Olden Life: Who was Sir Henry Wood?

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Rev Peter Mullen

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.