To celebrate, to commemorate: Hugh Wood (1932 – 2021)

Hugh Wood, 1932-2021

“He was never blessed with self-confidence – and it makes his music so good. He gave it so much care and attention. He embraced life in all its dimensions – physical, mental and intellectual.” Thus writes Professor Edward Venn in his book The Music of Hugh Wood (Routledge, 2016) [M501.c.200.94].

We were saddened to learn of the death last month of the composer Hugh Wood. Many generations of undergraduates and research students have benefitted from his wisdom here in Cambridge as he was a lecturer in music and Fellow at Churchill College from 1976 until he retired in 1999. His life and career are succinctly and sensitively considered in Leo Black’s obituary for the Guardian.

Rather than rehearse this once again, I would like to look a little at Wood as composer and writer on music. Here at the University Library in Hans Keller’s archive, we are lucky enough to have letters between Wood and his great friend. Keller and Wood first met at the Dartington Summer School of Music where Keller had been giving lectures and coaching sessions since 1958 and the two men subsequently became lifelong friends. Keller, ever mindful of the need to encourage those he felt possessed of a genuine creative ability, lost no opportunity to remind Wood of his gift and the responsibility to explore and give it expression that was required. Wood was notoriously self-effacing about his abilities and constantly afflicted with self-doubt and Keller was at pains to encourage and support Wood’s creative muse. Here is Keller in a letter of 16 September 1981 in which he has shared his view of a new work by Jonathan Harvey to which he cannot warm as he feels it lacks proper rhythm, and then goes on:

I’m greatly looking forward to your new work [Wood’s Symphony, op.21 which had been commissioned by the BBC and first performed at the 1982 Proms by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Rozhdestvensky], it’s a pity that one can’t have a factual conversation about your own music without your making silly jokes…” he then goes on to decry what he describes as the “rhythmlessness” of contemporary music “altogether the gravest contemporary cause of the envelopment of music…But why do I bother you with these reflections. You seem to be one of the very few who have remained unaffected by what, invariably, proves a malignant disease.

Here is Wood’s op. 21 Symphony with Rozhdestvensky at the helm:

Wood replies on 28 October saying that whilst he agrees with Keller’s underlying issue…”that the all-important thing must be rhythm”, he disagrees with Keller on its lack in the Harvey work and goes on to write:

I am left envying the plasticity of movement and the free formation of climax to which this rich rhythmic vocabulary can give rise…My ideas are always, alas, so four-square; or only aspire to sub-Tippett, sub-Stravinsky, madrigal/additive rhythms, but nothing further…I can only formulate rhythmic cliché, in everyone else’s eyes (ears, I mean, & unspoken thoughts) inside a metre…the mis-shapen defender of the old.

Keller’s response comes a few days later on 3 November, emphasizing how self-deprecating Wood is concerning his creative ability:

Most unfair, however, you are on your own creativity: it is demonstrably wrong to say that you can only ‘formulate rhythmic cliché’…there is no such thing as a rhythmic vocabulary; it is from the well-defined contradictions of vocabulary that rhythm arises, just as a great Haydn or Mozart minuet arises from the well-defined contradictions of the minuet. It’s downright fascinating to observe that our age’s rhythmic crisis has produced this autobiographical confusion in your conceptual thought…Kindest, rhythmic regards.

Here, as an example, is Wood’s Epithalamion, started way back in 1955 but not completed until 2015, displaying his feel for rhythm:

Why, I ask, is Hugh Wood’s music not regularly programmed? It cannot possibly be described as “difficult”, “challenging” or any of the other adjectives used as excuses – far from it – and there is much to choose from. Some 50 works composed over the course of as many years. (Yes, in comparison to a Mozart or a Haydn, this is modest – but after all, it’s quality that matters – not of course that Haydn and Mozart aren’t quality…). And it’s not as if Wood stuck to a handful of genres – there are orchestral, chamber, concertos, songs, choral works and solo instrumental works to choose from – so all you musicians, broadcasters and concert promoters out there, why not programme a Hugh Wood work in soon? (And no, I can’t pretend to have listened to all Wood’s output or to know it in any depth – but the works which have crossed my ears, I have greatly enjoyed).

Edward Venn in his masterly study The Music of Hugh Wood. (Ashgate, 2008) [M501.c.200.94] suggests that this neglect may be because the musical context within which he composed is simply not “in” any more. Venn may well have a point here. “…there is space within any society for different beliefs and value systems to co-exist…Wood’s music, and the values it embodies, is of a vitality that is deserving of a more central position in our understanding of contemporary music…” (p.xii). It is, for sure, light years away from what his great friend Keller would have dubbed “Twaddle”. As Venn writes: “[Wood] was an artist impelled to create regardless of the whims of fashion” (ibid, p. 23). Hooray – so it should be. All would-be composers please take note. Here’s the first movement of his first string quartet (unnumbered) played by the Chilingirian Quartet who made Wood’s acquaintance when they were resident at Liverpool University. “A masterful work” says Levon Chilingirian.

Alongside his compositional output, Wood was also a writer on music. His prose style is immediately approachable, eloquent and expressive, dealing with complex concepts with the utmost clarity. For example, like Keller, Wood wrote programme notes and book reviews (although nothing like as many!) and on reading through some of them gathered together in the selection of his written output Staking out the territory (Plumbago, 2007) [M501.c.200.129], I am struck by his opening sentences which immediately provoke one’s interest and a distinct wish to continue reading to see what he had to say. For example, the opening salvo in his review of Varèse: Astronomer in sound by Malcolm MacDonald [M517.c.200.58] particularly caught my eye – he begins: “Varèse was one of the toughs…during Amériques, or Arcana an orchestra of immense dimensions is thrown straight at you, playing fortissimo, like a herd of buffalo intent on trampling you under its many feet…”

And with that most colourful of similes let us end this little tribute with Wood’s own wonderfully rich Variations for Orchestra, op.39, first performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis during their tour of Japan in May 1997.


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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1 Response to To celebrate, to commemorate: Hugh Wood (1932 – 2021)


    Thank you for this fitting tribute to Hugh Wood, variously teacher, academic step-colleague (he Cambridge, I London), author of two books I had the pleasure of editing for Plumbago, and family friend.

    I remember talking to him after his first term in Cambridge (1976). “How was it, Hugh?” I asked. “I’m still waiting to be found out …” he replied, guiltily and sotto voce. The reverse of the self-doubt was exaggerated conscientiousness, and the benefit of the conscientiousness an extraordinary quality of attention. He listened, looked and read like no-one else. And when it came to pursuing his causes he could be as tenacious as a whole pack of dogs (even when, in the view of several of us, Hans Keller not excluded, the hunt itself was misplaced). Of his generation of composers, he was the one whose work fits most readily into mainstream programming: Haydn, Wood, Beethoven. And as for large structures, I point to the first movement of the Piano Concerto (though to other movements too). His setting of words was madrigalian rather than dance-based (Schubert), and occasionally thrillingly so; that he never composed an opera was not for want of trying: opera houses were unenthusiastic about his project on Tis Pity She’s a Whore (of which he told me he had composed a few scenes).

    The task for HW’s future is one of programming, and in the field of chamber music especially he is surely in with a better chance than his most of his modernist contemporaries.



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