There is one day every year when the classical music world is allowed to go crazy. At the Last Night of the Proms, the more uptight aspects of classical music – the judging of those silly enough to clap between movements, or the frowning at those unable to stifle their cough/sneeze/other-necessary-bodily-sound – are kept firmly outside the concert hall. If there is such a thing as a classical music party, then the Last Night of the Proms is it.
2015’s Last Night will fall on 12 September, closing the annual eight-week BBC Proms classical music festival hosted at the Royal Albert Hall. With concerts on every night, the festival is one of the world’s largest. Alongside symphonic staples by the likes of Beethoven and Mahler, this year’s festival has also celebrated the 150th anniversaries of Finnish composer Jan Sibelius and Danish composer Carl Nielsen. Its star performers indicate the festival’s prestige, from conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, violinist Nicola Benedetti, to the world’s top orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic.
But despite its size, the BBC Proms is eclipsed by its final night. Its audience is huge and the demand for tickets is high. Though the Royal Albert Hall can seat up to 6,000, most tickets are only available through a highly competitive ballot. Its audience is further enlarged not only by live coverage on the BBC, but through its large international audience, too. The Last Night is broadcasted to approximately 20 countries, including Australia, Germany, South Africa and China.
The Last Night may be popular, but to those who switch accidentally to the BBC’s coverage to find a barrage of Union Jacks and patriotic singing, it remains something of an oddity. Instead of listening quietly, the Last Night’s audience are invited to celebrate with klaxon calls, popping confetti and screaming balloons. Many take it as an occasion to dress up in their finest dinner jackets and ball gowns. The more eccentric plaster themselves in Union Jack bow ties, hats and jackets (a previous favourite was a gentleman from the BBC Symphony Chorus decked in a Union Jack turban).
The abundance of Union Jacks and the culmination in a sing-a-long to Britain’s favourite patriotic tunes (including Rule, Britannia!, Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem) means that it is easy to dismiss the Last Night as mere jingoism. But the Last Night is not only for Brits nostalgic for an imperialist past. Though Union Jacks dominate, amongst them you’ll find flags from Sweden, Australia and Japan to name a few. Last year, a lady in a sparkly Union Jack dress sang along to Rule, Britannia! just as loudly as any Brit. She was in fact from Germany.
Classical music snobs might think that the Last Night of the Proms is pompous rubbish. It’s true that it doesn’t offer the most profound of musical experiences. Nevertheless, its party atmosphere and welcoming attitude means it is a concentrated version of exactly what the BBC Proms aims to be: an all-encompassing celebration of classical music.