Sir Henry J. Wood

        (1869 - 1944)

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        The man who made the Proms
        F E B R U A R Y  0 9

        By David Wilson

        Henry Wood was a Londoner, born above a shop in Oxford Street in 1869, and he remained a Londoner throughout his life. His general education was somewhat sketchy but from a very early age he showed outstanding musical ability. He attended the Royal Academy of Music for six terms and gained several awards during this time. Wood never forgot his debt to this institution, returning often at the height of his fame to teach and to conduct the RAM orchestra. Wood became, in succession, a more than competent pianist and accompanist, an organist of high repute, a composer and arranger and most successfully of all, a fine conductor and trainer of orchestras and choirs. In his early professional career Wood played the organ and conducted choirs in local churches and for a time became "musical director" if that is not too fanciful a term, of a small peripatetic opera company. His rewards were small, the kudos even smaller but he did gain invaluable experience.

        Sir Henry Wood, c.1906

      • Recommended: The Henry Wood Proms (The BBC Proms) | Orchestrations by Sir Henry Wood

        In 1893 London received a brand new concert hall which was in Langham Place, not very far from where Wood was living at the time. This was the Queens Hall. its lessee and general manager was Robert Newman, an astute businessman and an excellent administrator as well as a lover of music. Newman was quik to realise that there was a gap in Queens Hall's "calendar" at the end of the "Season" when the gentry went off to the grouse moors or to Cowes Week and his lovely new concert hall was virtually unused until the winter symphony concerts started again.

        He conceived the idea of a series of concerts to run from August to October, featuring popular music at low prices and in a less formal environment to attract the less well-off listener. To oversee the musical aspect of these concerts Newman called upon the services of Henry Wood. He was 26 years of age and this represented a quite remarkable opportunity for so young a man. There was a slight snag however. Newman invited Wood to take a financial stake in this new venture, which, in itself. wasn't at all unusual. We must remember that in those days, concert giving was a private venture with no sponsorship or public subsidies. The investment that Newman was looking for was two or three thousand pounds, an enormous sum of money at that time which Wood simply didn't have.

        Enter Dr. George Cathcart, a wealthy ear and throat specialist with a keen interest in music and especially singing. Cathcart offered to put up the money, attaching certain conditions to his offer, namely that Wood should be the only conductor and that the concerts should adopt low pitch.

        The Promenade Concerts were a success from the start though, as Sir Henry himself has implied, they differed greatly in content from those forty plus years later. Few "classics" were performed. The audiences of 1895 heard a great number of short pieces, well known overtures, piano and cornet solos, arrangements of sentimental ballads and so on. Pieces rather like the Funeral March of a Marionette by Gournod which Wood introduced to the Proms in 1904.

        It was Wood's and indeed Newman's intention from the start to raise the standard of the music at the "proms". Where classical pieces had been a rarity at the beginning the gradually became the norm. He introduced "Beethoven nights" (Friday) and "Wagner nights (Monday); Russian music too, for which Wood became noted. Tchaikovsky had died very recently - he was a "modern" composer in the 1890s! Wood gave the first performances in this country of no fewer than nineteen of that composer's works including Eugene Onegin and the Nutcracker Suite.

        Wood was a great innovator with a great many "firsts" to his name. He was the first British "career" conductor; the first to group all the orchestral violins on one side of the orchestra; the first to employ women orchestral members; the first to stop audiences applauding between movements (though he wasn't always successful in this. Wood was a magnificent interpreter of the music of Tchaikovsky and once, during a Sunday afternoon concert which included the 6th symphony, the third movement was quite stupdendous in its impact and at its conclusion the audience burst into spontaneous applause. Sir Henry turned round on the rostrum glaring furiously at the audience and there was immediate silence. But some in the audience noticed as he turned back to the orchestra that here was a huge grin on his face.

        Perhaps the most admirable of Henry Wood's many fine qualities was his determination to intrduce new works to his audiences - some seven hundered of them in all, most famously the world premiere of Schonberg's Five Orchestral Pieces. This was and indeed still is, a work of enormous difficulty which was hissed by its first audience but undeterred, Wood persisted and repeated it a short time later.

