Henry Wood’s father was a keen amateur musician, playing the cello and singing in the choir of St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn. His son Henry showed early musical talent: he was taught the organ and piano by E. M. Lott, the organist of St Sepulchre’s, and by the age of ten was serving as his deputy there. He gained public attention in 1883 when he played the organ at the Fisheries Exhibition, and later in 1885 at the International Inventions Exhibition. He entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1886 where he studied the organ with Steggall, piano with Macfarren and composition with Prout, and accompanied singers at lessons given by García.
Wood made his debut as a professional conductor in 1887, directing one of his own works with a local music society. During the earlier part of his career he pursued the twin paths of composer and conductor: between 1888 and 1896 he composed two symphonies, a dramatic oratorio, an operetta and a mass, as well as much else. At the same time he eagerly took whatever conducting opportunities came his way: he was engaged as musical director of Arthur Rouseby’s touring opera company in 1889, later moving to the Carl Rosa Company in a similar position, and assisted Sir Arthur Sullivan in the production of his opera Ivanhoe in 1891. The previous year Wood’s father had paid for him to travel across Europe to hear the best continental orchestras: this experience helped to fix in Wood’s mind a concept of orchestral excellence to which he was to devote the rest of his life. He went on to establish himself fully as conductor in 1892 when he led the first British performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and met the composer; thereafter he quickly gained recognition as an interpreter of Russian music.
The decisive event in Wood’s career took place in 1895 when the manager of the recently opened Queen’s Hall in London, Robert Newman, offered him the conductorship of a new series of summer promenade concerts and of the orchestra engaged to play at them. Modelling himself on Arthur Nikisch, and described by Sir Arnold Bax in 1896 as an ‘imposing black-bearded conductor, a physical giant’, Wood soon made a strong impression. So successful was he that, at the beginning of 1897, he also took over the direction of the Saturday afternoon concerts given at the Queen’s Hall. Both he and the Queen’s Hall Orchestra played before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle at the end of 1898, and the following year they were compared favourably to Lamoureux and his orchestra from Paris at the London Music Festival.
During the early years of the ‘Proms’, as the promenade concerts came to be universally known, Wood soon added more serious works to the traditional programmes of light music. Beethoven was presented on Monday nights and Wagner on Fridays, and in addition he conducted new works by then-contemporary composers such as Debussy, Mahler, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Sibelius, Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky, reflecting his life-long commitment to new music (at the end of his life he conducted the first British performances of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, in 1942, and No. 8, in 1944). Wood’s advocacy gradually built up a substantial audience; as he later recalled in an interview given in 1941, ‘As for Bach, Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms they are not as dry as dust names to be shuddered at these days. They’ve become friends now and well-loved friends to all sorts and kinds of people who never had heard of them until the Proms started.’
In addition to his pioneering work at the Proms, Wood achieved fame as the conductor of major triennial choral festivals given outside London, at Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield. Here also he introduced new works, for instance conducting Delius’s Sea Drift, which was dedicated to him, at Sheffield in 1908. So great was the impact that Wood had on British musical life that a correspondent from a German musical paper noted in 1902 that Elgar and Wood represented ‘a new epoch in English musical life’. He also occasionally conducted abroad; he appeared with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1904 and in 1911, the year in which he was knighted, was offered but declined the post of permanent conductor with this orchestra. In his attempts to improve standards of orchestral playing (for the Proms, only three rehearsals were provided for the six concerts presented each week), in 1904 Wood tried to ban the custom of players taking the most highly-paid work they could get and of sending substitutes to either rehearsal or performance. In revolt many of his orchestra at the Queen’s Hall left to form the London Symphony Orchestra. This problem, although to some extent contained by Wood, only began to die out with the formation of contracted orchestras such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1930.
