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Henry Wood and his Fantasia on British Sea Songs


Henry Joseph Wood (March 3, 1869–August 19, 1944) was an English musician, conductor, and arranger, best known for his association with London’s annual series of promenade concerts, known as the Proms, conducting them for nearly half a century and introducing hundreds of new works to British audiences. Born on March 3, 1869, at London, England, in modest circumstances to parents who encouraged his musical talent, Wood was the only child of Henry Joseph Wood and his wife Martha, née Morris. His father had started in his family’s pawnbroking business, but by the time of his son’s birth was trading as a jeweller, optician, and engineering modeller, much sought-after for his model engines. It was a musical household: Wood senior was an amateur cellist and sang as principal tenor in the choir of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, known as “the musicians’ church.” His wife played the piano and sang songs from her native Wales. They encouraged their son’s interest in music, buying him a Broadwood piano, on which his mother gave him lessons. The young Wood also learned to play the violin and viola.

Wood started his career as an organist. He was deeply stirred by the playing of the resident organist St Sepulchre, George Cooper, who allowed him into the organ loft and gave him his first lessons on the instrument. Cooper died when Wood was seven, and the boy took further lessons from Cooper’s successor, Edwin M. Lott. At the age of ten, through the influence of one of his uncles, Wood made his first paid appearance as an organist at St Mary Aldermanbury. In June 1883, visiting the Fisheries Exhibition at South Kensington with his father, Wood was invited to play the organ in one of the galleries, making a good enough impression to be engaged to give recitals at the exhibition building over the next three months. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art. After taking private lessons from the musicologist Ebenezer Prout, Wood entered the Royal Academy of Music at the age of seventeen, studying harmony and composition with Prout, organ with Charles Steggall, and piano with Walter Macfarren.

It is not clear whether Wood was a member of the voice teacher Manuel Garcia’s singing class, but it is certain that he became its accompanist and was greatly influenced by Garcia. Wood also accompanied the opera class, taught by Garcia’s son Gustave. Wood’s ambition at the time was to become a teacher of singing, and he gave singing lessons throughout his life. He attended the classes of as many singing teachers as he could. On leaving the Royal Academy of Music in 1888, Wood taught singing privately and was soon very successful, attracting more singing pupils than he could comfortably deal with at half a guinea an hour. He also worked as a répétiteur for Richard D’Oyly Carte opera companies on the works of Arthur Sullivan and others. He was reportedly there during the rehearsals for the first production of The Yeomen of the Guard at the Savoy Theatre in 1888.

It is certain, however, that Wood was répétiteur at D’Oyly Carte’s Royal English Opera House for Sullivan’s grand opera Ivanhoe in late 1890 and early 1891, and for André Messager’s La Basoche in 1891–92. He also worked for D’Oyly Carte at the Savoy as assistant to François Cellier on The Nautch Girl in 1891. Wood remained devoted to Sullivan’s music and later insisted on programming his concert works when they were out of fashion in musical circles. During this period, he had several compositions of his own performed, including an oratorio, St. Dorothea (1889), a light opera, Daisy (1890), and a one-act comic opera, Returning the Compliment (1890). Wood’s first professional appearance as a conductor was at a choral concert in December 1887. His first sustained work as a conductor was his 1889 appointment as musical director of a small touring opera ensemble, the Arthur Rouseby English Touring Opera. After a brief return to teaching he secured a better appointment as conductor for the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1891. For that company he conducted Carmen, The Bohemian Girl, The Daughter of the Regiment, Maritana, and Il trovatore. This appointment was followed by a similar engagement with a company set up by former Carl Rosa singers.

One notable event in Woods’ operatic career was conducting the British premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in 1892. When Signor Lago, formerly impresario of the Imperial Opera Company of St. Petersburg, was looking for a second conductor to work with Luigi Arditi for a proposed London season, Garcia recommended Wood who conducted performances of Maritana and rehearsed Oberon and Der Freischütz. The season opened at the newly rebuilt Olympic Theatre in London, in October 1892, with Wood conducting the British premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. After the collapse of the Olympic opera season, Wood returned once more to his singing tuition. With the exception of a season at the Opera Comique in 1896, Wood’s subsequent conducting career was in the concert hall. In 1894 Wood went to the Wagner festival at Bayreuth where he met the conductor Felix Mottl, who subsequently appointed him as his assistant and chorus master for a series of Wagner concerts at the newly built Queen’s Hall in London. The manager of the hall, Robert Newman, was proposing to run a ten-week season of promenade concerts and, impressed by Wood, invited him to conduct. On August 10, 1895, the first of the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts took place.

Wood soon began shifting the balance from light music to mainstream classical works, with Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and further excerpts from Wagner operas. Among the other symphonies Wood conducted during the first season were Schubert’s Great C Major, Mendelssohn’s Italian and Schumann’s Fourth. The concertos included Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Schumann’s Piano Concerto. During the season Wood presented 23 novelties, including the London premieres of pieces by Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Massenet and Rimsky-Korsakov. Newman and Wood soon felt able to devote every Monday night of the season principally to Wagner and every Friday night to Beethoven, a pattern that endured for decades. The series was successful, and Wood conducted annual promenade series until his death in 1944. As a result, from the mid-1890s until his death, Wood focused on concert conducting. The income from the concerts did not permit generous rehearsal time, but one feature of Wood’s conducting was his insistence on accurate tuning.