        Henry Wood and Robert Newman continued to present the Proms each year until the latter's death in 1926. The owners of the Queens Hall, Messrs Chappell & Co. were disinclined to undertake the responsibility of continuing the Proms and for the first time but by no means the last, it was touch and go whether they survived or not. However, a new musical force was coming to the fore at that time, namely the British Broadcasting Corporation with its formidable Director General, John Reith. Reith was a dour Calvanistic Scot, a kind of Gordon Brown withou the laughs! His stated intention was to give the listeners not what they wanted but what he, Reith, thought they ought to like. So it was that the BBC agreed to underwrite the annual series of concerts in return for the right to broadcast such parts of them as they saw fit. And this they have continued to do to this day save for a brief interval which I shall come to presently.

        A great many famous musicians have performed as soloists at the proms during more than 110 years of their existence. Top of the list with no fewer than 91 appearances was Dame Myra Hess. Myra was known both for her innate musicianship as a pianist and for her tirelss work during the second world war, organising and performing at, the famous National Gallery Concerts. Less well known was Myra's great friend Irene Scharrer. The two had shared the same piano teacher, Tobias Matthay. Myra insisted that Irene was the better pianist and technically she was probaly right though there was no doubt that Myra was incomparably the finer musician. The brilliance of Irene Scharrer's technique is noweher better illustrated than in her performance of a Scherzo from a Concerto Symphonique by Litolff.

        This was of course a commercial recording, made by the Columbia company in 1933. Even allowiing for the difficulty of making "live" recordings in those days, I find it surprising that there are so few recordings from early promenade concerts.

        At the beginning of 1938, Sir Henry announced that this would be his "Jubilee" year, celebrating his 50 years as a conductor ... A GRAND CONCERT (And we can just see the capital letters!) was arranged for 5th October in the Royal Albert Hall. Members of four London orchestras would participate and Sergei Rachmaninoff, a great friend of Sir Henry's would perform his own 2nd piano concerto.

        More importantly, from the point of view of posterity at least, Ralph Vaughan Williams would dedicate a new work to the great man in honour of the occasion. Coming from this most versatile of composers the new piece could have been anything - a symphony, a fine choral work, but no, RBV chose to write a quite simple setting of the lines from the Merchant of Venice which begin: "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank" and ending in praise of music itself. Moreover, the setting was for sixteen named voices, all of whom had sung for Sir Henry on numerous occasions. The Jubilee Concert (the proceeds from which went entirely to the endowment of beds in London hospitals for orchestral musicians) was a huge success. The Seranade to Music was warmly received by audience and critics alike, so much so that Columbia Records (to whom Wood was contracted at the time) decided to record it immediately with the original sixteen soloists.

        September 1st 1939 and the 45th season of Henry Wood Promenade Concerts had been in progress for three weeks. In the small hours of that morning the German army had invaded Poland and the outbreak of the second world war appeared imminent, in which event the BBC had laid contingency plans to evacuate all its orchestras to Bristol. At about 10 o'clock that morning Sir Henry was told that that evenng's concert would be the last. It fell to him that evening, after a performance of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, to pass this information on to his audience.

        The 1940 season was taken over by the Royal Philharmonic Society with financial backing from its Secretary, a wealthy impresario, Keith Douglas and in the continued absence of the BBC orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of a most delightful little man called George Stratton, stepped into the breach. There was a delicious irony about this. Back in 1904 Wood and Newman had put an aprupt stop to the "deputy" system then widely practised in all the London Orchestras. This was an absurd arrangement whereby an orchestral player might attend and be paid for all the rehearsals for a concert but if he received a more profitable engagement for the concert itself, would send a deputy who might never have played the music before. Robert Newman had simply announced at rehearsal one morning that from now on, this arrangement would cease.

        This caused considerable resentment among some of the players in the Queens Hall Orchestra and a number of them broke away and formed an independant self governing body, calling itself the London Symphony Orchestra. And this was the band which came to the rescue of the Proms, not just for 1940 but for the following year too.

