Desmond O’Neill: First night of the Proms

Desmond O'NeillIt is a sure sign of the ever diminishing pool of memorable acronyms that even the most treasured of ceremonial events can be hijacked for the basest of clinical motives. In recent years, a prominent casualty was one of the highlights of the British cultural summer, the Proms. Rather than a magnificent series of concerts in one of the most idiosyncratic of venues, PROMS is now also the mundane (if undoubtedly worthy) Patient Recorded Outcome Measures.

Yet the other Proms have also much to offer in terms insights into life, both individual and collective, a reflection brought home by this year’s First Night of the Proms in London. While the Last Night of the Proms is considerably more celebrated, it is the First Night which best reflects the real spirit of this remarkable enterprise. In a nice counterbalance to the supposed Euroscepticism and the much-heralded demise of classical music in Britain, this First Night of the Proms strikingly emphasised not only how strongly this island nation is embedded in Europe but also the unique British ability to energize and reinvent culture and tradition.

Aside from a dutiful gesture to home composer Judith Weir, the opening programme of one of the great English summer traditions was strikingly rooted in central Europe. The other featured composers had all lived under the Hapsburg mantle at some stage of their lives. And yet, their links to the British Isles have been strong: Liszt’s frequent concert tours across the islands visited some extraordinarily modest centres (including playing on a rattly upright piano in the small market town of Clonmel in Ireland) and only Brahms’ aversion to sea voyages led to his declining an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.

Janáček had a somewhat more tortuous path to acceptance in England but the positioning of his Glagolitic Mass at pole position of this concert was the musical equivalent of neurological dictum that time is the greatest diagnostic aid. Reviews of its first performance at the Norwich Festival in 1930 make for amusing reading now. The critic Harold Truscott wrote that: “The work is perhaps hardly in its right place in a sedate English is not likely that this extraordinary work will ever be acclimatised here..”!

Sedate no longer, the Proms offer an interesting insight into how traditions, with due adaptation, are central to our lives, a fact often lost in a post-modern age but long argued by the philospher Gadamer and a key part of good medicine. Set since the war in the vast Victorian splendour of the Royal Albert Hall, the compromise between tradition and acoustic is one of the particularly British features of the series – it used to be said that it was the only venue where British composers could be sure of hearing their music performed twice!

Although the acoustics are now substantially improved, this most democratic and adventurous of concert series shows a degree of individuality, and even a trace of the naff, that is a part of its remarkable charm. This was characterised in this performance by playing Brahm’s Academic Festival Overture in the “improved” version by Sir Malcolm Sargent (in Proms hero status, only second to the founder, Sir Henry Wood). Sargent added a choral ending that bizarrely yet amusingly subverts this sublime piece, in itself a rare glimpse of Brahms’ own sense of humour.

But it was through the Janáček in its craggy splendour and magnificence that this concert allowed for a global show-casing of both the wonders of ageing and a glimpse of how deep spirituality can be expressed in a secular age. As perceptively noted by Milan Kundera (whose father, in the enviable ferment that is central European cultural life, studied under the composer), Janáček is one of the true individuals in Western music, neither arising from, nor leaving behind, a “school” of music. His music and its inspirations drew enormously from his own life, a broad range of Slav culture, and a deeply personal style of music which often carried narrative patterns of speech.

The Glagolitic Mass, part of the increasingly rich late flowering of this composer, was completed at the age of 72. In addition, along with his operas Katya Kabanová, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair, it is indelibly marked by the influence of his probably unconsummated but vibrant passion for the very much younger Kamila Stösslová. Many decades before Gabriel Maria Marquez’s celebrated fictional depiction of love in later life in Love in the Time of Cholera, we have an extraordinarily privileged insight into passion of an older man that ruptures any prejudice of a lesser intensity and fire as we age.

In addition, the rawness and extroversion of this Mass allows us to consider how Janáček, a self-avowed agnostic, drew on both liturgical tradition and nature to create what is a truly spiritual experience, veering from serene mysticism in the Agnus Dei to the almost crazed exultation of the central organ solo. It is a clarion assertion of the breadth and depth of the human condition that uplifts, reassures and restores our life force, and this was particularly so in this performance where the large orchestra, chorus, and soloists were excitingly marshalled by Jiří Bělohlávek, the Czech principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

While little can beat the thrill and atmosphere (and often thermal and acoustic vagaries!) of attending a live Prom performance in the Royal Albert Hall, we are indeed blessed that we can join this greatest of festivals of great music through radio, television, and online broadcasting as well as in playback, complete with a generous complementary programme notes on the BBC Proms website.

Desmond O’Neill, consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine, Dublin.