Wood at the Proms

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sir Henry Wood. The British conductor’s name is inextricably linked with that of the Proms – probably the most famous music festival in the world. Although there had been promenade concerts in London since the 18th century, it was impresario Robert Newman’s new series that would inspire generations with a love of music.

A selection of Proms programmes from the 1920s to the 21st century.
Part of the Anderson Room’s mini-Proms exhibition celebrating Sir Henry Wood and the Promenade concerts.

Newman was experienced in organising concerts, having previously run a similar series at His Majesty’s Theatre. What made the new series magical though, was the input of young conductor, Henry Wood.

Newman was keen to keep seat prices low, with a mixture of both popular and “high-brow” classics designed to get a wider public interested in classical music. The first Proms series was financed by music enthusiast, and ear, nose, and throat specialist, George Cathcart, who financed the entire series, on condition that Wood was the sole conductor.

Cathcart was also largely responsible for the introduction of European concert pitch believing that English pitch (a little over a semitone higher) was injurious to singers. Wood, a singing teacher himself, agreed, and during the first season wind and brass instruments imported from the continent were loaned to members of the newly created Queen’s Hall Orchestra, who later invested in the instruments themselves, realising that they were rapidly becoming the musical norm.

The Queen’s Hall became the premier concert venue in London, with an unparalleled acoustic, though distinctly shabby seating and decor.

On September 29th 1917, during a Proms concert, the Queen’s Hall was involved in a Zeppelin raid. A member of the Oriana Madrigal Society Chorus, Gladys Currie, recalled events:

In Queen’s Hall, all was excitement. We did our part; and then after the interval some of us went into the balcony to hear the rest of the concert. Carmen Hill was singing, when we heard ominous sounds outside, but we all sat tight. The next item was a bassoon solo. In the middle of it there was a crash, and then a cracking sound, and a shower of plaster began to fall from the roof of the Promenade…

One or two of the orchestra disappeared from their seats. Even Sir Henry Wood himself glanced rather anxiously up at the roof, though still wielding his baton. The bassoonist [Wilfred James], however, kept merrily on; and we realized it could only be shrapnel which had dislodged the plaster. The soloist got a rousing encore and treated us to “We won’t go home till morning”, amidst cheers and laughter.

After the concert no one was allowed to leave the Hall. We…had some coffee, until one of the orchestra nobly returned to the platform and struck up a waltz. We were soon dancing over the floor and really enjoying the experience.

Queen’s Hall: 1893-1941 / Robert Elkin. London: Rider, 1944. (M499.c.90.8)
The bassoon solo played at the very moment of the Zeppelin bombing of Queen’s Hall, September 29th, 1917.

Rather appropriately, an earlier item played at that memorable concert, as Zeppelins circled London, was Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Post-war financial difficulties led to a fortuitous liaison with the BBC, who started to support the Proms in 1927. They have continued to be involved with the event, except for a brief hiatus during the Second World War, ever since.

Henry Wood meanwhile was also active in training young musicians at the Royal Academy of Music, where he worked closely with the student orchestra. This proved to be a fertile ground, where Wood could nurture composers at an early stage in their career. It was thanks to this, for example, that he heard an early version of William Alwyn’s Five Preludes for orchestra, and was able to premiere the completed work at the 1927 Promenade Concerts. (Come and have a look at our mini-Anderson Room exhibition to see an excerpt from the score, along with Henry Wood’s blue-pencilled corrections).

Wood was a great enthusiast for “novelties”, his own term for new music; and an enormous supporter of British music in particular. Composers who received world premieres at the Proms under his baton included Holbrooke, York Bowen, Arnold Bax, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and George Butterworth; while UK premieres included works by Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Webern, and Villa-Lobos.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the BBC moved most of its arts operations to outside the capital. Wood was keen though that concerts should continue, and worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, among others to bring music back to the capital. In 1940, the BBC decided to re-start the Promenade concerts. Conditions were difficult during the Blitz, with audiences and orchestras, sometimes stuck at Queen’s Hall until the All clear sounded. Musicians and Promenaders were philosophical. A Prom was often followed by impromptu entertainments which could go on until 5.30 in the morning. Orchestral players slept in the hall overnight, or, for those based in Central London, crept home for an hour or two of sleep before returning for the usual 10 o’clock rehearsal.

Hubert Clifford, Sir Henry Wood, and John Gough in the ruins of Queen’s Hall.
In a more famous image from the period, Clifford and Gough are air-brushed out.

The night of May 10th/11th 1941 was one of the worst nights of the Blitz. Over 300 bombers spent five hours bombing London. 1346 people were killed, and over 1700 injured. The chamber of the House of Commons was bombed, as was the British Museum, and Westminster Abbey. Queen’s Hall received a direct hit, and was irreparably damaged. Along with the loss of the Hall, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who had performed The dream of Gerontius, the previous evening, and were due to play for a matinee at Queen’s Hall, on Sunday 11th May, lost most of their instruments. Musicians with a spare instrument hurried home to pick them up, conservatoires loaned or donated instruments, other orchestras and musicians offered help, and the May 11th concert went ahead at the Royal Academy of Music.

Bust of Sir Henry Wood held at the Royal Academy of Music, and taken to the Proms every year.

Despite the loss of the Queen’s Hall, the Proms continued in 1941, in what was to become the Proms’ new home – the Royal Albert Hall. Wood and the LSO took part in every Prom. The LSO had been formed following an industrial dispute within the original Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and although Henry Wood had some sympathy with the LSO musicians, following their defection he had never conducted the orchestra. It seemed appropriate that in the shadow of the destruction of Queen’s Hall, a great orchestra and conductor should be reunited.

Henry Wood died in August 1944, a few days after the last night of the Proms. He is still a vital part of it. His bronze bust, the sole artefact to survive the bombing of Queen’s Hall, is garlanded in laurel leaves each Proms season, while his Fantasia on British Sea-songs, originally written for a Prom, to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, in 1905, is an essential part of the last night celebrations – Wood did once try to remove it from the programme, but popular protests forced its return.

In 1938, Wood wrote about Proms audiences:

…how they have listened all these forty-odd years! How still they have stood! How they have loved their Bach, their Beethoven, their Brahms, and their Wagner! More than I ever hoped they would in my wildest dreams.”

The Henry Wood Proms / David Cox. London: BBC, 1980. M455.c.95.13

How he would have enjoyed the next eighty-odd years.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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