During World War I, Wood continued to programme German music; but anti-German feeling caused control of the Proms to move from Sir Edward Speyer, a banker of German origin, to the music publishers, Chappell’s, who also supported other concerts given by Wood and the renamed New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. Wood began to make gramophone recordings from 1915 onwards for the Columbia label, with which he maintained a close relationship for the rest of his life, despite a dalliance with Decca during the 1930s. Following the internment of Karl Muck in America, Wood was offered the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1917, but once again declined an American appointment; he did however accept occasional guest engagements in Boston and at the Hollywood Bowl during the inter-war years. A measure of the international esteem in which he was held was his co-conductorship of the Zürich Music Festival in 1921 with Nikisch and Pierné. He agreed to conduct the Royal Academy of Music’s first orchestra in 1923, and rehearsed with it twice a week almost to the end of his life.
During the 1920s the musical landscape of England changed significantly: whereas before World War I, Wood had encountered little competition as England’s leading conductor, after it his position became less unassailable. Figures such as Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Adrian Boult became more prominent, both of whom from the early 1930s led the newly-formed London Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestras. These set new standards for orchestral performance which Wood was hard- pressed to emulate. His position had worsened in 1927 when Chappell’s gave up their support for the Proms and the year-round concerts given at the Queen’s Hall, and the orchestra which played at these, leaving Wood without an orchestra. The BBC took over the Proms, but for other work Wood was largely dependent upon his regional festivals, and later for guest engagements with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. These included the first performance in England of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, in 1930, and later significant partnerships with Bartók and Hindemith. Several live recordings of Wood conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in concert have survived.
The highlight of Wood’s last years included the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of his debut as a conductor in 1938, for which Vaughan Williams composed his Serenade to Music. Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the BBC temporarily ceased to support the Proms, but Wood kept these going with other backers during 1940 and 1941, despite the destruction of the Queen’s Hall by enemy bombs in May 1941, after which they moved to the Royal Albert Hall. The BBC took up the reins again in 1942. Throughout this period Wood was very active, conducting both in London and the regions in support of the war effort. During 1943 his health started to decline, but he was able to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday in 1944 with a concert in which all four London orchestras of the time took part. He conducted his last concert, which included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, in July 1944, and died shortly afterwards.
Wood’s greatest strength as a musician was his undoubted capacity for meticulous and thorough organization. With rehearsal time invariably short he carefully prepared parts beforehand, and often rehearsed over the music instead of stopping and starting. He would conduct with a long baton, so that his gestures were clearly visible to all. A graphic description of him in action on the podium in 1914 has been left by the writer W. N. Barbellion: ‘While the music is calm and serene his right hand and baton execute in concert with the left, perfect geometric curves around his head… Sir Henry snatches a second to throw back a lock of hair that has fallen limply across his forehead. His sword zigzags up and down the scale – suddenly the closed fist of his left hand shoots up straight and points to the zenith… it looks as tho’ it were all up for poor Sir Henry… he opens out both arms wide and baring his breast, dares them all to do their worst…’ While later conductors were often able to achieve more polished results, it was Wood who raised performance standards in England to an acceptable level and who exerted a huge influence upon public taste and knowledge of music in general.
The catalogue of acoustic recordings conducted by Wood was extensive, and consisted of short works and operatic extracts, as well as abbreviated versions of longer pieces, culminating in a three-disc version of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’, issued in 1923. He continued to record following the introduction of electrical recording in the mid-1920s, but the stimulus which this gave to the recording of orchestral music also saw the appearance on disc of other equally distinguished conductors. As a result of this competition, Columbia was reluctant to entrust Wood with major repertoire items, and so his position became less dominant, although he did lead notable readings of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 ‘Unfinished’ and Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 ‘Farewell’, as well as several very distinguished concerto recordings including Elgar’s Violin Concerto (with Albert Sammons) and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Franck’s Variations Symphoniques (both with Walter Gieseking).
In 1935 Wood moved from Columbia (which had merged with The Gramophone Company to form EMI in 1931) to Decca, who were prepared to promote him vigorously. For this label he continued to record popular short works, plus more substantial pieces, such as Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No. 2 ‘London’, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (an especially bracing reading) and, rarities for the period, Bruckner’s Overture in G minor and Dohnányi’s Symphonic Minutes. He returned in 1938 to Columbia, for whom he recorded Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music with the sixteen soloists of the first performance, as well as his own Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Wood’s readings of Elgar’s Violin Concerto and of the ‘London’ Symphony by Vaughan Williams are notable for their sense of passion and rapture, and represent him at his finest on disc.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).