Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music uses Shakespeare’s words to describe: “The man that hath no music in himself… his affections dark as Erebus… Let no such man be trusted...” It concludes with a statement of intent and confidence in music and the light it brings to the human soul.
Too right. That’s our calling card as we gather together again tonight for six weeks of Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. A joyous celebration, open to audiences hungry for music and performed by musicians hungry to play for them.
The virus, like the Erebus man, has been an enemy of music, driving musicians and their audiences to new kinds of despair — both personal and professional. So from tonight until 11th September, the world’s greatest and most ambitious classical music festival will shine out like a beacon of hope across the nations and around the globe from London, the world’s musical capital.
Throughout the pandemic, London’s stages were silenced. Opportunities for musicians to play have been cruelly curtailed and their audiences denied that electric communication the sharing of live music can bring.
Yes, there are recordings of great performances but nothing is more immediate and life-enhancing than hearing a performer summon up music from their instruments or voices. Nothing is quite like sharing the sound with others — a communion that is at once spiritual and physical at the same time.
I will always remember in June last year when, after an absence of months, we at Radio 3 worked with our colleagues at Wigmore Hall to stage and broadcast a month of concerts featuring world-class, London-based musicians. Those concerts were not only a reflection of the richness of the capital’s music scene but also created a palpable sense of relief, joy and optimism for music lovers everywhere.
When Stephen Hough played the first notes of Bach in that series, the world — online and through the medium of radio — held its breath and could barely believe music was being made. Artists such as Sean Shibe, Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Padmore were about to revel in the knowledge that their music was finally freed from the Covid prison.
On radio and TV we felt it our duty to keep musicians playing and being heard. We brought to air new works by composers for single instruments, played by members of the BBC Orchestra as daily home sessions on our drivetime programme and as many live performances as we could create.
And then we had two weeks of Proms. There was no audience in the Royal Albert Hall but TV and radio broadcasts reached out to audiences round the world. The BBC’s director-general, Tim Davie, asked a conductor in rehearsal what it was like to be in the Albert Hall. “Well,” he said, “this is the first time we’ve played together since March. This matters a lot.”
And we noticed new things. Social distancing on stage is hard for the musicians — they have to recalibrate how they hear and respond to each other — but as an audience we hear new textures in familiar pieces.
We also started hearing orchestras in new ways — as a coming together of individuals, with their huge talents more highlighted and accented than before. That clear illustration of orchestras as communities of musicians is something that I hope will remain.
As we recover, we must ensure that we continue to support freelance musicians. They are the lifeblood of music in this country and have been hardest hit by the pandemic. I am proud of the newly announced first ever Proms Festival Orchestra, made up exclusively of freelancers, performing an evening of Shostakovich and Mahler.
We must take our hats off to organisations who have been creative and brilliant in making music happen, such as Bold Tendencies in Peckham whose car park venue counts as open air and were able to put on a series of concerts of astonishingly broad repertoire, lapped up by eager audiences.
So here we are with 44 days of live music ahead. A celebration of British ensembles and international talent in front of a rapt audience beamed from London to the world. Proof that we are a land with music. An achievement against all the odds. An affirmation of bright Phoebus and renunciation of the dark night of Erebus.
Alan Davey is controller of BBC Radio 3. The BBC Proms 2021 are at the Royal Albert Hall from today until September 11 and are broadcast on BBC TV, BBC Radio 3, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds