Henry J(oseph) Wood


Although chiefly remembered as a fine British conductor who virtually founded the BBC Proms concerts, Sir Henry Wood was also ambitious as a composer/arranger. His best-known work is the Fantasia on British Sea Songs, written for a Trafalgar Day centenary concert in 1805 and traditionally performed each year at the last night of the Proms.

Wood was born in London on 3 March 1869, the son of an optician who was also a keen amateur cellist. His early musical talent was nurtured and study in composition, organ and piano followed at the Royal Academy of Music (1886-8). Several songs and other short pieces were published at this time and three of his operettas were produced, though with little success.

In 1889, Wood became musical director of Arthur Rousebey's touring opera company, later moving to the Carl Rosa company. He gave the London premiere of Tchaikovsky's Yevgeny Onegin, but soon turned to the symphonic repertoire, becoming the conductor of the Queen's Hall Orchestra's first series of promenade concerts in 1895. Promenade concerts (in which the audience stood and could 'walk about') were nothing new, but Wood gave these light concerts an injection of serious symphonic music. By 1896, Monday nights were Beethoven nights, and Friday was devoted to Wagner.

In 1898 Wood married a Russian-born divorcee. They were blissfully happy until her early death in 1909, by which time Wood's reputation as a conductor had grown considerably. He appeared as guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic in 1904 and was offered, but declined, the permanent conductorship seven years later.

Wood was known for his commitment to contemporary music and pioneered performances of DebussyStraussSibelius, and Mahler. He gave the world première of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces in 1912, urging the orchestra at the rehearsal to 'stick to it, gentlemen. This is nothing to what you'll have to play in 25 years' time.' In another first in 1913, he became the first conductor to allow women to play in a major British orchestra.

In 1911 Wood was knighted and also married again, but the marriage ended in 1935 when Wood left his wife for a widowed mezzo soprano. By 1927, the Queen's Hall concerts were in financial trouble and though the BBC took over the run of the summer promenade concerts, Wood had to resort to sharing guest conductorship of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. When World War II prevented the BBC from mounting proms seasons in 1940 and 1941, Wood collaborated with a private entrepreneur, Keith Douglas, to keep them going. The Queen's Hall, however, was destroyed by German bombing and the concerts were moved to the Royal Albert Hall, where they still occur today.

By now, Wood's physical powers were diminishing and the 1944 season, broadcast from the BBC Symphony Orchestra's wartime base in Bedford, was the conductor's last. Shortly after conducting Beethoven's 7th Symphony on 28 July, Wood was taken ill and within three weeks had died.

Wood's lasting legacy is the series of Promenade concerts that bear his name, though this has tended to overshadow his talent as an arranger. He orchestrated Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition seven years before Ravel produced his better-known  version, and his wonderful transcription of Grainger's Handel in the Strand is often assumed to be by the composer. Wood was awarded numerous honours and awards during his lifetime, including the Légion d'Honneur and the Royal Philharmonic Society's gold medal. He can be considered one of Britain's greatest musicians.

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