Proms audiences

'More than Camaraderie', revised from 'Part of the Proms', commissioned for BBC Proms 2020: Festival Guide (publication abandoned, April 2020)

8 July 2020: The BBC Proms could have been cancelled this year, like the Summer Olympics, Wimbledon and Glastonbury. Instead, the season is now modified to draw on a range of previously broadcast and televised Proms beginning on 17 July for six weeks. A fortnight of live-streamed performances will follow from musicians in the Royal Albert Hall, probably without a physical audience present, concluding on 12 September. The necessity of responding to Covid-19 in this improvised way will be supported by the BBC's unrivalled technical and digital resources, and by solid audience input. As ever, Proms listeners will play a crucial part, albeit mostly at home or in small groups.

Even before the coronavirus arrived, one theme among several in the 2020 Proms prospectus was to have been 125 years of Proms audiences — their role and social makeup, changing behaviour and levels of participation. Although publication of the Guide had to be abandoned in April, the topic of audiences remains relevant and my piece has been modifed for this site.

The very existence of a Proms prospectus has always shown commitment to the audience. The original format, a 4-page leaflet, appeared in 1902 as a statement of intent, promising specific new works and particular artists. From 1907 nightly programmes were fixed, and appeared in a booklet available in June. By 1913, some 40,000 booklets were circulated to a list of known attenders and subscribers, many of whom would be annoyed if alterations were made later. ANNOYED! Strong feeling, expressed in letters to Henry Wood, was his greatest indication yet that a developing Proms audience — no popular rabble — cared deeply about what the series had opened up to them and how much it mattered.

Some of us may be annoyed in 2020, too. The Proms will not be exactly what we've come to expect. But in times like these, it's the music that matters, far more than the party. Second and subsequent hearings can be as revelatory as first ones. Drink it all in.

'More than Camaraderie' is available here as a free download. A lightly revised version of 'Part of the Proms' can be found on the BBC Proms website here.

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