The chief-conductor of the Proms Sir Malcolm Sargent epitomised the classical music festival from 1947 until 1967. He took part in an astonishing 514 concerts, and shaped the BBC Proms as we know them today.

Taking the baton

In 1921, then unheard of composer/conductor Malcolm Sargent made his auspicious Proms debut at the age of 26, when he was selected by the great founder-conductor of the festival Henry Wood to take to the stage, guest-conducting his own composition An Impression on a Windy Day at that season’s Last Night of the Proms concert.

Although he was invited back with his compositions a handful of times, Wood encouraged him develop himself as a conductor. 26 years later, now one of the most sought-after conductors in the country and having received a knighthood for his services to music, Sargent became accepted as conductor-in-chief of the 1947 Proms season, a role which he retained right up until his death in 1967.

Sir Malcolm Sargent arriving at the Royal Albert Hall

TV star

In 1947, during his first season as chief-conductor of the BBC Proms, Malcolm Sargent conducted the first ever televised concert in Britain!

The BBC Proms would not make it back onto television again until 1953, when Sargent dominated the broadcast of the First and Last Nights. Thanks, in part, to the debonair conductor’s engaging personality and unrivaled popularity with audiences, the Proms became a summer mainstay of the television schedule, watched by millions around the world.

The Last Night Of the Proms, as we know it

We have Sir Malcolm Sargent to thank for the sense of jollity and celebration which are synonymous with the Last Night of the Proms – the form and feeling of this iconic concert was almost entirely Sargent’s creation.

Before the concert was annual viewing on television in 1953, it was a comparatively sober affair. After 1953, Sargent encouraged the waving of bright flags and banners – turning the BBC Proms became a riot of colour and movement.

With TV in mind, and keen to present a musically as well as visually thrilling evening, he implemented a deliberate sequence to the concert, focusing on British music and encouraging celebration.

Listen to extracts from the Last Night of the Proms 1957, including Sir Malcolm Sargent’s speech

The familiar rousing sequence of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, Wood’s Sea-Songs, Arne’s Rule, Britannia! and Parry’s Jerusalem, was again Sargent’s idea, and has been a much anticipated finale to the Last Night since Sargent introduced it in 1954.

Sargent’s final speech

Malcolm Sargent was conductor-in-chief of the Proms for twenty years, from 1947 until 1967, the year in which he fell too ill to conduct.

In this year, the Last Night concert was conducted by Sir Colin Davis, but Sir Malcolm Sargent still made it onto the podium to make what would be his final Last Night speech, and was met by a huge round of applause. He died seventeen days later on 3 October 1967.

Sir Malcolm Sargent
Sir Malcolm Sargent conducting the Last Night of the Proms during the 1960s