How do you write a TV theme for the BBC Proms?

Gramophone Fri 19th July 2019

An iconic festival, prime-time audience, and just 20 seconds to work with...it's not an everyday challenge, discovered composer Ian Arber

How do you write a TV theme tune for the BBC Proms? Composer Ian Arber explains...

How do you write a TV theme tune for the BBC Proms? Composer Ian Arber explains...

Composer Ian Arber was commissioned to write the theme tune for television coverage of this year's BBC Proms. He here explains how he approached the task...

How do you start composing a theme for such a diverse and high-profile festival as the BBC Proms?

Usually, with the high pressure and tight deadlines of the film and television world, I’d start at the piano in my studio and work directly onto the computer. But for this project I felt I needed to approach it from another angle. I decided to sketch my initial ideas with pencil and paper, away from the technologies and instruments in my studio. I don't often get the opportunity to write in this style for a symphony orchestra - which is a style I really enjoy - so it was an exciting challenge and exercise to approach it from the purity of my mind, pencil and paper.

What parameters were you given?

It had to be 20 seconds in length; in fact more like 18-19 seconds with a second or two reverb tail at the end. I knew we would record a full symphony orchestra at the end, so I could use any orchestration I saw fit; naturally I used the whole orchestra. There was certainly a sense of opportunity to do things a little differently this year, with a bespoke theme. In the past they used existing classical music for the opening titles theme. They really wanted me to tell a story within the 20 seconds, with two or three sections and a strong memorable motif or fanfare. The piece needed to feel celebratory, evoke a sense of majesty, pride and Britishness, but also digestible to the diverse audience of The Proms… Simple eh!

What role did the history of the Proms, and its significance to classical music, play when composing the theme?

The moment I accepted the job I was hit pretty hard with the realisation of the task in hand, but excited at the opportunity! I was a runner on the BBC Proms in 2010, straight out of university. It was my first post-degree job. A lot of the team who worked on it back then are working on it this year. I still feel part of the family and I’m in touch with a lot of people I worked with back then, many of whom have gone on to do great things. So I’m no stranger to the size and significance of the proms. 

When I worked behind the scenes, everyone had an opinion on the year's theme and we used to discuss which year had the best. It was always an exciting moment before going live on a televised Prom, hearing the theme ring out around the Royal Albert Hall during rehearsals and at the beginning of the live show. So to have written an opening titles theme myself nine years later is pretty surreal. I’m proud of what we did, writing and recording it all within a few weeks. 

Now it’s time to wait and see what people think. I’m very proud to have made my small mark in the history of the greatest classical music event in the world.

Tell me about some of the specific challenges of composing a television theme, as opposed to, say, a stand-alone concert piece, or an extended film score?

I think the biggest challenge for a television theme is the time constraint. With a film score or concert piece you can build and develop themes, and have them evolve over several minutes. To have to launch in with a memorable theme, tell a story while evoking several emotions all within 20 seconds is a real challenge. My original sketches of the final theme were closer to a minute in length. I needed time to develop and evolve the melody and harmony. I then had to extract and shorten my ideas whilst keeping them melodically and harmonically sound. 

It was recorded by the BBC Concert Orchestra - what was it like writing for them?

It was incredible. It’s not every day I get the opportunity to have a 60+ piece orchestra play my music - let alone with the BBC Concert Orchestra, which is one of the best orchestras in London. We also recorded in such a legendary venue, BBC Maida Vale Studios. Knowing I had the BBC Concert Orchestra performing the piece meant that I didn’t need to hold back in the writing one bit - I made sure I used every single instrument available to make the most of the opportunity. And to top it all off, I was lucky enough to have the brilliant Eímear Noone conduct.

You can hear Ian Arber's theme when the First Night of the Proms is broadcast tonight, Friday July 19, at 7.30pm on BBC. There are 23 further concerts broadcast on television throughout the season - for more details, visit the BBC Proms website


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