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Flash Harry honoured at Proms season

This year’s Proms season paid handsome tribute to a conductor who, in his era, could claim to have made the famous summer concert season his own: Sir Malcolm Sargent – often referred to as “Flash Harry” (because of his immaculate white-tie-and-tails, slicked-back hair, white-carnation-in-buttonhole appearance).

At a Prom on July 25, one of today’s music knights – Sir Andrew Davis – conducted Sargent’s old orchestra, the BBC Symphony, in music by Berlioz, Schumann, Elgar, Walton, Holst, Delius and Britten, with Proms founder Sir Henry Wood’s arrangement of the National Anthem (his ‘Version A, for very large forces’). In fact, this was the exact sequence which Sir Malcolm programmed at the opening of the 1966 Proms – astonishingly, the maestro’s 500th Prom.

Sadly, one thing was out of place: despite great efforts to acquire a white carnation, Sir Andrew Davis could not find one anywhere in London (as Radio 3 put it) “for love nor money”. Honestly: what is happening in this country? Nevertheless, the concert succeeded in re-creating the more traditional programme of music for which Sargent was famous, although it is not always correct to say that the famed conductor played safe with the old symphonic war-horses, or indeed British composers. He performed Shostakovich, Sibelius, Britten and the Swiss composer, Honegger, and greatly expanded the horizons of the Proms – embracing the large-scale works that are made for a place such as the Royal Albert Hall.

But the archives and many anecdotes tell us that he was not always on the best of terms with BBC officialdom; and did not care a great deal for the avant-garde, atonalist music which was in vogue at the Corporation’s music department during the 1960s – a style which continues to find favour today. Instead, Sargent was in his element at the occasion through which many non-classical-music people gain their understanding of the Proms: the Last Night.

It was Sargent who “enthroned” Parry’s Jerusalem on that famous evening in the musical calendar, and he made an arrangement – with solo singer and large chorus – of Rule, Britannia! (a song which originally came from an 18th-century English opera about King Alfred). By the 1967 season, the conductor was extremely ill, but managed to make a surprise appearance at that year’s Last Night – despite his doctor’s advice that he should remain in his sick-room. The mass-ovation he received spoke volumes about his deep relationship with the Prommers, but also highlighted how the elder-statesman/Flash Harry image had converted him into a figure recognised by most people in Britain.
At the concert, Sir Andrew Davis noted how his illustrious predecessor had “opened the musical magic box for millions of people” – something that was perhaps easier to achieve in the days when there was effectively one television channel and (dare I say) a much more undiluted Reithian attitude at the BBC.
Sir Malcolm Sargent will always remain in the hearts of British music-lovers, a figure from a different era and a reminder of style, formality and unabashed traditionalism. As those 1950s and ‘60s Prommers put it in one of their Last Night banners: Carry On, Sargent!

Stuart Millson