One Proms tradition rarely acknowledged is sour, nitpicking peevishness, which often reflects the nitpicker's hang-ups rather than what actually happens. So there were plenty of "big numbers" in this Prom to quiet those who think massiveness equals art. Women composers, modern composers, British composers, hundreds of choristers en masse, everything to satisfy the carpers. But did it work?
This Prom celebrates the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University, so it was a Prom of substance since Cambridge was a cradle of 19th century British music which Charles Villiers Stanford dominated by sheer force of personality. Like Nadia Boulanger, he was an autocrat who taught well but perhaps stifled creative spirits who didn't toe the line.
Significantly, Elgar and Delius didn't go to Cambridge, so he certainly wasn't the guiding force behind top-rank British music. If Stanford "changed the course of British music" as has been suggested, it wasn't necessarily for the best. Strange that this Prom didn't feature Hubert Parry, stomped on by Stanford but less up himself than Stanford, and loved by many. Still, British music owes Stanford. It would be interesting to hear a programme of Stanford students (who included the much underestimated Rebecca Clarke) but it might be as dull as boiled mutton and tweed in high summer, if not chosen well.
Ralph Vaughan Williams was politely circumspect about Stanford, but only really found his own voice when he went briefly to France. As did Gustav Holst. So perhaps we should be celebrating Ravel? The Wasps isn't mature RVW but already you can hear the composer moving away from Victorian values. Ryan Wigglesworth makes much of rampant borrowings in his Genesis of Secrecy, so perhaps the idea is to puzzle listeners into looking for hidden clues. Maybe that's why it sounds familiar even though it's the first of this year's Proms commissions. I'd prefer something more distinctive, but this will please those who don't normally like new music.
All the more to celebrate RVW's Five Mystical Songs. The moment Simon Keenlyside starts "Rise up, heart, they Lord is risen", it feels like RVW is into that "unknown region" which makes a composer individual. RVW links to English music traditions long before the Victorian age, and finds inspiration for the new. Sixteen Cambridge College choirs, and the mighty Royal Albert Hall organ behind Keenlyside: this was truly impressive. And to think of that Antiphon, with its glorious cries "Let all the world in ever'y corner sing, My Lord and King" pouring out of radios and PCs to every corner of the globe. This was a true Proms moment, even for those who don't believe in the same Lord or in any lord at all.
Stanford's Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis then had its Proms premiere, 130 years after it was written. Perhaps wisely, as this piece really needs garguantuan forces to make it work. It's basically plainchant but inflated to grandiose proportions, worlds away from the spirit of early music. Fortunately, the choirs of Clare, Gonville and Caius, and Trinity have the polish to carry it off with style but it's not a work to hear otherwise. But better this than other Stanford, because it fits better with the rest of the Prom and the idea of elaborate religious display.
Another Prom premiere, next, Jonathan Harvey's Come, Holy Ghost from 1984. Harvey was BBC "Composer of the Week", so I listened dutifully, but confess I don't get this composer no matter how I try. Growing up with the Catholic Mass and "world music" ought to make me sympathetic, but it seems to have the opposite effect. More involving was Judith Weir's Ascending into Heaven (1983), also a Proms First, with Thomas Trotter at the organ. But then I like Weir and her down-to-earth sense of humour.
Plenty of other Cambridge-connected composers might have fiilled this Prom (Ireland, Julian Anderson, Alexander Goehr, Hugh Wood etc) but it was just as well the finale was Camille Saint-Saëns's Organ Symphony. Saint-Saëns's Cambridge connection is nominal but this work stole the show. Last year, Myun-whun Ching conducted this at the Proms, with Olivier Latry. After an overwhelmingly powerful Messiaen Et exspecto resurrectionum mortuorum it was overshadowed. See description HERE. In this Prom, it overshadowed all that went before. When the Royal Albert Hall organ exploded into full glory, with Thomas Trotter at the helm, it was Saint-Saëns who stole the show.