What would the Prom's founder have programmed for a 21st century Last Night, asks Philip Clark
The tough-love discipline of Wood’s rehearsals – a rehearsal never went over the allotted time, and certainly never finished early – became his trademark; but he also introduced an innovation that changed British orchestral life forever – and for the good. Rehearsing hardcore New Music (any music) was difficult enough, but rehearsals were fatally undermined if players sent in deputies and then arrived at the concert unprepared. Wood unilaterally eradicated the deputy system in 1904, causing a political rumpus that led to mass resignations from within the ranks of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra – a body of musicians who subsequently re-formed under the name The London Symphony Orchestra.
Pianist and arranger Roy Douglas, now 102, joined the LSO in 1933 as keyboard player, fourth percussionist and librarian. He is the last living link to Henry Wood and to the LSO of the 1930s. Douglas corroborates this view of Wood as a “craftsman and not a great interpreter” and remembers “you always knew where you were with Henry. There was nothing subtle about his beat; if it was in 12 (like L’Après-midi) you got 12 clear beats. And he never forgot about the percussionists. After 400 bars, he always gave me the triangle entry at the end of “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried.”
Wood bequeathed his library of scores to the Royal Academy of Music, and Neil Thomson remembers playing from Wood’s parts when he was a violin student at the Academy during the 1980s. “Bowings and dynamics were marked in his inimitable blue pencil,” he recalls, “and I was always amused by one score that had ‘woodwind too loud’ emblazoned across the top. Because situations change from orchestra to orchestra and hall to hall, ordinarily no conductor would pre-determine that the wind are too loud, let alone write it in the score. One of the golden rules of conducting: listen to what the orchestra gives you first, and don’t pre-judge anything. But Wood had decided that’s how it was going to be. There was no room for reflection or change.”
With Wood’s recorded legacy as frustratingly patchy as it is, his aura and influence endures through The Proms. In a recent article for The Evening Standard, Roger Wright, the current Proms director, acknowledged that the blueprint Wood established remains his guiding principle: “That commitment to contemporary music remains alive in the Proms…with an ongoing focus on new work and what Wood used to call his ‘novelties’ – those unusual and often new pieces which he wanted to bring to a larger audience.”
Would Sir Henry have given today’s Proms the thumbs up? If he had anything to do with it, the Last Night would be filled with Helmut Lachenmann, John Cage, Steve Reich or, perhaps, he would have commissioned Jem Finer to hang contact microphones off the Royal Albert Hall ‘mushrooms’. Everything about Wood’s ideals suggests he would have wanted to see his idea grow, evolve and prosper. Would he have approved of the media’s obsession with the Doctor Who and Jamie Cullum Proms? That’s a difficult one. I suspect the prevailing spirit of ‘outreach’ might have appealed to him; but, from reading newspaper previews, that you could be forgiven for forgetting The Proms remains, at core, a classical music festival would have troubled him.
Because The Proms, like everything else Wood did, symbolised a massive vote of confidence in classical music. “Wood was the first ‘modern’ British conductor,” Neil Thomson concludes. “He fearlessly tackled difficult contemporary scores, was a skillful concerto accompanist and introduced new and unfamiliar repertoire. He built audiences and improving orchestral standards. Today, we take all of these qualities for granted. At the time it must have been astonishing.”