Proms come to close following Rule, Britannia! row

It saw a pared-down version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra play to an empty Royal Albert Hall, in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions.It saw a pared-down version of the BBC Symphony Orchestra play to an empty Royal Albert Hall, in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions.

After a very public row, the patriotic songs Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory were sung by a small choir.

The BBC was criticised for plans to omit the lyrics last month.

Critics said the words evoked a British colonial, imperialist past that is at odds with the values of modern Britain and the Black Lives Matter movement.

The BBC insisted its original decision had been driven less by politics than by the limitations imposed on musicians, and choirs in particular, during the pandemic.

But after a backlash in the press, and an intervention by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, it reinstated the lyrics, saying socially-distanced members of the BBC Singers would perform in the Royal Albert Hall's otherwise empty stalls.

The 2020 Proms season was drastically curtailed by the coronavirus epidemic, with the usual six-week season cut down to a fortnight of live shows, performed without an audience.

The programme was simplified in other ways, too - mostly featuring smaller works, with UK-based soloists and orchestras.

A reduced orchestra of 65 instead of the usual 300 performed live at the Royal Albert Hall - with the singers stood in the stalls to ensure social distancing.

However, there were some successful attempts to make the best of the situation.

On the opening weekend, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra positioned their brass players in boxes around the Albert Hall, answering and colliding with each other as they played Giovanni Gabrieli's brass Canzons.

After the possible omission, and then the indecision, followed by the controversy, and the accusations of wetness - Britannia finally did rule the airwaves.

And so tradition prevailed over those who thought the words too imperialistic for this day and age.

But it wasn't quite business as usual at this year's Last Night: it was a Prom without promenaders, with a pared down, socially distanced BBC Symphony Orchestra led by the Finnish conductor Dalia Stasevska, and barely a flag or a hat in sight.

The Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti - a late replacement for a poorly soloist - played Vaughn Williams's romantic pastoral favourite, The Lark Ascending

The talking point of the night is likely to be composer Errollyn Wallen's radical re-working of Hubert Parry's Prom favourite Jerusalem, to which she introduced dissonance and blues references - a tribute, she said, to the Windrush generation of migrants who came to Britain.

It was sung, brilliantly, by the South African soprano Golda Schultz.

It has been a very strange year; the Pandemic Proms quite different without a live audience, particularly this evening's Last Night in which even Edward Elgar's Land of Hope and Glory seemed subdued.

Folk singer Laura Marling also made her Proms debut, playing an intimate set of songs accompanied by an un-conducted string orchestra the 12 Ensemble.

And the Aurora Orchestra played Beethoven's 7th Symphony from memory while standing (as has become their trademark) drawing praise and admiration on social media.

Their performance was paired with a new work by Richard Ayres who, like Beethoven, has suffered from hearing loss for the last 20 years.

In three separate pieces - subtitled "dreaming, hearing loss and saying goodbye" - the players evoked the experience of degraded hearing, with string lines infiltrated by the high-pitched whine of tinnitus, and musical motifs blurring and breaking down.

The Last Night opened with Mozart's perennially popular The Marriage Of Figaro, and featured South-African soprano Golda Schultz singing Sondheim's The Glamorous Life, and a new arrangement of Jerusalem, by composer Errollyn Wallen.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti was a last-minute replacement for Lisa Batiashvili, who pulled out due to illness, playing Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending.

In a pre-recorded video segment, the conductor, Dalia Stasevska, said: "During these challenging times, we musicians have been longing so much to be able to play together again and to play live.

"Being able to play together again during these last two weeks has felt like drinking water after a long thirst."

The BBC said next year's Proms would see Rule, Britannia! and Land Of Hope And Glory sung in full, replicating a tradition that dates back at least to the 1950s.

Rule, Britannia! was set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740, and its lyrics were based on a poem by James Thomson.

It contains verses such as:

Land Of Hope And Glory makes similar reference to the "might" of the former British Empire, which some people today find problematic.

Speaking in August, Chi-chi Nwanoku, the founder of Chineke!, an orchestra that has performed at the Proms and whose musicians are majority black, Asian and ethnically diverse, said Rule, Britannia! was "offensive".

She added that any black person "aware of their history, the empire and colonialism" would "struggle to enjoy the patriotic jingoism of these songs".

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