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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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