original decision, telling MPs: “People love our traditions and our history with all its imperfections”, adding attempts to “censor” it were “crazy”.
The BBC later reversed the decision, saying: “Both pieces will now include a select group of BBC Singers”, explaining the words would be sung in the Hall, with audiences free to sing along at home.
It came after director-general Lord Hall was succeeded in the role by Tim Davie, the former chief executive of commercial arm BBC Studios.
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