August 17, 2012 9:42 pm

A legacy of lyricism

The Proms were never backward-looking and for that they are in the eternal debt of Henry Wood

The summer music festival season in Britain and the US has made me reflect on ways of making a cultural legacy last. There is more than one successful way. Some are based on particular and beloved places and buildings; others are more flexible; some rely entirely on private philanthropy; others are unthinkable without enlightened public subsidy.

The BBC Proms, now in its 118th season, is one of the great survivors and adjusters. Actually, I should have said the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts presented by the BBC, because although the broadcaster has been running the Proms since 1927, the first 32 seasons of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts (and the 1940-41 seasons) took place without BBC patronage.

The first patron of the Proms was a wealthy ear, nose and throat surgeon, Dr George Cathcart. And even the name Henry Wood Promenade Concerts is a bit misleading, because their real begetter was the impresario Robert Newman, who founded the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts in 1895.

As that name suggests, the Proms did not always take place in the Royal Albert Hall, which now seems so much their home, but started and continued in the Queen’s Hall, until that building was destroyed by a German bombing raid in May 1941.

So the Proms have changed patronage and building, but one thing has been wonderfully maintained while being developed and amplified: their spirit. Newman wanted the Proms to be a way of bringing classical music to the masses, without sacrificing quality; he wanted them to be “popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music”.

Note the word “modern”. The Proms were never stuffy and backward-looking, and for that they are in the eternal debt of Henry Wood. Wood’s record of bringing new music to the Proms is still astounding. He conducted a performance of Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces in 1912, to a hostile reception; not daunted, he conducted the piece again two years later.

The tradition of featuring new music at the Proms continues. This year Daniel Barenboim’s Boulez with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra got better notices than his Beethoven. Barenboim said that he could imagine no other national broadcaster and cultural organisation apart from the BBC televising a series of concerts featuring six major works by the austere French modernist. My impression was that packed Albert Hall audiences realised Boulez’s haunting delicacy and elaborate playfulness could actually be enjoyable.

The legacy of Ellen Battell Stoeckel, which sustains the Yale University summer music school and festival in Norfolk, Connecticut, is different but also potent. This is cultural patronage on the US model, involving private philanthropy rather than public subsidy. But you could hardly say the Battell legacy was not public-spirited.

Ellen Battell Stoeckel’s father and grandfather were successful New England businessmen who made fortunes out of insulating boat hulls and exploiting mineral deposits. They were also music-lovers and committed to their local community, especially her father Robbins Battell, an amateur composer who founded the Litchfield County Choral Society. After her first husband died young, Ellen married her father’s secretary Carl Stoeckel, whose own father Gustave was College Chapel organist and professor of music at Yale.

Ellen and Carl continued the family musical tradition and turned it into something of national significance. They built a magnificent concert hall, the Music Shed, out of California redwoods, and brought some of the world’s greatest musicians – Sibelius, Rachmaninov, Kreisler – to perform there. The physical legacy of the Shed – which has just launched an appeal for urgent restoration work, including reinstating a cupola for improved air circulation, quite necessary in steamy New England summers – and the Whitehouse, the lavish family home which has been preserved with all its original fittings, is extremely strong and evocative at Norfolk.

But Battell’s masterstroke was to leave a watertight will in which the family fortune was to be used for the running of a summer music school by Yale. The quality of the young musicians I heard rehearsing and playing at Norfolk was exceptional (one who shone was English flautist Jonathan Slade), as was their guidance from distinguished senior musicians such as the members of the Tokyo String Quartet.

The Battell-Stoeckels’ devotion to their home town is admirable, and has made Norfolk in a small way a place of pilgrimage. But, to make an unfair comparison, there is one way in which the Proms trump the Norfolk Festival, and that is in diversity of audience (Proms mixed, Norfolk mainly older and almost entirely white). Now here is a suggestion for how private and public might come together: could public money help reinstate the old railway line to Norfolk which made the place, in the early days, so much more accessible?

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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