Happy Birthday Sir Henry Wood!

“I shopped all morning. Ties, shoes, ordering a fresh supply of cigars and cigarettes, and my one vice – glacé stem ginger.”[1]

This was the conductor Sir Henry Wood on what he described as one of the happiest birthdays of his life. As we celebrate 150 years since his birth, Wood’s own account of his 69th birthday draws together the strands of his life in music and hints at the topic of my forthcoming book which uncovers his role in the English Bach revival. But back to 3 March 1938; ‘What a morning!’ he exclaimed.

Image reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London

The sun was so warm in Bond Street that my overcoat became a burden, but Hyde Park and St James’s park were fresh and beautiful. And the Mall, with the Victoria Memorial gleaming in the morning sun – a reminder of the calm peaceful years of that great Queen’s reign; this was her London – my London – the London that has tied me to her and continued to support my life’s work.

War was looming, and Wood would not live to see the streetlamps relit in London, but this was the city in which he had accomplished so much and where he had been born:

I thought of my cottage home in Oxford Street and of the home of my music – Queen’s Hall. It is not given to many to live sixty nine years within walking distance of the scenes on which the eye of a watchful public is focused, and still retain their respect – I might even say their love.

From an education at the Royal Academy of Music, to premieres of his own works and early experiences with opera companies, and then the Promenade Concerts, and countless concert series and festivals both in the capital and the provinces, Wood was a tireless ambassador for music. Back in 1895 a 26-year-old Wood had assumed the podium on the first night of the first ‘Proms’ season – a gamble well taken on a young and relatively unknown conductor by the new Queen’s Hall impresario and artist manager Robert Newman. Together they would disrupt the demographic of concert going and open the door to a new public for classical music in London. The Proms weathered the storms of management, sponsorship, and war (Queen’s Hall was razed to the ground in the 1941 Blitz), but Wood was their consistent figurehead and they would become his ultimate legacy.

Image reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London

Wood’s lunch date with ‘my friends, Mrs Flora Lion the artist, and her husband, in Chelsea’, hinted at his other great passion. ‘Painting is my real love’, he declared in 1938, and there are photographs a-plenty of him with brush, rather than baton in hand. Then it was home, ‘through Kensington Gardens (lest there might be no other opportunity, knowing my diary)’. This aside sums up his huge industry. Wood was a workaholic for his art, fastidious in his attention to detail from planning out every hour of his day, to marking up every individual orchestral part himself.

His birthday evening began quietly with a dear friend, Dr Calthrop but quickly developed:

As we were about to leave the dining-room I caught the strains of the Bach Toccata and Fuge [sic]– excellently played, too. On going into the lounge I realized that it was a record of my own with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. The room was in darkness except for a flickering blaze in the centre of the room where there was a huge cake with sixty-nine tiny candles – at least they told me there were that number – but I counted them to make sure… 

This brings us to Bach, the only composer named on this blissful birthday. The only composer to whom is dedicated an entire chapter of his memoirs, and I posit, the composer to whom he dedicated more of his personal time than any other.

Image reproduced with permission from the Royal Academy of Music, London

When I first requested to look at Bach scores in the Wood Archive at the Royal Academy of Music in London, I had no idea of the treasure trove I would find. Since he deposited his library of scores and parts in 1938, few Bach scores had been opened (a couple had been used for performances back in the days when they could be loaned out), but most had been left untouched since the conductor last turned the pages. Uncovering the detail of his interpretations and following the leads of manuscript fragments has allowed Wood to regain his proper place as a significant player in the history of Bach reception in England.

Wood’s 69th birthday ended with a meal at Quaglino’s (‘and how hungry I was!’), and a toast. ‘I still do not feel a day over fifty’ he responded, ‘and am good for… well, you never know!’ 

Hannah French is an academic, broadcaster, and Baroque flautist based in London. She broadcasts regularly on Radio 3 and has appeared as a TV presenter and commentator for the BBC Proms. Her book Sir Henry Wood: Champion of J.S. Bach will be published by Boydell Press in hardback in June 2019.

Listen to Hannah French’s podcast Henry & Seb, a series of her favourite stories from the book, Sir Henry Wood: Champion of J.S. Bach.

Available on Audioboom, Spotify and Apple Music.

Sir Henry Wood: Champion of J.S. Bach
by Hannah French
Hardback / 9781783273850 / £41.25 or $71.25

[1] HJW, MLOM, 351, as are all the quotes on his birthday.

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