Between the first and second season of promenade concerts, Wood did his last work in the opera house, conducting Stanford’s new opera Shamus O’Brien at the Opera Comique. It ran from March until July 1896, leaving Wood enough time to prepare the second Queen’s Hall season, which began at the end of August.. In January 1897 Wood took on the direction of the Queen’s Hall’s prestigious Saturday afternoon symphony concerts. He continually presented new works by composers of many nationalities, and was particularly known for his skill in Russian music. In 1898, Wood married one of his singing pupils, Olga Michailoff. As a singer, with Wood as her accompanist, she won praise from the critics. At the beginning of 1902, Wood accepted the conductorship of that year’s Sheffield triennial festival. The promenade concerts flourished through the 1890s, but in 1902 Newman, who had been investing unwisely in theatrical presentations, found himself unable to bear the financial responsibility for the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and was declared bankrupt. The concerts were rescued by the musical benefactor Sir Edgar Speyer, a banker of German origin. Later in the year, overtaxed by his enormous workload, Wood’s health broke down. Leaving the leader of the orchestra, Arthur Payne, to conduct during his absence, Wood and his wife took a cruise to Morocco.

In the early years of the Proms there were complaints in some musical journals that Wood was neglecting British music. By the end of the first decade of the new century, however, Wood’s reputation in conducting British music was in no doubt; he gave the world, British or London premieres of more than a hundred British works between 1900 and 1910. Wood conducted his own compositions and arrangements from time to time. He gave his Fantasia on Welsh Melodies and Fantasia on Scottish Melodies on successive nights in 1909. He composed the work for which he is most celebrated, Fantasia on British Sea Songs, for a concert in 1905, celebrating the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. After his first wife’s death he married Muriel Greatorex in 1911. He also introduced women into the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1913. On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Newman, Wood and Speyer discussed whether the Proms should continue as planned. They had by this time become an established institution, and it was agreed to go ahead. However, anti-German feeling forced Speyer to leave the country and seek refuge in the U.S. When Speyer left Britain, the music publishers Chappell’s took on the responsibility for the Queen’s Hall and its orchestra. The Proms continued throughout the war years.

Towards the end of the war, Wood received an offer by which he was seriously tempted: the Boston Symphony Orchestra invited him to become its musical director, but he declined, believing it his duty to serve music in the United Kingdom. After the war, the Proms continued much as before. By the 1920s, Wood had steered the repertoire entirely to classical music. In 1921 Wood was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society, the first English conductor to receive the honor. Wood further showed his interest in the future of music by taking on the conductorship of the student orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music in 1923, rehearsing it twice a week, whenever possible, for the next twenty years. In the same year, he accepted the conductorship of the amateur Hull Philharmonic Orchestra, travelling three times a year until 1939 to rehearse and conduct its concerts. In 1925 Wood was invited to conduct four concerts for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. On his return to England from his first Hollywood trip, Wood found himself in the middle of a feud between the chairman of Chappell’s, William Boosey, and the BBC. Boosey had conceived a passionate hostility to the broadcasting of music, fearing that it would lead to the end of live concerts. The matter was unresolved when Newman died in 1926. Shortly afterwards, Boosey announced that Chappell’s would no longer support concerts at the Queen’s Hall, and there was a general welcome for the BBC’s announcement that it would take over the running of the Proms.

The BBC regime brought immediate benefits. Though in his later years, Wood came to be identified with the Proms rather than with the year-round concert season, Adrian Boult was appointed director of music at the BBC in 1930, and in that capacity he strove to ensure that Wood was invited to conduct a fitting number of BBC symphony concerts outside the Prom season. In 1936, Wood was in charge of his final Sheffield festival. The choral works he conducted included the Verdi Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Berlioz’ Te Deum, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and, in the presence of the composer, Rachmaninoff’s The Bells. The following year, Wood began planning for a grand concert to mark his fiftieth year as a conductor. The Royal Albert Hall was chosen as the venue, having a far larger capacity than the Queen’s Hall. The concert was given on 5 October 1938. On the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the BBC immediately put into effect its contingency plans to move much of its broadcasting away from London to places thought less susceptible to bombing. Its musical activities, including the orchestra, moved to Bristol. The BBC withdrew not only the players, but financial support from the Proms. Wood determined that the 1940 season would nevertheless go ahead. The Royal Philharmonic Society and a private entrepreneur, Keith Douglas, agreed to back an eight-week season, and the London Symphony Orchestra was engaged. The last Prom given at the Queen’s Hall was on September 7, 1940. In May 1941, the hall was destroyed by bombs.

It was immediately agreed that the 1941 season of Proms should be held at the Albert Hall. It was twice the size of the Queen’s Hall, with poor acoustics, but a six-week series was judged a success, and the Albert Hall remained the home of the Proms. Wood, aged seventy-two, was persuaded to have an associate conductor to relieve him of some of the burden. Basil Cameron undertook the task and remained a Prom conductor until his retirement, aged eighty, in 1964. The BBC brought its symphony orchestra back to London and resumed its backing of the Proms in 1942; Boult joined Cameron as Wood’s associate conductor during that season. In early 1943, Wood’s health deteriorated, and two days after the start of that year’s season, he collapsed and was ordered to have a month in bed. Despite his age and the difficulties of wartime travel, Wood insisted on going to provincial cities to conduct. His final season was in 1944. The season began well with Wood in good form, but he was taken ill in early August and was unable to conduct the fiftieth anniversary Prom on August 10; he was forbidden by his doctor even to listen to its broadcast and died just over a week later on August 19, 1944, at Hitchin Hospital in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. His funeral service was held in the town at St Mary’s church, and his ashes were interred in the Musicians’ Chapel of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate.

My collection includes the following works by Henry Wood:

Fantasia on British Sea Songs (1905).
Trumpet Voluntary (arrangement of The Prince of Denmark’s March by Jeremiah Clarke formerly attributed to Henry Purcell)

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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