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13th July - 8th September - BBC Proms


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Henry Wood (1869–1944)

Fantasia on British Sea-Songs (1905) with additional numbers arranged by Bob Chilcott* (2005)

This piece appears in Prom 72

  1. Bugle Calls (with responses from the Parks)
  2. a) Admiral's Salute –
    b) Action –
    c) General Assembly –
    d) Landing Party –
    e) Prepare to Ram –
    f) Quick, Double, Extend and Close –
  3. The Saucy Arethusa
  4. Tom Bowling –
  5. Hornpipe: Jack's the Lad
  6. Ar hyd y nôs (All through the night) *
  7. Skye Boat Song *
  8. Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) *
  9. Home, Sweet Home –
  10. See the conqu'ring hero comes –
  11. Rule, Britannia! (with choral parts arr. Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Chorus

It is often, and correctly, pointed out that the Last Night of the Proms bears little resemblance to the other 70-odd concerts which have preceded it during the season. What is less often mentioned is that, with its many short items and generally light tone, and its usual inclusion of at least one singer among the soloists, the Last Night does resemble the nightly Proms of the early years of the series, around the turn of the last century.
And the most remarkable throwback to earlier times – indeed to the pre-Prom era of the Monster Concerts of the showman-conductor Louis Jullien – is the almost ever-present Fantasia on British Sea-Songs by the Proms' founder-conductor Henry Wood. This is the sole survivor these days of the once-popular genre of the fantasy on national or operatic themes, a potpourri highlighting in turn different soloists and sections within the orchestra. Wood wrote his Fantasia for a special matinee Prom on 21 October 1905 celebrating the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, in which Admiral Nelson's fleet routed the French and Spanish navies but Nelson himself was killed. In his memoirs, My Life of Music, Wood wrote, 'I little dreamed when I arranged this item – merely to finish a programme for a special occasion – that the Promenade public would demand its repetition on the last night of the season for ever afterwards.' In fact, the piece took a little longer to establish itself than this implies: it was not heard at a Last Night concert until 1908, and became an annual fixture only in the 1920s. But, by the time Wood was writing in 1938, it was certainly an indispensable part of the Last Night; and since then it has been omitted only rarely, and never without complaint.
However, the content of the Fantasia has been somewhat more variable over the years than many listeners realise: for example, more often than not in the last half-century, Wood's closing version of 'Rule, Britannia!' for orchestra and organ (with audience participation) has been replaced by Malcolm Sargent's 1940 arrangement of Arne's song with soloist and chorus. And in this spirit of flexibility, new versions of the Fantasia have been made over the last few years, to make it more genuinely British rather than merely English, and, for television viewers, to link the Last Night in the Royal Albert Hall with the simultaneous Proms in the Park concerts taking place around the country. This year's performance includes three arrangements – new for 2005's Last Night – of Welsh, Scottish and Irish songs, made by Bob Chilcott, Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Singers and a prolific choral composer: these will be sung and played both in the Hall and in the Parks. And, as in the last few years, the Fantasia will end with Wood's own 'Rule, Britannia!', with additional choral parts supplied by Stephen Jackson.

Moreover, Wood's opening sequence of six authentic naval Bugle Calls, reinstated for the centenary performance in 2005, has been retained: they are played by various brass instuments and drums (with each except the last, echoed by players from one of the five orchestras out in the Parks).
The last bugle call leads into the nautical song 'The Saucy Arethusa' by William Shield (1748–1829) – allocated by Wood first to the euphonium, a tenor tuba more familiar in bands than orchestras, and then to the trombones. A solo cello comes to the fore in the touching 'Tom Bowling', written by Charles Dibdin (1745–1814) in memory of his own elder brother Tom, a sea-captain who died after his ship was struck by lightning. And then the mood changes abruptly with the traditional 'Jack's the Lad', better known as 'The Sailor's Hornpipe', which begins with solo violin and solo flute, and ends with the whole orchestra in a continuous crescendo and accelerando – setting up a race with the stamping Promenaders which Wood said he liked to win 'by two bars, if possible' (and if you can hear the orchestra through the racket, you will spot how he rigged the result in his favour).
The first of Bob Chilcott's arrangements is of the traditional Welsh melody 'Ar hyd y nôs', or 'All through the night', with a Welsh text by the 19thcentury poet John Ceiriog Hughes; the accompaniment naturally has a prominent part for harp. Scotland is represented by the suitably sea-borne 'Skye Boat Song', which dates only from 1884: the words, by Harold Boulton, are a lullaby for Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, as he and Flora MacDonald are rowed to the isle of Skye following his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746; the tune was adapted by Boulton's collaborator Annie MacLeod from a traditional Scottish rowing song – and Bob Chilcott's orchestration suggests the regular movement of oars through the water. The Irish song is the 'Londonderry Air', or 'Danny Boy', with words fitted by the Edwardian lyricist F. E. Weatherly to an old melody, here garlanded with little woodwind descants.
We return to Wood's original Fantasia with 'Home, Sweet Home', the famous ballad by Henry Bishop (1786–1855), scored for solo oboe accompanied only by the two harps. Trumpet and flute fanfares lead into the chorus 'See the conqu'ring hero comes' by George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), composed in 1747 for his oratorio Joshua, and later transferred into Judas Maccabaeus (written, incidentally, to celebrate the English victory at Culloden). Wood's colourful scoring is for horns and side-drum, three flutes, and then full orchestra.
And so finally to 'Rule, Britannia!', the famous song with chorus from the 1740 patriotic masque Alfred by Thomas Arne (1710–78) – in what the late Julian Budden described wonderfully as 'Wood's own Victorian, dark mahogany orchestration'. Wood might have been surprised to hear a choir singing the verse (in Stephen Jackson's arrangement) in tonight's version, but there is no doubt that he expected his audience to join in the repeated refrain. He wrote on his own score at this point 'Conductor turn to public'; and in his memoirs, describing the traditional Last Night, he wrote that 'when it comes to the singing of “Rule, Britannia!” we reach a climax that only Britons can reach, and I realise I can be nowhere in the world but in my native England'. But he did also point out a distortion of James Thomson's original text which had crept in even in his lifetime: so please respect Sir Henry's memory by singing, as an exhortation rather than an assertion, 'Britannia, rule the waves'.

Programme note © Anthony Burton.

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