Sunday is the 150th birthday of the English conductor Sir Henry Wood, a pivotal figure in the transformation of classical music from aristocratic luxury to middle-class diversion. Wood’s early career outlined middle-class musical experience: He trained as a church organist; he taught singing lessons; he gained conducting experience in opera — then comparatively undistinguished work. (That Wood garnered any notice for his opera conducting testified to his talent.)
In 1895, Robert Newman, manager of London’s recently-built Queen’s Hall, engaged Wood for an annual series of promenade concerts. Such programs had been around for decades, often performed in the open air as listeners strolled. But, under Wood’s direction, the Queen’s Hall concerts became a bona fide British institution — in large part because of their informality. “You could go in shorts and an open-necked shirt, you could go in sandals and bare legs,” recalled philosopher and radio personality C.E.M. Joad, “you could eat and drink and you could smoke; the Proms, indeed, were made glorious by their absence of restrictions and taboos.”
Wood nevertheless pursued serious, adventurous programming. He specialized in then-new music of the likes of Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Generations of British composers, from Frederick Delius to Benjamin Britten, had music premiered by Wood. He conducted the first performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s “Five Pieces for Orchestra” in 1912; undeterred by the hostile reception, Wood invited Schoenberg himself to conduct the work at Queen’s Hall.
With practice time limited, Wood prepared meticulously — planning rehearsals down to the minute. He also chose battles judiciously. (When rehearsals for Schoenberg’s Queen’s Hall appearance snagged on a particular passage for six horns, the composer suggested that, perhaps, eight horns would be preferable. “My God, no,” Wood said with a laugh. “There would only be more false notes.”) Wood’s reputation spread. He was considered to succeed Gustav Mahler at the New York Philharmonic, and was approached by the Boston Symphony Orchestra after World War I anti-German sentiment forced out conductor Karl Muck. (As one newspaper noted, beyond his musical skill, “on the supreme issue of our time, God or the Kaiser, Sir Henry is unassailably sound.”) Wood declined both jobs, citing an obligation to British music.
World War II renewed that sense of duty. Having shepherded the Proms through numerous management changes, Wood insisted that concerts continue during wartime. Queen’s Hall was destroyed by bombs; the Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall. Wood persisted through failing health, endeavoring to sustain the country’s musical life. He died in August of 1944, only a month after conducting the British premiere of Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony. To this day, the Proms remain a staple of the London summer season — with Wood’s bust perched in front of the Royal Albert Hall organ for the festival’s duration.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.