“Last Night” Was Last Night

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Where would you go to see the flags of China and Tibet being waved peacefully and cheerfully next to each other? BBC’s Last Night of the Proms is not only a classical music highlight and the quintessence of Britishness, it is also a world festival of flags. 

The BBC Proms, the annual eight-week summer series of classical concerts in London and around the UK, has been described as the world’s largest music festival. Conductor Sir Henry Wood founded the so-called Promenade Concerts in 1895. Today, the Proms still draw large audiences and the season’s final concert, the especially festive and traditional Last Night of the Proms, is broadcast around the world.

Last Night of the Proms is held in Royal Albert Hall in London, usually on the second Saturday in September. It is notoriously difficult to get tickets for the concerts. In addition to the seated and standing audience in Royal Albert Hall, thousands of classical music fans attend the Proms in the Park Last Night concerts held in London’s Hyde Park and in other cities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The second half of the concert’s programme is dominated by British patriotic music by Britten, Elgar, Parry, Vaughn Williams and Wood. No Last Night concert without the classics: God Save the Queen, Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory and Auld Lang Syne. Every year the audience can be expected to sing along in a strangely mixed atmosphere of solemnity and raucousness.

Some of the world’s best conductors, singers and musicians are invited to join the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers for the Last Night. Yesterday, the concert’s biggest name was Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. The hugely popular Rule, Britannia! was sung by Flórez dressed as a 13th Century Inca king.

The Last Night with all its traditions and show of British patriotism is surprisingly popular among non-Brits. The concert draws a huge television and radio audience in countries around the world. The festive and well-dressed so-called Prommers in Royal Albert Hall also come from all over the world.

Every year in a veritable sea of Union Flags there will be a wide range of other flags from all over the British Isles, from Europe and the rest of the world. Any flag enthusiast will be hard pressed to recognize all of the more rarely seen English county flags, German city flags or flags of British crown dependencies and overseas territories.

In 2016, following the “Brexit” referendum, the EU flag seemed to be especially popular in the audience. Notwithstanding the British decision to leave the European Union, it is remarkable that this ultra-British event is so popular among former enemies of the United Kingdom. As always, during Rule, Britannia! at the end of the concert, German flags as well as Chinese, Japanese and American flags were waved just as enthusiastically as the British.

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