I think this is the nineteenth year of our summer concert: the “Battle Proms”. It is a wonderful mixture of all the things that draw us together, from listening, singing, gasping, exclaiming and smiling looking up at the fireworks, talking to friends in between the music as well, of course, as eating. Come what may with the weather, it is one large picnic, often quite ornate, with chairs and tables and sometimes with tablecloths as well. Most years we have been lucky and in the one rainy year we continued with fewer people but with stalwart British humour, sheltering under umbrellas.
The “music”, if you like, takes different themes throughout the evening. To my mind, the first “song” is when all 10,000 of us, gathered across the Park grasslands in front of the Castle, turn to listen for the note of the engine of the Spitfire. Around 7.30pm we are all quietly scanning the skies to the north until, with a collective excited gasp, we hear the Merlin engine and then see the outline, before it suddenly swoops in front of us around the Castle.
First built in 1936 in Southampton, the Spitfire was one of the most aerodynamically efficient planes of its time and, unusually, had retractable landing gear. The result of years of development and experience, its design created both speed and manoeuvrability. An estimate suggests, however, that there are just 30 spitfires still able to fly in the UK and its rarity makes it an even more compelling sight and sound.
Whilst the Spitfire flies in the air, the orchestra begins to play. There is something deeply emotional about music. We play it when most troubled, we sing when sharing celebration or grief, it connects us to each other, to nature and, when words fail, the lyricism of music usually finds a way. It lifts us up, creates happy moods and forms such strong memories that I only have to hear a few bars of Ave Maria to be cast down to the memorial service for my father long ago or, more happily, to memories of my mother singing a descant in a tiny Norman church in Cornwall. I nudge my sisters (some of whom have lovely voices like our mother)to sing today in her memory!
This Highclere evening is not about demonstrating a new piece of music, or showcasing a new performer. I have always thought it is actually about the audience – all of us – and about playing what so many of us love. Supporting us is the New English Concert Orchestra, and, encouraged by the singers and conductor, Dennis Coombes, everyone joins in and takes part. As the evening light falls, the music accompanies the cannons and the fireworks so that it ends in spirals of colour and lights.
This year we do, in fact, have one further weekend involving music in a month’s time. It is smaller scale and, whilst August is about picnics and relaxing, September is about dressing up, still full of enjoyment I hope, and involves Castle tours as well as jazz music, bands and 1920s dancing. I hope many guests will take to the stage! The arrival story even involves music of a type in that guests are welcomed by music of the barrel organ of the Carousel. We are all looking forward to going round clockwise in circles and riding horses with perfect behaviour! Apparently in North America and mainland Europe they go counter-clockwise …
Songs of summer are precious and transient. I look forward to the Battle Proms and then it is past. (Date for your diary for 2020: Saturday August 1st)
We all trying to seize the moment, which is seems often like the happiness of a bubble on a stream, not something you can hold except in your memory. Perhaps the whisper of the grass, the bustling life of insects, lasts longer. And music? Beethoven commented that “music can change the world”.