Henry Wood (conductor)

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History Post 1900; Performers and composers

Sir Henry Wood Kt CH ( 3 March 1869 – 19 August 1944) was an English conductor, forever associated with the Promenade Concerts which he conducted for half a century. Founded in 1895, they became known after his death as the “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts” (now the “ BBC Proms”). It is impossible to overestimate the influence he had on musical life in Britain: he improved access immensely, and also raised the standard of orchestral playing and nurtured the taste of the public, introducing them to a vast repertoire of music, encouraging especially compositions by British composers. He was knighted in 1911.

Early life and career

Henry Joseph Wood was born on 3 March 1869 in London. His father was a qualified optician, but had become well-known as a craftsman and model maker, running a highly successful model engine shop in Oxford Street. Both parents were keen amateur musicians: his father sang in church choirs and played the cello and his mother sang songs from her native Wales.

At the age of fourteen, Henry learned to play the organ at the 'Musicians' Church' St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the largest parish church in the City of London, where his ashes now are .

He also learned the piano and violin, but it was not until he entered the Royal Academy of Music at the age of sixteen that he received methodical tuition. During his two years at the RAM he took classes in piano, organ, composition and singing. His teachers included Ebenezer Prout (composition) and Manuel Garcia (singing). His ambition at the time was to become a teacher of singing (and he gave singing lessons throughout his life), and so he attended classes of as many singing teachers as he could, both as pupil and as accompanist.

On leaving the Royal Academy of Music he found work as a singing teacher and as an orchestral and choral conductor. He gained experience by working for several opera companies, many of them obscure. He conducted the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1891, and the following year the English premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the newly rebuilt Olympic Theatre. He collaborated with Arthur Sullivan on preparation of The Yeomen of the Guard and Ivanhoe. Meanwhile he was deriving a steady income from his singing tuition, and he published a manual The Gentle Art of Singing.

Promenade Concerts

In 1893, Robert Newman, manager of the Queen's Hall, proposed holding a series of promenade concerts with Wood as conductor. The term promenade concert normally referred to concerts in London parks where the audience could walk about as they listened (French se promener = to walk). Newman’s aim was to educate the musical taste of the public who were not used to listening to serious classical music unless it was presented in small doses with plenty of other popular items in between. Wood shared Newman’s ideals. Dr George Cathcart, a wealthy ear, nose and throat specialist, offered to sponsor the project on condition that Wood took charge of every concert. He also insisted that the pitch of the instruments, which in England was nearly a semitone higher than that used on the continent, should be brought down to diapason normal (A=435Hz). On the 10 August 1895 the first of the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts took place. The singer Agnes Nicholls, who was in the audience, recalls:

Just before 8 o’clock I saw Henry Wood take up his position behind the curtain at the end of the platform – watch in hand. Punctually, on the stroke of eight, he walked quickly to the rostrum, buttonhole and all, and began the National Anthem...... A few moments for the audience to settle down, then the Rienzi Overture, and the first concert of the new Promenades had begun.

It is particularly significant that he should have chosen an overture by Wagner to open the first programme. Prejudice against British musicians was very strong. Nineteenth century England had been labelled by the Germans Das Land ohne Musik(“The Land without Music”) and not without a certain amount of justification. Henry Wood was to alter all that. In particular, it was thought that no British conductor would be capable of conducting Wagner. Wood was to prove otherwise. In fact, for many years the programming of the promenade concerts followed a particular pattern according to the day of the week, with Monday nights being Wagner nights and Friday being dedicated to Beethoven. Wood also bravely introduced British audiences to many noteworthy European composers, especially Sibelius and composers of the Russian school. In 1912 he conducted Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces (“Stick to it, gentlemen” he urged the orchestra at rehearsal, “This is nothing to what you’ll have to play in 25 years’ time”).

