On Sunday evening crowds lined up around the entrances to the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London. It was another night of BBC Proms: an eight-week summer season of classical concerts with a mission to present the widest range of music, performed to the highest standards, to large audiences. All performances are broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and each season presents newly commissioned pieces alongside major works of classical music. Thousands of Londoners and visitors buy tickets for the performances, and the tradition of ‘Promming’ is strong. Over 1,000 standing places are available for each performance, most of them in the circular arena in the center of the Hall just in front of the stage (a bit like Shakespeare’s Globe). Tickets cost just £6. But on Sunday there was a pull beyond the music, venue, and experience. Prom 21 would open with the European premiere of A European Requiem by Scottish composer Sir James McMillan and end with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, including, of course, Ode to Joy, the official European anthem. In anticipation, the crowd outside was spotted with European Union flags.
Just over a year ago, the city of London was shocked by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. In the tumultuous thirteen months since, Europeans who feel part of London and Londoners who feel part of Europe have been on a roller coaster of disbelief, disgust, denial, hope and just getting on with it. But the symbolism of Prom 21 called for a few hours of wallowing and reveling in a musical interpretation of Europe, in all its conflicts and joys.
A European Requiem first premiered in Oregon, USA on July 2, just weeks after Brexit, but it was written long before Brexit campaigning began. However, the piece is deeply resonant and deeply political. It is a modern piece by a Scottish composer illustrating a multilingual entity, and yet MacMillan set the text in Latin. This choice was intentional. Latin was the common language before national barriers were erected. MacMillan said, “[Latin] was the lingua franca used by the European Founding Fathers, whether in Roman times or in the Church, and provided a source of common identity for a millennium and a half.”
A European Requiem is not a celebration or a lament. It is varied, complicated and contradictory. Sometimes jarring, sometimes soothing, both angrily discordant and harmonious. The Requiem is in one single movement. It opens, fittingly, with a loud march and what writer Paul Conway describes as a “savage parody” of Beethoven’s Ninth, a foreshadow of unrest. There is plenty, sometimes excessive, dissonance as clashing voice parts, performed by choirs and soloists, battle against one another. The music mimics shouting and discord; but it also comes together in sections of unity, both loud and soft. There are echoes of militarism and melancholy that cycle around each other, and the dissonant voices become harmonious. The ending is quiet. The music slowly extinguished, not with a bang or with a whimper, ambiguously.
As Beethoven’s Ninth filled the hall, an audience that seemed at times unsteady during the Requiem settled in to the familiar symphony. By the lyrical third movement the atmosphere felt at once calm and apprehensive, perhaps for the shock of the Finale. The Ode to Joy theme grew and grew with orchestra, choirs and soloists, and a few European Union flags waved in the arena as the Finale movement unfolded. Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder later tweeted “Thanks @bbcproms Beethoven’s 9th, much needed tonight. To European Union, we won’t be ‘sternly divided’! (And a few flags too!) @EUflagmafia”