The BBC Proms have long been the the highlight of the classical music calendar, with over 70 concerts in the series being held every year at the Royal Albert Hall, as well as additional chamber concerts in the nearby Cadogan Hall.

However, despite the Proms now being synonymous with the Royal Albert Hall, it was in fact the Queen’s Hall (pictured below) on Langham Place where the world’s greatest classical music festival began in 1895.

The concept

Promenade concerts, which allow audiences to stand or stroll around whilst listening to the music, had been taking place outdoors in London’s parks for over a century, but in 1895 impresario Robert Newman and conductor Henry Wood presented the first ever series of indoor promenade concerts.

Sir Henry Wood conducts at the Queen's Hall, 1922
Sir Henry Wood conducts at the Queen’s Hall, 1922

Newman’s plan was to encourage new audiences to come and enjoy classical music by offering lower ticket prices and a more informal atmosphere:

‘I am going to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.’
Robert Newman

ENT specialist Dr George Cathcart gave Newman’s idea the financial backing on the condition that Henry Wood be employed as the sole conductor for the series.

With this support, the Proms, or the Mr Robert Newman’s Promenade Concerts, as they were officially named, were born.

The first ‘First Night’

In preparation for the inaugural series, Wood formed the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, who would be responsible for performing all of the 49 concerts in the season.

A generous programme of up to three hours of music was on offer every night at a cost of one shilling for a single ticket, with the more committed music lovers paying a guinea for a season ticket.

First Night of the Proms advert)

So on 10 August 1895, just one year after Newman first expressed his desire to put on the series, an audience of 2,500 people gathered at the spectacular Queen’s Hall on Langham Place to witness the first ever ‘First Night of the Proms’.

Opening with the National Anthem, the programme for the inaugural Prom featured popular works by the likes of Saint-Saëns, Haydn and Liszt, as well as London premieres of works by Chopin and Bizet.

In contrast to other classical concerts at the time, eating, drinking and smoking were permitted within the Hall, although patrons were asked to refrain from striking matches during vocal pieces.

Aftermath

Despite the huge success of the Proms, Newman was declared bankrupt in 1902. Fortunately, banker and arts lover Edgar Speyer was able to step in to underwrite them.

The Proms remained a hugely popular annual feature at the Queen’s Hall until the building was hit by an incendiary bomb on 10 May 1941 during the London Blitz. The venue was completely destroyed and that summer’s season switched to the Royal Albert Hall, which has remained the home of the Proms ever since.

Henry Wood)
The bust of Henry Wood looks out at the audience at the BBC Radio 1 Ibiza Prom.
Photo: Andy Paradise, 2015

Today, hundreds of thousands of people each year make the trip to the Hall to attend the promenade concerts, and whilst the programme may now encompass more contemporary genres as well as exclusively classical music, the Proms have remained loyal to their founding principles of providing an affordable and accessible way to experience live music for over 120 years.