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Subdued Proms concludes after Rule, Britannia! row

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Media captionIt’s been a very different Proms season this year. Here are some of the highlights.

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.

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.

After the possible omission, and then the indecision, followed by the controversy, and the accusations of wetness – Britannia finally did rule the airwaves.

And so tradition prevailed over those who thought the words too imperialistic for this day and age.

But it wasn’t quite business as usual at this year’s Last Night: it was a Prom without promenaders, with a pared down, socially distanced BBC Symphony Orchestra led by the Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, and barely a flag or a hat in sight.

The Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti – a late replacement for a poorly soloist – played Vaughn Williams’s romantic pastoral favourite, The Lark Ascending

The talking point of the night is likely to be composer Errollyn Wallen’s radical re-working of Hubert Parry’s Prom favourite Jerusalem, to which she introduced dissonance and blues references – a tribute, she said, to the Windrush generation of migrants who came to Britain.

It was sung, brilliantly, by the South African soprano Golda Schultz.

It has been a very strange year; the Pandemic Proms quite different without a live audience, particularly this evening’s Last Night in which even Edward Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory seemed subdued.

The 2020 Proms season was drastically curtailed by the coronavirus epidemic, with the usual eight-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.

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.

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.

Image caption

Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska said she “played no role in deciding the traditional elements of the programme” following the controversy over the Last Night.

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.

The British composer, who was born in Belize, said her arrangement of the “treasured hymn… created a lot of strong feelings” among the Proms audience “which, as a composer, is what you want”.

She said the opportunity to arrange it for the Proms had been “amazing”, as she had grown up with the original and loved it.

She dedicated her version to the Windrush generation – “I could have been one of those people sent home again,” she told BBC Breakfast.

Describing the socially distanced Last Night as “magical”, she said: “The spirit of people who love music was definitely in the hall.”

‘Long thirst’

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.”

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”.

Image caption

Chi-chi Nwanoku’s Chineke! Foundation is about “championing change and celebrating diversity in classical music”

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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