The Proms are among the oldest yearly performances of classical music in the UK, culminating with the Last Night, a concert leaning towards popular numbers. An unwavering feature of this part are the British national anthem and other patriotic songs.
But this year the patriotic mood of the Last Night of the Proms may be significantly toned down with songs like Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory and Auld Lang Syne possibly dropped, the Times on Sunday has reported.
Part of the reasoning is that coronavirus restrictions significantly limit the size of the orchestra and chorus singers that will be able to safely gather at the Royal Albert Hall, the newspaper explained.
“Rule Britannia is usually performed by about 80 members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a chorus of more than 100 singers,” it said. But due to Covid-19 “the orchestra is expected to be at about half of its normal strength, with only about 18 singers able to perform. There will be no audience to sing along.”
But there is also a feeling among some of the organizers that songs from the glory days of the British Empire would be inappropriate in a year when Black Lives Matter protests are rocking nations on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, Dalia Stasevska, the principal guest-conductor from Finland, is reportedly a strong supporter of the BLM cause, who is “keen to modernise the evening’s repertoire”.
The news was met with dismay and anger by conservative-leaning parts of Britain. Tory MP Susan Hall called it a “ridiculous” bow to political correctness. Fellow politician David Davies says the BBC as an organization “claiming to support diversity” can certainly find room for the time-tested British favorites.
Voices from further to the right sounded distinctively angry. Martin Daubney of the Brexit party said the broadcaster was clearly out of touch with its mandatory fee-paying customers. His party leader Nigel Farage, suggested dropping “too woke” Stasevska instead of the songs she doesn’t like.
Even milder-worded comments said that such a controversial step, which according to the Times is motivated by fear of a backlash over “perceived association with colonialism and slavery” of the imperial songs, would be highly divisive.
While initially erupting in the US in May, "Black Lives Matter" protests found numerous supporters in the UK. While it didn’t escalate into mass rioting like in American cities, the British wave saw its share of vandalism targeting statues of historical figures that activists believed to be problematic. Effigies of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and King Robert the Bruce of Scotland were among them.