Henry Wood was born #OnThisDay in 1869

Henry Wood
image credit: By Cyrus Cuneo (1879–1916) (Illustrated London News, 8 February 1908, p. 204) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sir Henry Joseph Wood (3 March 1869 – 19 August 1944)

was an English conductor best known for his association with London’s annual series of promenade concerts known as The Proms.

In 1893 a new concert hall opened in London. The hall could seat over two thousand people and the sound quality was the best that could be created at the time. This new Queen’s Hall (Queen Victoria was about fifty six years into her long reign) soon became London’s premier concert venue.

The Proms were the brain child of Robert Newman, concert promoter and manager of the Queen’s Hall. He wanted to increase the audience for his symphony concerts by offering cheap tickets, a relaxed “promenading” atmosphere and a popular classical repertoire.

Newman approached Henry Wood to help him in his project. Wood was an established musician and conductor of choirs, orchestras and amateur opera companies. Newman shared his vision of offering the public an increasingly sophisticated diet of classical and modern music and Henry Wood enthusiastically agreed to conduct the first season of the new Proms at the Queen’s Hall.

The first season opened on 10 August 1895 and over the ensuing years Newman and Wood introduced the music going public to a wide range of classical favourites and contemporary, often innovative additions to the repertoire.

In 1941, the Queen’s Hall was destroyed by incendiary bombs during the London Blitz. The Proms moved to the Royal Albert Hall and, after WW2, it and the newly built Royal Festival Hall became the centre of the London classical music scene.

After Wood’s death in 1944, the concerts were officially renamed in his honour as The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, although they continued to be generally referred to as The Proms.

In the summer of 1965 (when I was about fourteen) my dad decided we should go to The Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

We had a day ticket and caught the train from Peterborough railway station on August 19th and were in the capital a couple of hours later. We did some tourist stuff and then after a Lyons Corner House for something to eat we headed to South Kensington for the concert.

We were overawed by the vastness of the Albert Hall and by the size of the audience, which was far greater than anything we’d experienced before.

The programme started with Neville Marriner directing the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in a Handel concerto while he played the violin. Impressive!

This was followed by the premiere of Michael Tippett’s piano concerto conducted by the composer himself. The soloist was John Ogden and the music was execrable.

But we were thrilled to hear John Ogdon play. He’d won first prize at the London Liszt Competition in 1961 and consolidated his growing international reputation by winning another first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962, jointly with Vladimir Ashkenazy. My dad took me to hear Ogdon perform at St George’s Hall, Bradford shortly after his unprecedented Moscow win. I think it was a Beethoven piano concerto but I’m not too sure about that now.

After the interval Malcolm Sargent conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers in a performance of “The Planets”.

We’d been listening to this on a gramophone record for weeks and loved every minute. The whole Proms experience was fantastic and I went to several wonderful concerts in the Albert Hall in later years. Most notably, an all Beethoven concert in September 1973. Pierre Fournier playing Beethoven cello sonatas, first solo and then with a piano accompaniment. After the interval Barenboim conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which was overwhelmingly powerful as you can imagine.

The Proms has changed considerably in recent years becoming much more of a marketised event. In my Proms going heyday, in the early 1970s, tickets for individual concerts or the whole season were still very cheap. Only The Last Night was over-subscribed and the programmes were mainly classical. Occasional jazz or non-Western classical featured a couple of times each year but that was about it. Certainly no Musicals Nights or showstoppers. But The Last Night remains largely unchanged other than a more rowdy audience participation. And, of course, no Proms in the Park back in those days or link-ups across the nations of the UK. But still the old faithfuls for communal singing and flag waving and the ceremonial wreath for the bust of Sir Henry.

Yes, thanks very much, Sir Henry Wood, for all you did to establish The Proms as an integral part of British musical life. And a very Happy 152nd Birthday.

This is the only clip I can find of Sir Henry actually conducting. It’s the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performing Vaughan William’s Serenade to Music in 1938.

Thanks for visiting my blog today.

This is an updated version of a post originally published in 2018.