This summer’s Proms will be the last as we’ve known them

This summer’s Proms will be the last as we’ve known them


norman lebrecht

July 28, 2022

From my monthly Lebrecht essay in The Critic magazine:

This summer’s BBC Proms will be the last festival of British orchestras as we know them. This is not due to Brexit, Covid, Ukraine, inflation, the gas squeeze or any other headline. It is the consequence of half a century of mismanagement and mental indolence on the part of safe-seat executive suits who turned a Nelsonian blind eye to the gathering storm. Well, it’s all over now.

The death sentence was delivered by the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, in a statement terminating BBC Four, which televises most of the Proms, and urging the BBC’s six orchestras in London, Manchester, Scotland and Wales to look for “alternative sources of income where possible.” The insincerity of that suggestion is on a par with Vladimir Putin’s “special measures” in Ukraine.

There is no “where possible” — as Davie, a former boss of BBC music and radio, is well aware. Private cash for concerts is scarce and BBC orchestras have no brand to sell apart from the big one — the GazProm Last Night of the Proms. Davie knows what lies ahead for his orchestras: oblivion. All he can do is soften the pill and spread the blame. The party’s over.

No-one can say they did not see this coming…

Read on here… and reflect on the loss.


  • Musician says:

    The stupidity of this situation is just overwhelming. For so many years British orchestras were encouraged to look for money outside of the public purse. And then they got very good at it. Much better than their other European counterparts. Also by being able to acquire some foreign public money through extensive touring. And wasn’t licence fee conceived for BBC to support exactly this kind of high culture? The pandemic showed that asking them to raise money from sponsors can have tragic consequences. And then Brexit limited their ability to bite off some of that European pie. So now there are more reasons than ever to increase public subsidy for institutions which are world class and help to maintain Britain’s status as cultural capital of the music world, which brings revenue from tourism, film and pop music industries. Just one little thing – can anyone imagine these wonderful BBC science, nature or history documentaries, which are watched by people all over the world, without soundtracks provided but these orchestras? And this all is happening during the time when there is strong evidence that cultural education and creative industries is what we need more than ever!

    • Rob Keeley says:

      ‘can anyone imagine these wonderful BBC science, nature or history documentaries, which are watched by people all over the world, without soundtracks provided but these orchestras?’

      You mean the overbearing, noisy, emotionally manipulative aural sludge that ruins such documentaries? I take your point that they provide employment, but all too frequently they make them unwatchable, especially as they often overwhelm the spoken narration. I’d be more than happy without them and might even start watching them again.

    • kaa says:

      Britain the cultural capital of the musical world !! Really ? Are you serious?

    • Una says:

      Trouble is those soundtracks can now be done by computer and for the past 30 years without any orchestra!

    • Pat says:

      Except the soundtracks very rarely recorded by the BBC orchestras …

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    One can only assume that this is due to the Conservative Government reducing income and it is they who should be criticised and not Davie who is doing what he can to keep the BBC afloat. The most respected broadcaster in the world currently celebrating its 100th birthday. For some reason the Conservatives want to privatise it as well as the NHS.

    • Dave says:

      Davie is a tory stooge. Any BBC he keeps afloat will be severely eviscerated to make it attractive for privatisation; imagining having to keep all that arts funding going as a condition for buying it. That’s without mentioning the requirement that BBC News – if it still exists as such – act as the tories’ PR arm.

    • Thomas M. says:

      “For some reason” really means that the Tories want to abolish the more critical and highbrow state television and broadcasting to strengthen the (Murdoch, partly) gutter press and trash TV. Scumbags the Tories are, nothing better than scumbags.

    • Mark (London) says:

      Reducing income ? Actually the BBC can no longer expect regular increase in the tax on watching a a TV. It has to sell itself no automatic money

    • Helen says:

      “The most respected broadcaster in the world”

      In countries that only buy in the good stuff, maybe. UK cancer survival rates are atrocious by any measure – at least the BBC isn’t killing people.

  • simon says:

    As someone who has been going to the Proms for 40 of my 50 years on this planet, I can safely say that it has given me some of my best concert experiences anywhere but also some of the worst. Much as I have often been frustrated by the RAH acoustic, the missed opportunities of programming, the incongruous couplings of new and old repertoire or the selection of artists who are ill-suited to the works they perform, I have to admit that at its very considerable best the Proms was unbeatable for quality and value. Now, like and old nag, it’s being put out to a slow, yet lingering decline until, at last, the inevitable happens. They say you only truly appreciate something when it is gone. As I look ahead, I look for the positive opportunities that befall us. It is still not too late to reverse this state of affairs, if only enough people care and are willing to do something about it. Make your voice heard. The panjandrums who act as arbitrary investors can only get away with this if they are met with silence, which they will wrongly recognise as acceptance of their plans.

    • Rob Keeley says:

      Beautifully put. So many concerts that have a great-looking second half are ruined by a long-ish new piece (usually by tick-boxing female composer of no especial merit and commissioned purely because of their gender – David Pritchard has been quite open about this) one dutifully has to sit through. Or strategically avoid…

  • Miv Tucker says:

    You are more or less correct, but I’m not sure why BBC4 being scrapped makes much difference.
    Fewer proms are being televised anyway, but even before BBC4 there was BBC2, so hopefully broadcasts (if any) could revert to that channel.

