1934 – a night at the Proms

The year of 1934 is not just the last year England triumphed over Australia at Lords before our recent victory, but also the year that saw the passing of three of the UK’s greatest composers – Elgar, Delius and Holst. In remembering the 75th anniversary of their deaths, Saturday’s Prom at the Royal Albert Hall included works from all three. It was broadcast live on TV but we had the immense pleasure of enjoying it live.

The programme opened with Elgar’s Cockaigne – a musical portrait of London that was instantly recognisable as Elgar’s work.

Delius’s Song of the High Hills was completely new to me and was absolutely stunning. The piece took you from the foothills to the summit of a mountain and back down again making use of both orchestra and choir. At times ethereal, the heights and vistas were painted beautifully and delivered exquisitely by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and conducter, Sir Charles Mackerras.

After the interval we were treated to Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite, appropriate in the programme also because of the proximity of the 40th anniversary of the moon landings. I was struck by the thought that when this was written in 1914 there was very little connection between man and space, save for those who studied the heavens through telescopes, yet my own life has always had the possibility and background of space, such is the passage of history. Not surprising then that the programme notes described Holst as being influenced in his work by the astrology of the planets rather than the science.

The opening, Mars, the Bringer of War, is familiar to all but its power was not lessened by familiarity. Written just prior to the First World War it is often described as graphically illustrating mechanised warfare before the world had experienced it or the term was invented, with its strident beat and pulsating brass phrases.

The rest of the seven planets (Earth is not included and Pluto had not been discovered at its time of writing) preceded with equal beauty to another ethereal climax as the ghostly off stage voices in Neptune, the Mystic quietly faded to silence. A breathtaking evening.

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