Rise and fall of the most socially famous conductor

Today we have a new pretender to the title of 'Face of the Proms'. But fifty years ago the Proms had a very different 'face' and the story of his rise and fall still has considerable relevance. Between 1947 and 1966 Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted no less than 508 Promenade Concerts* and from 1950 to 1957 was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It was Sargent who first alerted the BBC to the TV ratings potential of the Proms with his theatrical Last Nights as seen above, and his heavyweight TV exposure made Sargent - nicknamed 'Flash Harry' - the first classical music household name in the UK. In an age where success is measured in social media impact it is significant that Nicholas Kenyon - who was director of the BBC Proms from to 1996 to 2007 - describes Sargent during his Proms tenure as "the most socially famous conductor in the country".

But despite his popularity Sargent fell from grace with the BBC. His autocratic manner was disliked by both musicians and programme planners, and his attitude towards contemporary music was disparaging - he famously introduced his broadcast performance of Benjamin Frankel's Violin Concerto with the words "Although it is contemporary music, it is a work of appealing intensity". Sargent's conservative and autocratic manner finally caused his downfall. But the handling of his exit in 1957 from the position of chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra showed the growing power of the broadcast media over classical music: despite his obvious failings Sargent continued, and I quote the BBC statement, as "Conductor-in-Chief of the Promenade Concerts, and Chief Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in sound and television at other times of the year".

Sargent's popularity with radio and TV audiences and his unpopularity within the musical establishment are both well documented. But there is another reason why he should be remembered. He replaced Sir Adrian Boult as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1950 when Boult was forcibly "retired" at the ripe old age of 60. The terms of Sargent's contract as chief conductor were radically different from his predecessor's, and became a template both for future agreements and for future working relationships between conductors and orchestras such as the BBC Symphony. The biggest innovation in Sargent's contract was that the BBC guaranteed him maximum public exposure but left him considerable freedom to guest conduct. The contract failed to stipulate the exact amount of time he would spend with the BBC orchestra, but instead simply said he would conduct "as many rehearsals and performances as possible". This conveniently flexible arrangement not only contributed to under-rehearsed concerts - an internal BBC report tells of Sargent conducting "as shocking a performance of the Brahms First Symphony as I have ever heard" - but was also a precursor to the later leaderless years that, hopefully, Sakari Oramo's appointment as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra will bring to an end.

The considerable strengths of Sir Malcolm Sergant must not be overlooked. Although he was disliked by many rank and file musicians he was revered by choral singers and his performances of large choral works were outstanding. But there are many important lessons to be learnt from "the most socially famous conductor in the country". These include the dangers of too much contractual freedom, the need for a balance between contemporary and mainstream repertoire, the fragile nature of the crucial conductor/orchestra relationship, and the impermanence of celebrity. But the most important lesson from the rise and fall of the first 'Face of the Proms' is that, ultimately, it is the music, not the TV ratings, that matters.

* Please don't tell current Proms director Roger Wright, but there were Winter Proms in the 1940s and 50s.

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Philip Amos said…
Bob, may I just clarify one phrase in your superb post. You say that Boult was "forcibly retired". Many readers may not know that this merely means that he had reached the then-manadatory age of retirement at the BBC.

That Sargent replaced him has a touch of black humour about it. Sargent set out as a concert pianist and it was Boult who, after conducting for him in a performance of the Rachmaninov second concerto, suggested he become a conductor. Whether that had anything to do with the Rach performance, I don't know.

I suspect the root of Sargent's downfall lies essentially in his snobbery -- a shockingly vain man. In that regard, he was more concerned with being "socially famous" than musically famous, and even back then, the media helped him. It is said that Jascha Heifetz berated Sargent until he was in tears for not having studied a Walton work he was to premiere, and it wasn't even the violin concerto.

If Boult had not had to retire, we would surely have many more of his performances on record in the BBC Legends series. And if Sargent had worked the he should have, we may have had a bigger legacy of worthy recordings from him. His Ma Vlast with the VPO is certainly a worthy performance and there might have been many more, other than the choral legacy. Beecham called Karajan "...a sort of musical Malcolm Sargent", a deadly comment.

We have our Sargents and worse today. But there is a difference. I can't help feeling that Sargent, in his compulsion to be part of the social establishment, put himself outside of the music establishment. Boult, Barbirolli, Beecham, et al., held one another in high regard, though Barbirolli loathed Beechan for going to the States during the War, just as Barbirolli was returning from his time with the NYPO. Orchestras really loathed Sargent because during the 1930s, when Beecham was setting the first pension scheme for orchestral musicians, Sargent declared that they did not have the right to a job for life. That is true, but he chose a bloody awful time to say so. So Sargent was henceforth some thing of an outsider, but happy as long as he was feted abroad and met lots of royalty.

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