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Culture at a time of crisis

  • Published at 06:03 pm September 14th, 2019
Photo: Reuters

Flags and fanfare can’t hide the divisions in Brexit Britain

Love it or loathe it, there’s no question that Last Night of the Proms operates as an elaborate piece of British cultural theatre, on multiple levels. 

On the one hand, it’s a rare and exceptionally important opportunity to subvert the sobriety of the classical music establishment. 

On the other hand, it temporarily legitimizes the ecstatic expression of national pride in ways that are profoundly at odds with today’s political climate in the UK.

For a genre where even polite clapping between movements would normally be considered sacrilegious, this level of audience involvement is striking. It’s for this reason that the Last Night of the Proms is often understood by those who actively engage with it as representing the “inclusive” face of classical music.

But musical performance doesn’t happen in a cultural or political vacuum -- even where the intended effect is “escapism” from the realities of the outside world. For escapism to work there needs to be a collective recognition of what it is that we’re escaping from.

When Britannia ruled

In Last Night we see a once relatively benign relic that now resonates uncomfortably with contemporary Britain. While the event appears true to the Proms’ late-19th-century motives of taking classical music to the masses, it also carries the hallmarks of something that took shape against a backdrop of growing -- and state-sanctioned -- nationalism. Its conception intersected with the “first British folk revival” at the turn of the 20th century, during which traditional songs and tunes were being collected from the rural peripheries by educated middle-class scholars and enthusiasts. 

The aim was to restore the cultural roots of the nation by pressing these rescued antiquities into service as inspiration for a newly patriotic generation and a distinctively British orchestral tradition. This context is most obvious in Henry Wood’s centrepiece for the Last Night, the Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Growing concerns were developing around the need to articulate and celebrate national identity -- and both the folk revival and the Proms were responses to that same impulse.

The implications of Brexit -- alongside slow-burn discontent around immigration and globalization -- have meant that debates about the presence, absence, meanings, and significance of national identity are returning to a fever pitch.

If we are to portray (as many less supportive onlookers do) the event to be an object lesson in flag-waving, escapist expressions of national identity, we could also reflect on the fact that this is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Most cultures around the world have events serving roughly equivalent functions (although normally commemorating historical events, such as Independence Day and Thanksgiving celebrations in the US, or focusing on local vernacular traditions, as in national folk festivals and competitions). 

While nationalism is undoubtedly a potentially divisive and dangerous force within any society, celebrations of national identity deserve balanced consideration. It could be argued, of course, that the nationalist aspects are overstated: Jamie Barton, the headlining mezzo-soprano, is American and the event will be presided over by Finnish conductor Sakari Orama. Meanwhile, as in recent years, the programmers have made bold attempts to ensure that the program for this concert -- as with the rest of the eight-week Proms festival -- is reflective of a progressively diverse nation. 

A country in crisis

But, since this festival of national identity falls at the peak of a national political crisis, the significance of diversity, and the way it’s handled will be especially open to interpretation. Specifically, when it is placed alongside raucous renditions of Rule Britannia, representations of cultural diversity may be seen as either valuable checks to balance the potential for jingoistic and exclusive nationalism, or as a troublingly anachronistic effort by a white English elite to legitimize the overt nationalism elsewhere in the program by bestowing imperial patronage upon “other” composers, artists, and audiences.

In light of the internal political turmoil, Kidane’s public commentaries on his opening number, Woke, seem intriguingly close to the bone, since the piece references an “Afro-American word that was coined to reflect an awareness of social inequalities.” 

I’ll be watching with interest to see how many EU flags are being waved -- they have been a notable presence in Last Night performances since 2016, but their presence is likely to be even more powerful an image as Britain moves closer to Brexit.  I’ll also be interested to see how the event is covered and understood by those outside the country. For all the nominal diversity of repertoire and musicians, the timing and context of this Last Night may mean that it certainly risks being perceived by the world as a provocative performance of isolationist nationalism. Recognizing and mitigating that risk -- in this year, and in years to come -- will represent a significant challenge for all involved. 

Simon Keegan-Phipps is a Lecturer in Ethnomusicology, University of Sheffield. A version of this article previously appeared on The Conversation UK and has been reprinted by special arrangement.

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