Wood remained in sole charge of the Proms (with one or two exceptions) until 1941 when he shared the conducting with Basil Cameron and, in the following season, with Sir Adrian Boult as well. During Wood’s time the Proms were a central feature of British musical life and he gained the nickname of "Timber" from the Promenaders. He brought about many innovations. He fought continuously for improved pay for musicians, and introduced women into the orchestra in 1911. In 1904, after a rehearsal in which he was faced with a sea of entirely unfamiliar faces in his own orchestra, he at one stroke abolished the deputy system in which players had been free to send in a deputy whenever they wished. Forty players resigned en bloc and formed their own orchestra: the London Symphony Orchestra.

Other musical activities

Wood's fame lies mainly with the promenade concerts, but he was active in many areas of musical life. He conducted many concerts in London and the provinces, and appeared regularly at choral festivals in Norwich and Sheffield. He conducted many amateur groups, and was very generous with the time he gave to the students’ orchestra at the RAM. He was meticulous and thorough in his preparation, and built up a large library of scores which were carefully marked up in coloured pencil. His famous medley Fantasia on British Sea Songs, prepared for the 1905 centenary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar, is now an indispensable item at the Last Night of the Proms.

His orchestrations of other composers' works drew frequent criticisms, so when in 1929 he made an orchestral transcription of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor, he presented it as a piece by a Russian composer called Paul Klenovsky. It was a great success. Only several years later did he confess to the little joke.

In 1938 he presented a jubilee concert in the Royal Albert Hall. Rachmaninov was the soloist, and Vaughan Williams wrote his Serenade to Music for orchestra and sixteen soloists. He tended to overwork himself, and the strain began to tell in his later years.

Wood died on 19 August 1944, just over a week after the fiftieth anniversary concert of the Proms, which he had been too ill even to listen to on the radio. A number of honours were bestowed on him: knighted by the king in 1911, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1921 and was made a Companion of Honour in 1944. He is remembered today in the name of the Henry Wood Hall, the deconsecrated Holy Trinity Church in Southwark, which was converted to a rehearsal and recording venue in 1975. His bust stands upstage centre in the Royal Albert Hall during the whole of each Prom season, and is decorated by a chaplet on the Last Night of the Proms.


In Arthur Jacobs’ 1994 biography Henry Wood, the list of premières conducted by Wood extends to eighteen pages.

World premières included:

  • Benjamin Britten: Piano Concerto
  • Frederick Delius: A Song Before Sunrise; A Song of Summer; and the Idyll.
  • Edward Elgar: The Wand of Youth Suite No 1; Sospiri and the fourth and fifth Pomp and Circumstance Marches
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No 1
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Norfolk Rhapsody No 1; Flos Campi; Serenade to Music

Wood’s UK premières included:

  • Béla Bartók: Dance Suite
  • Emmanuel Chabrier: Joyeuse Marche
  • Aaron Copland: Billy the Kid (ballet)
  • Claude Debussy: L’apres-midi d’un faune; Ibéria
  • César Franck: Le Chausseur Maudit
  • Reynaldo Hahn: Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este
  • Paul Hindemith: Kammermusik 2 and 5
  • Leos Janáček: Sinfonietta; Taras Bulba; Glagolitic Mass
  • Zoltán Kodály: Dances from Galanta
  • Gustav Mahler: Symphonies 1, 4, 7 and 8; Das Lied von der Erde
  • Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No 1; Violin Concerto No 2
  • Maurice Ravel: Ma Mère l'Oye; Rapsodie espagnole; La Valse; Piano Concerto in D
  • Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Capriccio Espagnole; Scheherazade; Symphony No 2
  • Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals
  • Robert Schumann: Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra
  • Dmitry Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No 1; Symphonies 7 and 8
  • Jean Sibelius: Symphonies 1, 6, and 7; Violin Concerto; Karelia Suite; Tapiola
  • Richard Strauss: Symphonia Domestica
  • Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (suite)
  • Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin; Manfred; The Nutcracker (suite)
  • Anton Webern: Passacaglia

Theory that he was of gipsy stock

It has been claimed that Wood came from a family of British Gypsies (Romanichel).

says he "belonged to a traditional Romanichel family"

disputes the Romany theory

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