        Not that 1940 was all plain sailing. On Saturday, 7th September the London "blitz" began. The concerts continued in spite of that, even during the air raids with many of the so-called "siren sessions" lasting until the "all clear" in the small hours. Worse was to come. On the night of 10th 11th May 1941 in one of the worst attacks on London, the greatly loved Queens Hall was completely destroyed. Dr. Malcolm Sargent conducted the last concert to take place there.

        Sargent later viewed the inside of the ruined concert hall.

        We cannot imagine how devastating a blow this loss must have been for Sir Henry Wood. Lady Jessie Wood was with him at the time in an hotel in Stevenage, where the staff had very considerately hidden the morning's newspapers away from Sir Henry

        Such a grievous blow might well have brought the Proms to an end for good. It seemed the only possible alternative venue was the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. This was frowned upon for several reasons. Its acoustics were notorious; it could hold more than twice the audience of the Queens Hall and there was the question, would people want to travel all the way to South Kensington to listen to music? Keith Douglas decided to continue his support for a second year but with certain provisos intended to minimise the anticipated losses. The season would be limited to six weks; there would be no "novelties" i.e. first performances which tended to drive the audiences away; and the soloists were asked to accept only half their usual fees. In addition, steps were taken to improve the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall.


        This from David Wilson:

        'For me, Saturday, 12th July 1941 began much like any other day, without the slightest indiction that before nightfall my life was to be changed irrevocably for the better. I was out soon after the crack of dawn to do my regular paper round and to collect my five shillings wages for the week. This sum brought my savings to more than 30 shillings, just about sufficient to purchase the Weingartner/Vienna Philharmonic recording of Beethoven's seventh symphony, a work that I had recently fallen head over heels in love with and now coveted greatly. It was not to be. I just happened to look at the entertainments column in the slim-line Daily Telegraph of those difficult times and saw an advert for the opening night of the 47th season of Henry Wood promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall ... and the small print at the bottom read "Season Tickets, promenade Only, 37 concerts, Price 1.8 shillings. Even without any advanced mathematics I could work that out at a bargain nine pence ha'penny per concert. And after all, the Beethoven's 7th symphony would still be available to me in six weeks time.

        But how was I going to get to South Kensington? I was living in Hayes, Middlesex and going to school in Uxbridge at that time, journeys of twelve and fourteen miles. Trolley-bus to Shephers Bush and there had to be a bus of some sort to the RAH. But that would cost money. Bicycle? Cheap of course but surely no-one would go to a Promenade Concert on a bicycle! O thought it was worth a try so after lunch I set off on two wheels with my 30 bob almost burning a hole in my pocket. On my arrival I looked in vain for a sign saying "Concert goers may park their bicycles here." There was, however, a kind of archway on either side of the great rotunda so I wheeled my machine into the one on the Knightsbridge side and propped it against the wall and just left it there without even bothering to lock it.

        [It may be of passing interest to note that I continued to leave my bike in that same spot almost every evening for the next six weeks. No-one objected. I found a few days later that it had been joined by a second machine and then a third. By the end of the season, up to five or six bikes could usually be seen under that archway. Neither the machines nor anything attached thereto was ever stolen as far as I know.]

        I am certain that Henry Wood was never given the credit that was his due for the sheer quality of his performances. I have already spoken of the power of his Tchiaikovsky interpretations and this applied to other composers of the Russian School. And no conductor, not even Tommy Beechm, did more to further the music of British composers than Henry Wood.

        Back to 12th July 1941. The Albert Hall presented a singularly untroubled countenance at 2.30 that afternoon. I went in at the front door, the box office was on my right and there were a few people ahead of me buying tickets. My turn duly came up. "Please can I buy a season ticket?" I asked, half expecting to be told that the Telegraph advert had been a misprint or even a heartless hoax. Not a bit of it. Without saying a word, that quite splendid fellow behind the glass scooped up my one pound and ten shilling notes, handing me in return a piece of folded pasteboard some three and a half inches square and a florin in change. It didn't look much for all that hard earned money but the inside of the card was marked off in thirty seven numbered squares, each representing some two and a half hours of glorious music! Was ever entry to Paradise purchased at so small a price?

