Politics at the BBC Proms 2017

The BBC Promenade Concerts festival, known as the BBC Proms, was founded in the year 1895. It takes place every summer at the Royal Albert Hall in London, United Kingdom – and has grown into one of the most well-known classical music festivals worldwide. This year, it is running from July 14 until September 9.

Music has often been used, for better or for worse, as a political tool. One of the most recent well-known examples is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – an orchestra made up of Israeli and Arab musicians, founded in the year 1999 by the famous Israeli-Argentine conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian philosopher Edward Said. Ten years later, at the time of the 2009 Gaza War, Barenboim started performances by reading out a shared statement from the orchestra stating that “We aspire to total freedom and equality between Israelis and Palestinians, and it is on this basis that we come together today to play music.” The orchestra has been a frequent guest to the BBC Proms. Another example is the European Union Youth Orchestra, which is made up of musicians from EU countries, aged from 16 to 26.

This year’s festival is the second one to take place after the United Kingdom’s June 23, 2016 vote to exit the European Union (commonly known in Britain as the “Brexit” vote). The controversial political moments have not waited long to make themselves known.

In the very first concert of the Proms this year, for example, Russian-German pianist Igor Levit decided to perform an arrangement of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (which is the anthem of the European Union) as his encore. In Prom 4 (July 16, 2017), Daniel Barenboim, returned with the German orchestra Staatskapelle Berlin. He gave a speech after the concert in which he emphasised the value of education over what he called “isolationist tendencies” and “religious fanaticism which cannot be fought with arms alone”.

These events have proved particularly problematic since the BBC, which broadcasts Proms concerts live (be it on radio or television), is bound to impartiality by its Charter, including in political matters.

Finally, at the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (the fourth movement of which is the source of the Ode to Joy anthem) at the Proms on July 30, Promenaders who had brought EU flags with them to display were told to put them away. A statement from the Royal Albert Hall and the BBC stated that this was due to a “disruption” caused by “a small number of people with large flags”, according to free London newspaper Evening Standard.

The Royal Albert Hall said in a blog post on its website that it has not banned EU flags from being waved during the BBC Proms, as it has been construed by some newspapers, it said, including the Evening Standard. “At one Prom,” the post read, “our stewards asked a couple of people to put their flags away, as they were distracting others, including members of the orchestra.” It was only about the size of the flags, it said, not the presence of the EU flag itself.

The Proms 2017 have since continued without further political controversy. However, Brexit is a subject presently at the forefront of British politics, and the Last Night of the Proms is a valedictorian concert traditionally given to patriotic sentiment – complete with performances of “Rule Britannia” and international flag-waving.

There may well be a lot of interest to see how that particular concert will develop itself – particularly as conductor Sakari Oramo, the Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (which traditionally performs at the Last Night of the Proms), has been, according to the Telegraph, asked by the BBC to present his traditional Last Night speech to them before giving it to the audience at the Royal Albert Hall and TV viewers.

At the Last Night of the Proms 2016, which took place only months after the Brexit referendum, more than 2500 EU flags were handed out to the audience by other Promenaders – who wanted to remain anonymous but issued a statement saying that “Music doesn’t recognise borders, religion, gender, age, status or creed and most orchestras, shows and music schools rely heavily on talented musicians from inside and outside the EU”, according to the Guardian.

The Last Night of The Proms has, up to now, a reputation for being a celebration of the quintessential British origins of this now world-famous music festival, as well as of the universal origins of music. Pomp and circumstance go out of the window, especially in the second half of the concert, where Promenaders who have solemnly attended the rest of the Proms concerts in quiet silence, can “let their hair down”, enjoy some light, pieces of beautiful music, and wave flags.

It remains to be seen if, in the current political climate and with all the controversies so far, it will be hijacked by political sentiments and arguments or if it will remain the good-natured evening of music and fun celebrations that it is seen as.

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