Sir Henry Wood’s Jubilee

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

'Fifty years is a long time’, as Sir Henry Wood truly said when broadcasting his kind hearted appeal for subscriptions to endow hospital beds for musicians. The occasion was the opening night of the present season of Proms. And yet it seems but yesterday that I saw in The Musical Standard the portrait of a young man showing only the first signs of the now famous beard. Grieg and Dvorak were then high in the heavens, while Strauss, Elgar and Tchaikovsky were yet to come out of the mist. And think, the Hallé Orchestra at Manchester and the Crystal Palace Orchestra were the only permanent bodies of their kind in England! Well may we marvel at the change, for in London alone we have four orchestras of full size, and two others of acceptable quality might easily be formed out of the abundance of our musicians. The change has been wrought by the passionate quest of Sir Henry Wood as orchestral conductor and trainer of orchestral players.

One’s first impression of Sir Henry, after personal contact, is his genius for organisation. Everything around him, in his orchestra and in the round of his daily life, is planned to work smoothly, and nothing seems to call for change. Much of this must be due to his physical health, well balanced by intellectual strength: he seems to have no sharp points that disturb the perturbability of others. He is an institution, and a London one at that, which may be accepted or not as one pleases, with never an assertion that it is as good as or better than similar things elsewhere. In him alone, hundreds of composers, instrumentalists, and vocalists have found their hopes and ambitions realised. What could they have done without him? What path would British music have trodden these fifty years without him? There is hardly a musical centre in all England whereon Wood has not impressed his personality and thereby raised the standard of orchestral playing and choral singing.

Forty years ago, when Henry Wood had reached his ascendancy over London, he began to attract considerable attention in Wolverhampton, Nottingham and Birmingham. Occasionally I attended the rehearsals of the Halford Orchestra, often meeting the players before and after their work was done. Once I found them in a state of excitement, and learned that the reason was Wood’s performance of Beethoven’s No 9 (Choral) Symphony the previous evening at Nottingham. Heinrich Sük1 the leader of the orchestra, said: ‘Yes! and it was the most astonishing performance of the Choral in my experience; and three-fourths of the players were amateurs.’

The present generation of music lovers cannot imagine what this bursting into life meant for the many who have now passed on. Two men primarily brought about the change, and they were Henry Wood and Edward Elgar: without them we might now be living in a musical age as dark as the ’seventies. Wood’s reputation for thoroughness has become proverbial, and it is due in part at least to his knowledge and appreciation of other arts, for he has talent as a painter and loves and cultivates flowers. But I cross swords with those who say that Wood has not missed a single Promenade performance. I recall his presence at the Sheffield Triennial Festival in 1908, when the Proms were in session, and Colonne came from Paris to conduct a number of performances.

  1. Sük (sic) should be Süch ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, September 1938, p. 1017