        I had some time to kill before the gates of Paradise opened. Wandering to the rear of the building I spotted a door marked "Season tickets only". I couldn't believe it! We were even to have our own special entrance! I wandered off on a journey of exploration, returning to our special entrance at about 5.30. There were perhaps ten or a dozen "promenaders" as I supposed I now had to call myself, in front of me waiting for the doors to open for the 6.30 start. (Concerts started early in those wartime days in the hopes that audiences could be on their way home before the air raids started though in fact the next six weeks were almost entirely free from interruption.)

        The doors duly opened and a nice old boy looked at my bit of pasteboard, and put a pencil stroke through the little square numbered "1". It hadn't been a hoax; I was actually inside the Royal Albert Hall with the prospect of 37 concerts stretching ahead of me. On this memorable occasion I crowded up to the barrier just below the orchestra. This was a position I never bothered about again. I would always stand in the rear half of the arena, roughly at about third man with the bowling from the conductor's end, where the sound was rather better.

        The arrival of George Stratton at the leader's desk gave rise to loud applause but this was dwarfed a moment later when the somewhat portly figure of Sir Henry Wood, complete with white carnation made its way onto the platform. It was y first sight of the great man, one of the truly great figures in the world of British music and there he was, almost within touching distannce. There was no hanging about. The National Anthem was quickly followed by Elgar's Cockayne Overture. I'd never heard this piece before but it seemed to be so "right" for this occasion that I assumed (wrongly) that this must always be performed at the beginning of the Proms Season.

        Of the rest my recollections are somewhat hazy. Cyril Smith played the Rachmaninoff Paganini Variations and with his wife, Phyllis Sellick, gave a hugely amusing account of The Carnival of the Animalsvvand the evening concluded with an outstanding performance of the Polovtsian Dances. Most important of all however was hearing my first ever performance of Beethoven's 5th Symphony.

        It may seem odd that there was a time for each and every one of us here when we listened to the 5th Symphony for the first time but there can be few for whom this was such an outstanding occasion. Even at that early stage in my musical education I was able to appreciate the sheer magic of that transition from the mystery of the scherzo into the triumphant C major of the finale.

        In the spring of 1991 I wrote a letter to the controller of BBC Rado 3 reminding him that we were coming up to the 50th anniversary of the first Royal Albert Hall Promenade Concert and wouldn't it be a splendid idea to do a programme to commemorate this auspicious occasion while there were still a few people around who were actually there at the time. I heard not a word for so long that I assumed my suggestion had fallen on deaf ears. Then I had a letter from one Arthur Johnson asking me to ring him to make an appointment with Andrew Green to discuss the programme and record my memories of the occasion.

        I lost no time in doing so of course; the appointment was duly made and I soon found myself within the sacred portals of Broadcasting House. Mr. Green took me somewhere for refreshment over which we discussed the programme which, I was told, would be recorded and broadcast during the interval (20 minutes) of the last Night of the 97th season of Henry Wood promenade Concerts. Few things could have made me happier!

        Off we went to a recording studio in some remote building a few minutes walk away from BH. I had expected that Andrew Green would ask a few questions to which I would reply. Not a bit of it. He just sat me down in front of a microphone with the tape deck running and told me to talk about it. I did so, for twenty minutes. When I'd finished he made the discovery that although the tape had been running it hadn't been recording, so would I mind doing it all over again.

        I recorded that interval programme on tape cassette of course and I still have it. It was quite a good programme of its kind and it did more or less what I had set out to achieve. But my own contribution of twenty minutes of hard thought out reminiscence had been reduced to less than two minutes. A month or so later I received a letter from the BBC. It contained a cheque for 29.00 with not the slightest indication of how that strange sum had been arrived at.

        During that 47th season I made the acquaintance, much of it for the first time, with most of the standard classical repertoire - all the symphonies and concertos of Beethoven and Brahms, a bit of Mozart and Hadyn, lots of Tchaikovsky and much else. Equally notable were some of the things we didn't hear. Not a single note of Mahler or Bruckner or Nielson. There was simply no market for these composers at that period, though Wood himself had conducted a performance of Mahler;s 8th symphony in February 1938. It took another six years and the combined genius of Bruno Walter and Kathleen Ferrier to convince the English that Mahler might be worthy of their attention.