    • Linda R says:

      Only 15 of the Proms this year are on BBC4. There are 7 additional Proms that are broadcast on BBC2, on CBBC, or held for future showing.

  • Rob says:

    Check out the Proms from 1977 to show how it used to be done. Fantastic programming, ornately classical.

    Check out Prom 50:

    Pierre Boulez
    Rituel: in memoriam Bruno Maderna
    Proms premiere

    Gustav Mahler
    Symphony No. 7 in E minor

    BBC Symphony/Boulez

    • Ellingtonia says:

      Ah Boulez, the only conductor who had the capacity to make Mahler and Janacek sound dull………..what an achievement!

    • William Evans says:

      Rob’s right. I’ve just used his link to take a look at some of the programming on offer at the 1977 Proms and it’s much more enticing than this year’s fare. Remember, too, that (if I recall correctly from childhood), Britain was hardly awash with money in those days, either.

    • Rob Keeley says:

      When there were still giants, not just pygmies.

  • Old Holborn says:

    Davie was installed precisely to do this ‘government”s dirty work, from Tory tinged ‘impartiality’ to DCMS pleasing cultural vandalism.

  • Antwerp Smerle says:

    It would be sad to lose any of the BBC’s orchestras. Years ago the best Turangalila I ever heard was from the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Downes. My last concert before COVID was an incomparable Bruckner 8 from the BBC Scottish Symphony under Runnicles. And last night the BBC National Orchestra of Wales played like angels for Andrew Manze in A Sea Symphony. What can be done to prevent this cultural vandalism?

    • Herr Doktor says:

      If the Bruckner 8 conducted by Runnicles that you heard live was the same recording that was given away free with BBC Music Magazine a year or two ago, well, let me just say I thought the price was right. Maybe a little high even.

  • Philip says:

    I wrote to the director of the Proms today. Not as a result of this article but regarding the fact that the Proms is now a D.I.E quota driven festival which can only result in a gradual slide into mediocrity and irrelevance. Last night’s Prom being a prime example.

    It has nothing to do with “Brexit” or the “Tories”. Almost £4 billion per annum licence fee income plus overseas commercial sales Pleading poverty is risible.

    Once the greatest broadcasting organisation on the planet the BBC is now a national embarrassment.

    • Emil says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more Philip. The biggest downturn in public support for the BBC is a result of their obsession with identity politics. This ideology is rampant amongst BBC luvvies and is responsible for turning away audience members in droves. Anecdotally I know many people who’ve had enough of this patronising drivel and won’t attend any more.

      Who wants to hear music and artists you suspect were selected for their box-ticking qualities rather than their merit? That is the real cancer.

  • For crying out loud says:

    Ah well there’s always Russia. Say what you want about them but at least they’ve always taken their music and their orchestras seriously.

    • And what? says:

      Apart from most Russian orchestras these days are the very definition of mediocrity.
      The best musicians left for better pay in the west.
      Do you know what most orchestral musicians earn there?
      You can’t scarcely live off it.

      What got left over was mostly scraping the bottom of the barrel, except for the occasional light of day from Ekaterinburg, or St Petersburg (but NOT the terrible Mariinski – Kirov).

      The only thing worse that can be said, is the almost complete absence of any classic music radio, which for a country that size, and its wealth means near silence in any car for days on end if you need to cross mere European Russia.

      They say you can take the measure of any country by its bogs (toilets).
      It’s particularly true of Russia, unless of course you take the train (Russian train toilets, which used to be a hole onto the track below, have improved quite a bit).

      • Lausitzer says:

        I don’t know exactly how much classical music the Soviet third programme used to play. But its replacement by Radio Rossii in 1991 has been described to me as “Yeltsin preferred to put the roubles into political propaganda instead of culture”.

        A few years after Yeltsin had slurred through his farewell TV speech an attempt has been made to set up Radio Kultura. In 2008 it had almost everywhere to make way for, you guessed it, political propaganda. So if you noticed Vesti FM in the car you now know what these frequencies were actually meant for.

        Only the train toilets are no Russian specialty. East German childhood memories from the eighties still include as well the fascination of sleepers hasting past…

  • Graeme Hall says:

    The only advantage of getting older is that I have heard so many of these death-of-orchestras etc arguments in the past…not least by the esteemed patron of this site…and yet somehow the music continues…as it will this time.

  • M McAlpine says:

    To be honest I’ve always wondered why the BBC keeps all of its orchestras. I cannot see how are there is a market for all of them especially when there are so many good regional orchestras in the UK. Certainly some slimming down is needed. You can’t keep going on stuffing an underused commodity.
    By the way Sheffield does have an orchestra – a very good amateur orchestra. I heard them in a performance of RVW’s Symphony Antartica and a very creditable performance. The entry-level for an audition is grade 8. Such is the standard of playing today.

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Maybe the BBC Management could go on a Classic FM traing course. Classic FM supports the London and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestras, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Royal Scottish National Orchestras, Opera North amongst others.

    They help run various educational projects.

    The BBC Management need to come up with some creative answers to the situation.