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.
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.”