The British Promenade series and the blitz

From their inception in 1895, London’s summer ‘Promenade’ concerts were a popular past time for the British people. Although a variety of organisations and individuals took turns running the series over the ensuing 50 years, it was conductor Sir Henry Wood who was the enduring presence, becoming the name most associated with the Proms. His 1939 season was well under way when on 1 September a concert of Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto was interrupted by the announcement of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, bringing the season to an early end. The BBC, who had been involved for the previous nine years, subsequently withdrew its support, and Wood continued the series through private sponsorship. Pianist Gerald Moore commented that ‘It was not to be expected that Sir Henry Wood would call off a Promenade season because of a mere war.’

The 1940 season opened amidst the Battle of Britain on Saturday 10 August with a concert combining British works by Elgar and Sullivan with composers from Axis countries such as Verdi, Liszt and Wagner. The separation of music from wartime politics continued in the ensuing concerts, with performances of repertoire by Wagner, and the continued tradition of Friday night Beethoven. There was also a special focus on British composers, many of whom are no longer well known today, including Hamilton Harty, Ethel Smyth, Granville Bantock and Joseph Holbrooke. The encouragement of new talent also extended to emerging composers from America and Russia.

Concert programmes generally avoided any reference to the war, serving as a distraction from the surrounding turmoil with a few pointed exceptions. The opening concert of the 1940 series included the score by Arthur Bliss for the film Things to Come (1936), which had predicted a horrific war involving air raids and gas attacks; a concert of 20 August 1940 contained Paul Hindemith’s work Neues vom Tag, which had caused a scandal in Germany and resulted in a press statement from Joseph Goebbels railing against the horror of modern composers. Performers at the Proms included prominent names such as Myra Hess, Phyllis Sellick, Lev Pouishnoff, Louis Kentner, Solomon, Eva Turner, Frank Titterton and Joan Hammond. Despite the initial hostility to European Jews shown by King George VI in the lead-up to the war, Jewish musicians were welcomed into the Prom series; the pianist Harriet Cohen, who campaigned to allow Jewish refugees legal passage to Britain, performed in a number of Proms concerts.

Notwithstanding the courage of musicians and audience in maintaining their interest in the Proms at such a time, the concerts were far from immune from the external influences of war. The first time a major bombing raid affected a Prom, half the audience remained in their seats rather than risk returning to their homes. In order to entertain them Henry Wood’s assistant Basil Cameron, pianist Gerald Moore, and some of the orchestra led a mini-concert consisting of solo pieces from both professionals and audience members and a rousing audience sing-along that continued for several hours until the ‘all-clear’ sounded. On 26 August 1940, following a concert of Wagner and Strauss, a large portion of the audience were trapped in the Queen’s Hall overnight by a bombing raid, so the orchestra performed Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro overture, conducted by a member of the violin section imitating the style of conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. Just a few weeks later, on 7 September, the 1940 season had to be abandoned due to the intensity of the bombing raids, and on 10 May 1941 a raid destroyed the Queen’s Hall. The Proms recommenced at the Albert Hall, where they are held today.

By Daisy Fancourt


Largely drawn from Bade, Patrick 'Musical Life in Britain' in Music Wars 1937-1945 (London, 2012)

Additional sources: Fry, Helen Music and Men: the life and loves of Harriet Cohen (Stroud, 2011)