An object that looks as mundane as a reel of recording tape can be the carrier for many rich and varied emotions
I decided not to listen live to this evening’s rather faux Last Night of the Proms 2020; rather, I chose to take the opportunity to take care transcribing a 2400 foot reel of quarter-inch Ampex 351 Double Play tape on my shelf which I had labelled No 49, “1975 Last Night of the Proms”.
Cormac Rigby introduced the 81st Last Night for BBC Radio 3 whilst “my colleague Richard Baker, the bravest man in the western hemisphere at the moment”, talked with the Promenaders and introduced the programme for BBC1 television. It was a warm evening and I know from my own experience as a promenader that the arena gets even hotter when the lights are on for television. Colour television in 1975 required far far more light than current television cameras so it must have been really hot and sweaty indeed. The ladies of the BBC Singers were, for the first time, dressed in colours, not black. Cormac Rigby describes the two Promenaders who laid a wreath around the bust of Henry Wood as dressed topped in white pith helmets and that they saluted Sir Henry’s bust afterwards in a sharply military fashion.
Teenage me, my then nearly-new Revox A77 and Sony ST5150L FM tuner connected to a rooftop 4-element Yagi aerial, would have been at my parents’ home in Long Ashton, just outside Bristol in North Somerset. I’d have been listening on heavy Koss PRO4AA headphones which rejected all but the most immediate ambient noise by clamping the ears firmly but had a reasonably flat and extended frequency response.
My recording is of the second half, “the noisier half” according to Cormac Rigby. His introductions still sound precise and calm, he’s taking us listeners in to the hall and giving us a flavour of the occasion and painting a visual picture but otherwise he allows the sound to speak to us. He’s assuming we are sitting down and listening without distraction. His voice is nothing like as loud as the orchestra or the applause.
Radio 3’s stereo sound of the music is similarly restrained, it’s a very calm sound balance, a paradox when the proceedings are so relatively raucous but what I mean is that I’m not particularly aware of the sound people doing anything, the sound is balanced as if I am in the ideal place in the hall. It takes craft to do that but the effect is unobtrusive.This approach works fine for the standard orchestra pieces but gets overwhelmed when there is audience participation - but that’s the point of the Last Night.
The audience are actually pretty good at it and Norman Del Mar both challenges them with increasing the tempo dramatically in the hornpipe of the Fantasia and especially so in the reprise. Later he compliments them in his speech. Hums from the audience are also sympathetic and quite touching really. Many more of this audience would have known British sea songs from singing them at school or Navy friends than would be the case now. Singing Land of Hope and Glory springs spontaneously out from Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 and singing along with Rule Britannia concludes the Fantasia, again with a reprise and some heroic beating of the timpani which does effectively maintain ensemble. Parry’s Jerusalem is given a good hearty rendition.
Norman Del Mar’s speech shows he has a real warmth and rapport with the audience. He also does an impression of Henry Wood speaking and reads out a telegram received from Lady Jessie Wood, Sir Henry’s widow, thanking the Promenaders for their flowers. They give him at least three cheers and sing a round of “For he’s a jolly good fellow” before finally the orchestra and choir perform Elgar’s version of the National Anthem, which makes the journey without bombast from hymn to celebration and pride.
This is just forty-five years ago, a short span in the history of music, but I can remember playing this tape without irony to my friends at Nottingham University in that, my second year, but now it is entirely another world.
As Cormac Rigby signed off on Saturday 20th September 1975, “Well there is no more to be said. We’ve come to the end of the eighty-first season of the Henry Wood Promenade concerts. So all that remains for me to do is to bid you a very good night from the Royal Albert Hall and to hope that you’ll be joining us again at the beginning of the eighty-second season of Henry Wood Promenade concerts, next summer. Until then, good night”.
A number of recordings of various Last Nights have been issued commercially but if they don’t include the introduction and descriptions by the Radio 3 presenter they are conveying only part of the Last Night atmosphere.
Sat 20 Sep 1975
Prom 57 - Last Night of the Proms 1975
Royal Albert Hall
William Walton: Overture ‘Portsmouth Point’
Frederick Delius: Eventyr (Once Upon a Time)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Five Tudor Portraits
Edward Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No 1 in D major, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’
Lord Berners: The Triumph of Neptune (excepts)
Henry Wood: Fantasia on British Sea-Songs
Hubert Parry: Jerusalem
National Anthem (arr. Edward Elgar)
Thomas Hemsley (baritone)
Anne Howells (mezzo-soprano)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
conductor Norman Del Mar
Introductions for BBC Radio 3: Cormac Rigby