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Blog » First Night of the Proms

17 Jul  
Last night I watched the first night of the Proms on the television, Mahler 8, always the most stunning of Proms openers. It has a special value for me as it reminds me of when I first came down to London as a music student. I joined the BBC Choral Society and the first First Night I did with them was Mahler 8, in 1971, when I was 19. Now the BBC has a Proms archive website ( so I was able to look it up. It had an all British line up, unlike last night, with an all un-British line up of soloists, and one of the choirs from Sydney. The Proms is no longer seen just as a showcase of British talent, - whether that’s good or bad I can’t decide.

That 1971 Prom, with my first experience of singing in front of a huge audience, has become one of those reference points that all musicians have – the first time I heard ... the most wonderful performance of... the moment I realised that...we can all recall them. Afterwards, I had one of those teenage feelings of wanting to commit suicide in order to prolong and enshrine the total ecstasy that the world-embracing ending induces – in me at any rate! Now, I have often heard people affect a kind of distaste for Mahler 8, saying it is the weakest of the symphonies, or that it is a sea of kitsch. It’s often the case that once a choir is involved, people who think of themselves as intellectual start to curl a bit at the edges, and that is a view often heard in orchestras, - players who don’t like ‘working with amateurs.’ The fact that it is actually a hard sing, especially in the wilder harmonic moments of the first movement is not generally appreciated except by the people who sing it.

On Facebook the other day there was a brief interchange about Ligeti, and somebody said that he was ‘too musical’ as compared to say, Xenakis. I didn’t want to add to this discussion: I often worked with Ligeti when I was in the BBC Singers, and he was the most human of composers – often really charming, sometimes volatile and bad tempered. We always liked working with him though, and his music has a wonderful range that encompasses stuff that can be done by amateur choirs as well as the hardest of pro singer stuff. I have very good memories of him and of performing his music. I have to say that it did strike me as the height of pretentiousness to say that Ligeti was ‘too musical.’ What on earth does that mean? Can a composer be too musical, or not musical enough? Is that a matter of taste? Or snobbery? Or analysis? The ending of Mahler 8, with a pantechnichon of trumpets playing that staggering Eflat, Bflat, top C motif is certainly ‘very musical,’ in the sense that it goes utterly beyond words in its effect. It has gone into a place of extreme self sacrifice, where the intellect no longer has much sway over its cosmic spirituality. It is no longer pointing itself at the music world and its tendency to bitchy analysis, but towards the mass of people who can bathe in it, immerse themselves in it and emerge like born again humanity. At the end of my 1971 performance, the roar of the applause at the end seemed to shockingly complete a circle, in a way that was beyond analysis but forever seared into the musical memory.

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judithbingham's C:T Profile:  judithbingham


 Jim Aitchison commenting on First Night of the Proms:
18 July 2010 at 12:57

Hi Judith, Yes that was indeed an incendiary comment about Ligeti, which I personally don't agree with. I may come up with a post about this at some point and won't say more on this just yet as the issues are, I believe, rather complex.

 scott_good commenting on First Night of the Proms:
18 July 2010 at 19:06

I beg to differ.

It was an insult to Xenakis, not Ligeti. To say one is "too musical" is absurd and meaningless - the comments of a child. And to say Xenakis is not musical...and therefor good! well..this is only silly talk.

I heard Mahler 8 live for the first time this year! Awesome for sure (but not as awesome as my precious 5!). But I find with Mahler, that it is even better to perform than to listen to. Well, all great music is like that, though. N'est pas?

T'any rate, thanks for sharing the story. Always enjoy your posts.


 Misuc commenting on First Night of the Proms:
03 August 2010 at 14:03

It was indeed a stupid insult to Xenakis and Ligeti and to music itself. [though I can't quite see why she brought this up in connection with Mahler]

Is it always necessary to express your enthusiasm for a piece of music by insulting people with other views? What grounds does Judith have for maintaining that people who don't share her view of the Mahler 8th symphony are "affecting a kind of distaste" for it? Or that it is the snobbery of "players who don’t like ‘working with amateurs"? What does she mean by "people who think of themselves as intellectual"? And what is it to "start to curl a bit at the edges"?

Would it not be a good idea to withdraw these remarks?

In my opinion "the music world" lacks the tendency to sensitive and intelligent critical analysis that could inform and improve the poor taste and dubious technique of those responsible for giving out contemporary and earlier music. Or is all criticism, for her, "bitchy"? Does she want audiences to remain a dumb passive "mass of people who can bathe in..., immerse themselves in",whatever they are given? where"the intellect no longer has much sway"? In my experience - and the experience of the 20th century generally confirms this - most remarks attacking intellectuals come not so much from the brainless as the heartless.

As to Mahler - he is, for me, one of the greatest of all composers- for his persistent furtherance of classical techniques beyond and outside the bounds of what was thought to be 'proper' classical 'good behaviour'. But the 8th symphony is really diferent, isn't it? To me this seems to be the attempt of an outsider to ingratiate himself with the Vienna Imperial establishment with a grand pompous quasi-religious monument which was not entirely sincerely felt. This was in the period of the greatest corruption and decadence, leading to what Mahler's contemporary, Karl Krauss, with some irony, called "The Last Days of Mankind" - world war and revolution which finally put an end to the empire.

 Misuc commenting on First Night of the Proms:
04 August 2010 at 09:47


....taking up Judith's description of the end of the symphony: "extreme self sacrifice, where the intellect no longer has much sway over its cosmic spirituality...."

Now, I don't know anything about "cosmic spirituality" - not even what it means. Nor do I think Mahler did. Self-sacrifice is certainly sometimes necessary for the sake of a wider goal - I know a lot about that - but nobody except some kind of a masochist would regard it as a virtue in itself. I don't think Mahler was that. Nor, surely, can a blogger on these pages be showing much evidence of a spirit of self-sacrifice?

 Jim Aitchison commenting on First Night of the Proms:
15 August 2010 at 16:56

I think it was rather a given that Judith was filtering and summarizing a selection of common views and that these came from her own considerable experience. I didn’t detect any insult to those who disliked Mahler 8; it felt more like a little bit of unnecessary self deprecation on her part, almost an apology for loving such a wonderful piece which I completely understand.

 Jim Aitchison commenting on First Night of the Proms:
15 August 2010 at 16:59

P.s. Apologies if I'm making incorrect assumptions Judith!

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