To readers outside the UK, and no doubt to many at home too, the BBC Proms will feel like an anachronistic, typically haughty British institution, right up there with the State Opening of Parliament and Beefeaters. And the popular image of this two-month festival of classical music largely rides on selectively patched together glimpses of the daft fancy-dress patriotism of the Last Night of the Proms. But otherwise the Proms isn’t about flag-waving and praising old buttock-face at the Palace. Lavishly subsidised by the BBC, anybody can pay their five pounds, stand in the arena, and experience a broader spectrum of music – Bach to Bruckner to Stockhausen – than you’re ever likely to hear during a classical concert season anywhere else. Ah, the egalitarian power of public subsidy! But then they go and spoil it all by singing something stupid during the Last Night.
Populist trimmings aside, the Proms remains a serious-listening music festival that, via an accident of history, has come to exist in a mainstream cultural context which can make for unwittingly amusing television as primetime presenters are contractually obliged to throw questions they clearly don’t fully understand at classical musicians. A couple of years ago, I was genuinely taken aback when one news programme decided, out of everything they might have discussed, to make a short film about the lorries that transport the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s instruments to the Royal Albert Hall. And let’s not forget Sue Cook’s (from UK TV show Crimewatch) fabled interview with Michael Finnissy before the 1988 premiere of his orchestral work Red Earth.
I couldn’t have been happier to see Helmut Lachenmann’s 1980 Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied for string quartet and orchestra programmed at this year’s Proms, performed by the Arditti Quartet and Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott. For those of us needing an antidote to the insularity of mainstream British contemporary music, the struggle to find acceptance for Lachenmann has become a totem cause; so at last the barbarians had reached the Gates of Rome. Lachenmann's continued exclusion from The Proms, and with him a whole school of Central European music, had become unsustainable and a bit embarrassing, like a film festival that carelessly, or cynically, would refuse to acknowledge Werner Herzog. Where Alan Partridge stooge (Sue Cook is revealed as Partridge’s ideal woman) meets New Complexity, and coy joshing replaces informed analysis (after the concert current Proms presenter Katie Derham tweeted: “Whatever you think of the Lachenmann, these Bamberg Symphony musicians [are] unbelievably skilled. Never knew you could do that with a bow…”), Lachenmann’s politically aware journey towards the centre of sound would surely press the point that so much other New Music sounds like mere constipated patterning.
Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied’s opening gesture – a desolate, pinched, staccato snap emanating from the general direction of the string quartet – would be disarming under any circumstances, but surrounded by Proms-branded banners, and with the normally reassuring bust of Proms founder Sir Henry Wood staring down from a vantage point near the organ loft, this felt like an invasion as pure and deadly as if Seymour Wright were opening for David Sanborn at Ronnie Scott's.
Last year, for one night only, a cast of free improvisors including Rhodri Davies, Steve Beresford, Keith Rowe, John Butcher and John Tilbury packed the Royal Albert Hall stage in centenary tribute to John Cage. The season before, the Proms hosted the UK premiere of Cornelius Cardew’s orchestral work Bun No 1, a realisation of pages from Treatise that sounded at times unmistakably like written-out AMM. Elements of Wire-world had already seeped into The Proms. But Lachenmann’s 36 minute rubble-and-dust soundscape, traditional forms crumbling, the reside scooped up and used to trace new sonic structures, felt like the boldest gambit of all. The Cage and Cardew concerts were ring-fenced 'experimental' music specials; but Lachenmann ate into the entire first half of a main evening concert, placed before Mahler’s guaranteed-to-please Fifth Symphony.
And I stood in the arena, waiting for the insurrection to take hold. Next to Lachenmann’s blast of sonic truth, Proms regulars would at last realise that all those Mark-Anthony Turnage, Colin Matthews and Thomas Adès commissions have nothing to say about the world. How could they not? Irony left hanging: Mahler’s symphony opens with a funeral march that disintegrates as quickly as he assembles it – which is pretty much the modus operandi of Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied. But, with the applause starting, I turned to see a Mexican wave of indifference spread across the hall, like Lachenmann had ruined the evening for whole coach parties of Classic FM listeners bussed in from the Home Counties. Others cheered, but the realisation hit home just how deeply alienated classical music culture is from music that, from this side of the fence, feels like a way of life.