Philip Barker

The traditional summer Promenade Concerts are set to begin tonight at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

They are set to run until mid September, when the Last Night of the Proms, brings the season to a close.

It was 75 years ago when the principal conductor was Sir Malcolm Sargent.

In the same year he became the first man to conduct the Proms, as they are known by everyone,l and also take the baton for Olympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Sir Malcolm spent his formative years in Stamford, coincidentally the home of 1948 Olympic Organising Committee Chairman and International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Lord Burghley.

The London Games were the first to be held in 12 years, because the Second World War had made normal sport impossible.

The last Games had been in Berlin, where an Olympic hymn by Richard Strauss was sung at the Opening Ceremony in front of  Adolf Hitler.

"The Committee decides that the music of the Olympic hymn composed by Herr Richard Strauss shall be adopted as the official hymn,"  IOC minutes recorded after the Games.

After the Second World War, the IOC made plans for the Olympics to resume, but after six years of war, there were many who were uneasy about adopting anything associated with what became known as the "Nazi Olympics,"

The choice of music to be used at London 1948 was therefore politically charged.

It was suggested that an established British composer might be commissioned to write a new hymn.

"There were however some practical difficulties," London 1948 officials explained.

"Should a new work be written it would require to be printed, orchestrated and of course rehearsed, also time was short."

Non Nobis Domine by English composer Roger Quilter, a setting of words by Rudyard Kipling, was proposed for use at the 1948 Olympics at a meeting in December 1946.

It had been written for the 1934 Pageant of Parliament where Sir Malcolm was the conductor.

"For years at almost all country festivals, it has been the custom to end with Parry's Jerusalem and in many cases, people are asking for a change, but l have found no suitable alternative. I found it last night," Sir Malcolm wrote.

"It was agreed that the Organising Secretary would play the hymn to the next Executive Committee meeting," minutes from a London 1948 meeting recorded.

When it was played, it was greeted very positively and officials resolved to contact IOC President Sigfrid Edstrom for approval.

"Dr Sargent had seen Mr Roger Quilter who would agree to the necessary arrangement of the hymn being made," the minutes added.

A London 1948 news bulletin later revealed, "Both words and music when heard by the Committee made a deep impression and it was agreed, with the approval of Mr Kipling’s family and Mr Quilter to adopt the work." 

The collections of Sir Malcolm's correspondence reveal that he was also consulted by Captain Albert Lemoine from the band of the Life Guards who sent him some arrangements for fanfares to be used in the Ceremony.

"I note that you would prefer that 12 trumpeters in state dress play the fanfares on natural trumpets at the Olympic Games next July," Lemoine wrote.

"I enclose herewith the first trumpet copy of various fanfares, these are arranged in four parts, perhaps you would let me know which you consider would be most suitable for the occasion."

It had been decided that the other major piece to be performed would be the Hallelujah Chorus by George Frideric Handel, a German-British Baroque composer.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who had revived the Olympics had died in 1937, but this decision would have pleased him.

He had lamented the lack of a choral performance at the 1908 Olympics held in London.

It was agreed that the choirs for the London 1948 Opening Ceremony should drawn from seven choral societies.

Recruitment was no easy task because the Games were at the height of the holiday season, when many choristers were likely to be absent.

Before the Opening Ceremony, Olympic Organising Secretary, Colonel Temple Percy Molesworth Bevan sent a letter containing instructions to choir members.

They were asked to bring their own copies of the Messiah and Quilter's setting of the Olympic Hymn, though some copies of the score would be available in emergencies.

Choristers chosen to sing at the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Olympics in London were asked to bring their own copies of the score for Non Nobis Domine to Wembley ©Boosey and Hawkes
Choristers chosen to sing at the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Olympics in London were asked to bring their own copies of the score for Non Nobis Domine to Wembley ©Boosey and Hawkes

"You are asked to make your own way to Wembley Stadium and to be in your seat by 1.45 pm," the letter from Bevan requested.

“The traditional dress for Olympic choirs has been white for the laters and open necked white shirts with grey flannel trousers for the gentlemen but the vagaries of the English climate hardly justify any insistence on this,

"My Committee feel that this question should be left to your discretion but they hope that you may find it possible to conform to this request."

The choirs were to be accompanied by the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards conducted by George Willcocks of the Irish Guards.

"The massed bands of the Brigade of Guards will be in scarlet tunic and bearskin order," Bevan told the choirs.

Concerns about inclement weather proved unnecessary because there were scorching temperatures on the day.

For his part, Sir Malcolm had to decide on what he described as his "fancy dress," the gown he would wear to conduct from a number of Universities with which he was associated.

He chose the cream silk black and purple robes of Durham University.

Sir Malcolm's biographer Richard Aldous suggested, "The Olympic Opening was quite trying for Sargent, he was confronted by a choir that could not hear itself sing and a band whose instruments had gone out of tune in the hot sun."

In fact, a cue by an old fashioned wind up field telephone was needed to start the performance.

"I remember that during the Opening Ceremony there was suddenly a pregnant pause,” boy scout Roy Churchman, who carried a team name placard at the Opening Ceremony, told the Bridport News.

"An official went to the back of the dais next to me and pulled out an army telephone. 

"Then I heard him tell Sir Malcolm Sargent, conducting the massed bands and choirs, that he had missed his cue."

Sir Malcolm later described the experience "like taking a jellyfish for a walk on an elastic lead."

The Ceremony order sheet had specified that the Olympic Hymn should be played one minute after the Flame had been ignited.

At the 1948 Olympics, there was no sporting competition on Sundays, but Sir Malcolm took up his baton for a special concert at the Royal Albert Hall "By arrangement with the reception committee of the XIV Olympiad."

This was broadcast by BBC Radio.

It featured a performance of the overture of Le Carnaval Romain by Berlioz, music by Tchaikovsky, a Mozart violin concerto, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas, Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera and appropriately Sir Edward Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, a piece to evoke London.

During the interval, a talk on "Sport and Athletics" was given by Scott Goddard, a music critic of the Morning Post.

There was also another performance of the Olympic Hymn.

In 1948, the Olympic Hymn was played one minute after the Olympic cauldron had been ignited by athlete John Mark ©Getty Images
In 1948, the Olympic Hymn was played one minute after the Olympic cauldron had been ignited by athlete John Mark ©Getty Images

"After the Olympic concert, I was able to make enquiries as to the hit or miss of the Olympic hymn and whether the balance was satisfactory or not," wrote Harry Willis, conductor of the Wembley Philharmonic which had been part of the massed choir.

"A message has reached me from Holland from people who actually heard this broadcast and they were delighted with the concert as well as this particular item, I want to assure you Sir Malcolm that the choir considered it a great honour to sing at the Albert Hall under your direction."

Sargent and the choirs returned to Wembley on Closing Ceremony night to perform the Olympic Hymn once more under a setting sun.

It was also used in the official film The Glory of Sport, released a few weeks after the Games.

The link between conducting at the Proms and the Olympics was revived in 2012 when Sir Simon Rattle conducted the London Symphony Orchestra as it played the main theme by Vangelis from the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire.

The performance famously featured Rowan Atkinson in his role as "Mr Bean".

Sir Simon is set to make his final home performance as musical director of the Orchestra in August at the Proms.

The Royal Albert Hall is set to host another Olympic themed concert on May 4 next year, to commemorate 100 years since Eric Liddell won gold in the 400 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics in a race which served as the inspiration for Chariots of Fire.

The event is billed as "a whirlwind of musical energy, celebrating an Olympic year and worthy of this giant of sport and faith."