Olden Life: Who was Sir Henry Wood?
I always feel that the Last Night of the Proms every September signals the end of summer. This year, it’s on 8th September. Henry Wood, the founder of the Proms in 1895, is well known. But the man himself, his character and his idiosyncrasies are less familiar.
I have a personal reason for being interested. In 1998, the Bishop of London appointed me to be priest-in-charge of St Sepulchre on Holborn Viaduct, the National Musicians’ Church where the boy Henry learned the organ. His teacher would leave him to learn a piece, and then disappear across the road into the Viaduct Tavern. Henry was a most precocious boy and he would have his lesson mastered in no time. So he would run into the pub and say, ‘I’ve finished, sir. Now what should I do?’ His refreshed teacher told him exactly what to do in no uncertain terms.
As a teenager, he was not given to self-doubt, saying, ‘Sir Arthur Sullivan asked my advice and John Ruskin looked at me with interest.’
In 1895, he got financial backing from the stockbroker and music fanatic Robert Newman to start a promenade concert series at the Queen’s Hall, by the Nash church of All Souls, Langham Place. The proms were born.
He taught singing, and one pupil was Princess Olga, the beautiful daughter of
Princess Sofie Ouroussoff of Podolia. They were married in 1898. In the 1909 Proms season, Olga sang three songs by Delius which ended with the words ‘in love’s transcendent light’. She died five days before Christmas that year.
Eighteen months later, Wood married Muriel Ellen Greatrix – half his age. It was an unhappy union because Muriel was unable to look after him as perfectly as Olga had done. His life descended into chaos, and his orchestras were the first to know it.
Wood asked an old friend, the widow Jessie Linton to be his music manager and agent. He rediscovered his old energy and cheerfulness. Wood was knighted by George V in 1911, and Jessie took the name Lady Wood by deed poll after Muriel had refused him a divorce.
After a concert at Windsor Castle, he was presented to the 80-year-old Queen Victoria. The Queen said, ‘Tell me, Mr Wood, are you quite English? Your appearance is rather un-english.’ It was probably the copious beard.
Wood conducted the classical repertoire but he also introduced more contemporary music to British audiences than anyone before or since. George Bernard Shaw said, ‘It was Wood who dragged British orchestral music alive out of the abyss.’
He toiled superhumanly, conducting six concerts every week throughout the Proms. And he kept this up until the end, conducting his last Proms in 1944. George VI appointed him Companion of Honour and sent him greetings for his 75th birthday, saying, ‘You are the nation’s greatest teacher of music.’
His friends at the Savage Club wrote a commemorative verse:
A hundred seasons may elapse Ere timber reach its prime; Small wonder then we hope our Wood Will go on beating time.
Henry Wood died on 19th August 1944, aged 75, and his ashes are interred in the Musicians’ Chapel in St Sepulchre. There is a memorial window in which Henry is appropriately depicted between images of Bach and Handel.
Proms maestro: Sir Henry Wood in 1934