        They were long programmes by modern standards - the first half was usually as long as a current complete concert and a two and a half hour concert was the norm. During the intervals I made friends with and talked to a number of fellow "promenaders" and I was deeply impressed with the genuine affection shown towards Sir Henry, an affection which I quickly came to share. The sheer amount of work that he must have put into these concerts was prodigious and his only help on the podium was from Basil Cameron who took over for a small part of most of the concerts. Cameron was a conductor who did a great deal of arm-waving to no great effect but he managed to get through his stints without any major mishaps. He was tolerated rather than admired whereas Sir Henry was genuinely loved.

        The 48th season saw some important changes. The six week season of 1941 was increased to eight weeks as had been the norm. The BBC took a hand once more now that the danger of air raids appeared to have receded somewhat. Two orchestras were involved, The London Philharmonic for the first four weeks and the BBC Symphony Orchestr for the remainder. Sir Henry retained the greater part of the conducting burden as before with Basil Cameron assisting for the first half and Sir Adrian Boult the latter half. I had seen Boult at several concerts over the previous winter and had liked him very much. This season also saw the return of Sir Henry's "novelties", most of which appeared in the shorter second halves of the programmes. It was rather sad to see on some occasions that an almost full promenade in the first half of a concert turned into a very thin gathering there after the interval.

        I cannot leave this without some reference to the last nights that I attended. There were just the two of them. In 1941 I was alone - except for the other 5,999 who just happened to turn up. A year later I was accompanied by the young lady whom I was going to marry four years later. I had my season ticket; Mary didn't. After quering at the dogsbodies' entrance for some time we were turned away with just a handful of people in front of us. Determined that Mary should not miss this once-in-a-lifetime occasion we made our way to the Season Ticket door. The bloke on duty was one whom I knew slightly. I slipped him half a crown, he handed over someone's old season ticket of godness knows what provenance and we were in.

        No last night of the proms can be worthy of the name unless it includes Sir Henry's own Fantasia on British sea-songs, written in 1905 to commemorate the centenary of Trafalgar.

        On the last night in 1942, Sir Henry gave a short speech which was, in fact, the last he was to make in person. (He recorded his speech in 1943.) It is a matter of great joy that in the archive recording of that historic occasion our two pairs of hands and two small voices are in there somewhere.

        The applause went on and on. According to one newspaper the following morning it lasted for half an hour but this may have been a slight exaggeration. Sir Henry returned to the podium time after time until at last he appeared wearing his overcoat, hat and white silk scarf. When he turned away, we knew that the proms were over for another year.

        On leaving the Royal Albert Hall we decided not to go back to South Kensington tube station as we knew that would be crowded with returning "prommers". Instead we made our way in the gathering twilight of a warm late summer evening down Kensington Gore, along Kensington High Street, through Earl's Court and Baron's Court to Hammersmith Broadway to catch the Piccadilly Line train for home. We walked on air and we wouldn't have called the King our uncle.

        As things turned out, this was our last prom for much longer than we expected and indeed the last time we would see Sir Henry Wood. Mary went away to teacher training college in Brighton and I joined the Royal Air Force. Two years later, on Saturday, 19th August 1944, Sir Henry Wood died, greatly mourned by everyone. His last wish was that the promenade Concerts that he had founded should continue and should be known as The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts.'

          Source: this little piece of Proms history is a transcript from a historian friend of mine, Adrian Faulkes. He attended a lecture by David Wilson (now in his 80s) and I found it fascinating if only for the fact that it is from someone who was actually 'there' and saw Sir Henry Wood and the Proms in the 1940s. What makes it poignant to me is the fact that David gave the lecture (2008) in the week that his beloved wife, Mary (mentioned in the piece at the beginning of their lifelong love story), passed away. From that perspective, a melancholy sweeps over his words. It's a touching little love story set with the splendours of the Proms as a backdrop.

        © - david wilson / (2009)


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