What would the Prom's founder have programmed for a 21st century Last Night, asks Philip Clark
When I read this year’s Proms Guide and noticed that an ‘extra’ Last Night of The Proms had been laid on in tribute to Henry Wood – essentially a re-run of the 1910 Last Night with a few trimmings – I thought, thanks Auntie, but who exactly was Henry Wood?
The Henry ‘Who?’ question had never occurred to me before. Even that there might be a question seemed unlikely because, I guess, Wood – like Walter Raleigh or Gerrard Winstanley – is a ghost of history; a figure who at one level is entirely familiar (the brand name ‘Henry Wood Promenade Concerts’ slips off the tongue like British Home Stores), but whose cultural resonance and achievements are buried at a subliminal level, within the ley-lines of our national consciousness. As any skoolboy nos Walter Raleigh introduced potatoes and tobacco to these shores; as anybody vaguely interested in the development of New Music in the UK is aware, Wood conducted the first British performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces – then the most advanced music on the planet – at The Proms in 1912. So why does he remain more myth than real-life vivid presence?
Fuelling this mystique is a problem: Wood didn’t record much. There is a Beethoven Eroica from 1926 (warmly praised by Rob Cowan in the February 2009 Gramophone), a Schubert Unfinished from 1933, piecemeal chunks of Vaughan Williams, Handel, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Liszt and Mendelssohn; but no one has thought to keep his recordings in fulltime circulation; and, anyway, none of these frozen moments in time unfolds into a complete cycle of anything. No complete cycle of Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms symphonies, no complete Wagner opera, no Schoenberg Five Orchestral Pieces – and how intriguing it would be to hear that legendary premiere performance. Our view of Wood is anchored around second-hand reportage, and we lack the necessary evidence to build a more complete picture.
Wood died in 1944 and, had he wanted to, could have devoted more time to recording. But does this attitude speak wider truths about his approach to the conductor’s art? British conductor Neil Thomson, former Head of Conducting at the Royal College of Music, reckons Wood was “first and foremost a practical musician. Today his legacy is still audible and visible; the discipline and professionalism of our orchestras, their extraordinary sightreading skills and stylistic flexibility, are all qualities we now take for granted. Wood was undoubtedly a catalyst for changing the way orchestras at the turn of the 20th century played and worked.
“Don’t forget he conducted every concert at The Proms until the 1941 season. Given the huge amount of repertoire he got through, clearly there was little room for doubt or second thoughts; once etched in blue pencil the music stayed that way. No doubt his working methods and artistic outlook were, to an extent, conditioned by the pressure of getting through an enormous number of concerts. But it’s also clear he thrived in this atmosphere. He expected good intonation and ensemble. I love the image of him standing in the wings with his homemade tuning box, making every player check their ‘A’ before going on stage.”
Wood programmed as much technically demanding New Music as he did, placing inevitable strain on already precious rehearsal time, because he genuinely believed in the cause of promoting the music of his own time. The inspiring list of British premieres he led – which includes Mahler’s Song of the Earth and Symphonies 1, 4, 7, 8, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Shostakovich’s Seventh and Eighth symphonies, Debussy’s Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Bartók’s Dance Suite, Hindemith’s Kammermusik and Ravel’s Left Hand Concerto (and you do wonder what the BBC Symphony Orchestra, circa 1942, would have made of the jazz-derived rhythms of Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid!) – is impressive as a technical feat, but also because it demonstrates Wood’s broad aesthetic sympathies. Rehearsing Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, and needing to deflect those inevitable rank-and-file grumbles, he advised his Queen’s Hall Orchestra: “Stick to it. This is nothing to what you’ll have to play in twenty years’ time.” And how refreshing to remind ourselves of that story, rather than indulge Thomas Beecham’s pooterish grocer mentality, er, wit.