This year’s Proms season features cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, pictured at the 2017 Proms with the majority BAME Chineke! orchestra © Mark Allan

The “Fantasy Proms” — that is how it has officially been dubbed, though nobody would have conjured up this fantasy if they did not have to. 

When it became obvious that nothing like the usual BBC Proms jamboree — which runs each year at London’s Royal Albert Hall from July to September — could possibly happen, an alternative schedule was put together. There was an advantage, perhaps, in being the last of the major summer music festivals to announce plans. Instead of having to cancel some or all of its programme, the BBC Proms simply held off until the mist caused by the coronavirus pandemic started to clear.

In essence, this summer’s Proms season falls into two halves. The first, and longer, part consists of six weeks of archive recordings on television and radio sourced from the past 30 years, much like the online offerings being put out by other international festivals. On television, BBC Four will show Proms on Sundays. BBC Radio 3 will broadcast its usual daily relays (audiences outside the UK can access the radio broadcasts on the BBC Sounds website).

Then, for the final two weeks starting August 28, live music will return to the Royal Albert Hall (by which time the organisers presumably expect that orchestras will be able to play without punitive social distancing restrictions). These 14 live Proms will feature mostly British musicians, including pianist Stephen Hough, violinists Nicola Benedetti and Alina Ibragimova, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and the BBC’s own orchestras.

A double nod for Beethoven

Beethoven, whose 250th anniversary is celebrated at this year’s Proms © Shutterstock

In normal times we would have expected that the BBC Proms would trumpet this year’s composer anniversaries. One stands out in 2020, the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, and that duly gets a double nod of attention even in this stripped-down programme.

In May, fearing the worst for its original plans, the BBC Proms commissioned a new Beethoven-related work for online performance. The new piece brings together as many of the BBC’s ensembles as possible, 350 musicians in all for this debut appearance by the so-called BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra. The premiere will kick off the first night of the Proms on BBC Radio 3. Two days later it will be repeated together with an accompanying film on BBC Four.

Composer Iain Farrington has devised an ‘arrangement’ of Beethoven’s nine symphonies

The composer, Iain Farrington, has devised an “arrangement” of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, which will gallop through the entire canon in a breathtaking six minutes. He has described it as “taking Beethoven’s music and putting it in a musical washing machine to see which colours run”, a very quotable line which he says he now half-regrets.

“It is a fast spin cycle,” says Farrington, inadvertently picking up the same metaphor again. “The music presents a collection of fragments from the nine symphonies, adding up to a broader and personal tribute on my part. All the essential Beethoven characteristics are there, the heroism, defiance, conflict, optimism and resolution, plus wit, as there is a lot of humour in the symphonies. It should be a proper birthday bonanza.”

Farrington runs a sideline in producing reductions of well-known orchestral works for smaller forces, which is standing him in good stead at the moment. He says many orchestras have been seeking out smaller-scale versions of popular works for socially distanced concerts, where they can only have 15 or 20 musicians on the stage. Among the works he has arranged are Mahler’s First and Fourth Symphonies, Brahms’s Second, and Debussy’s La Mer. “It is a short-term solution,” says Farrington, “but it means we are keeping music alive.”

That versatility will also have been useful in re-imagining the Beethoven symphonies. “The music explores how Beethoven may have influenced other genres in the 20th century, like folk, jazz and disco,” he says. “There are musicians who work in all these genres in the BBC orchestras, including a folk band within the BBC Philharmonic. Given the danger of overload, the piece could have been a big old mess, so I was always focused on clarity in the writing. I have also worked closely with the mixing and editing team.”

While Farrington is sweeping up Beethoven in a musical whirlwind, the Proms’ other Beethoven commission is looking deep into his mind. One of the topics that has attracted attention in this anniversary year is new research into Beethoven’s deafness and how much he might really have heard of his music in later life.

Richard Ayres, composer of an entertainingly quirky run of works, each identified by a number, is suffering from a decline in his hearing himself. It was an inspired idea to invite him to write a new piece for the anniversary and working on it has clearly been an opportunity to search within his own personal experience as well as that of Beethoven.

“I think the BBC did ask me because they had heard of my hearing problem,” says Ayres. “I have been losing my hearing gradually. Eventually it will all go, but for the time being I am just enjoying composing. Composition itself is OK, because it comes from the inside, and I manage to get my ideas down on paper. But I do have problems hearing my music at rehearsals and I like to have somebody there with me to hear the details.”

Ayres’s new work consists of three short pieces. The first recreates how a melody might have sounded to Beethoven, distorted and overlaid by tinnitus. The second is a miniature piano concerto, exploring the psychological issues connected to deafness, as if in dreams and nightmares. The third juxtaposes short pieces of music alongside pre-made recordings of what Beethoven might have heard, using Ayres’s own reduced hearing as a reference.

“I have been interested in Beethoven for some time,” he says. “I noticed certain changes in his music as his deafness became more pronounced, for instance in the last movement of the Symphony No.2, which is so different from what goes before, angrier and more violent. At that point I think we feel what he is suffering.”

It is difficult to name any other composer who could offer the same insight. “It is very much my personal view of Beethoven and his deafness,” says Ayres. “How did he compensate for it? How much did it contribute to his social problems and isolation? I find I can’t join in at meetings or parties. It has been inspiring for me to seek out the psychology behind how Beethoven’s deafness changed him and his music.”

It is not yet known whether audiences will be able to attend the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall © Alamy

Ayres’s new work — he says it will be number 52 — will be given its premiere by the Aurora Orchestra in the final two weeks of live concerts. The BBC Proms have not yet ventured a decision on whether it will be possible to have an audience in the Royal Albert Hall. The next few weeks will be wait and see. Fingers crossed.

The BBC Proms starts on BBC Radio 3 on July 17, with live concerts in the Royal Albert Hall from August 28, bbc.co.uk/proms

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