The English conductor and arranger, Sir Henry J(oseph) Wood, was born in London. His father was a qualified optician, but had become well-known as a craftsman and model maker, running a highly successful model engine shop in Oxford Street. Both parents were keen amateur musicians: his father sang in church choirs and played the cello and his mother sang songs from her native Wales. He was taught to play the piano by his mother, and participated in family musicales from the age of 6. He was equally precious on the organ, and at age 10 was often deputy organist of St Mary Aldermanbury. At the age of 14, he played the organ at the 'Musicians' Church' St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the largest parish church in the City of London, where his ashes now rest. He also gave organ recitals at the Fisheries Exhibition (1883) and at the Inventions Exhibition (1885). He also learned the violin, but it was not until he entered the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 16 (1886) that he received methodical tuition. During his two years at the RAM he took classes in piano, organ, composition and singing. His teachers included Ebenezer Prout (composition), Manuel Garcia (singing), Steggall and Macfarren. He won 4 medals. His ambition at the time was to become a teacher of singing (and he gave singing lessons throughout his life), and so he attended classes of as many singing teachers as he could, both as pupil and as accompanist.
In 1888 Henry Wood brought out some of his songs; them he composed light operas and cantatas. On leaving the Royal Academy of Music he found work as a singing teacher, but soon his ambition was crystallised in the direction of conducting. After making his debut in 1888, he began his activity as an orchestral and choral conductor. He gained experience by working for several opera companies, many of them obscure. He conducted the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1891, and the following year the English premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the newly rebuilt Olympic Theatre. He collaborated with Arthur Sullivan on preparation of The Yeomen of the Guard and Ivanhoe. Meanwhile he was deriving a steady income from his singing tuition, and he published a manual The Gentle Art of Singing.
In 1893, Robert Newman, manager of the Queen's Hall in London, proposed holding a series of promenade concerts with Henry Wood as conductor. The term promenade concert normally referred to concerts in London parks where the audience could walk about as they listened (French se promener = to walk). Newman’s aim was to educate the musical taste of the public who were not used to listening to serious classical music unless it was presented in small doses with plenty of other popular items in between. Wood shared Newman’s ideals. Dr George Cathcart, a wealthy ear, nose and throat specialist, offered to sponsor the project on condition that Wood took charge of every concert. He also insisted that the pitch of the instruments, which in England was nearly a semitone higher than that used on the continent, should be brought down to diapason normal (A=435Hz). On August 10, 1895 the first of the Queen’s Hall Promenade Concerts took place with an orchestra of about 80 members.
It is particularly significant that Henry Wood should have chosen an overture by Wagner to open the first programme. Prejudice against British musicians was very strong. 19th century England had been labelled by the Germans Das Land ohne Musik (“The Land without Music”) and not without a certain amount of justification. Henry Wood was to alter all that. In particular, it was thought that no British conductor would be capable of conducting Wagner. Their success was so conspicuous that a new series of concerts was inaugurated on January 30, 1897, under Wood's direction, and flourished from the beginning. Wood was to prove otherwise. In fact, for many years the programming of the promenade concerts followed a particular pattern according to the day of the week, with Monday nights being Wagner nights and Friday being dedicated to L.v. Beethoven. Wood also bravely introduced British audiences to many noteworthy European composers, especially Sibelius and composers of the Russian school. In 1912 he conducted Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces (“Stick to it, gentlemen” he urged the orchestra at rehearsal, “This is nothing to what you’ll have to play in 25 years’ time”).
Henry Wood remained in sole charge of the Proms (with one or two exceptions) until 1941 when he shared the conducting with Basil Cameron and, in the following season, with Sir Adrian Boult as well. During Wood’s time the Proms were a central feature of British musical life and he gained the nickname of "Timber" from the Promenaders. He brought about many innovations. He fought continuously for improved pay for musicians, and introduced women into the orchestra in 1911. In 1904, after a rehearsal in which he was faced with a sea of entirely unfamiliar faces in his own orchestra, he at one stroke abolished the deputy system in which players had been free to send in a deputy whenever they wished. Forty players resigned en bloc and formed their own orchestra: the London Symphony Orchestra.
Henry Wood's fame lies mainly with the Promenade Concerts, but he was active in many areas of musical life. He conducted many concerts in London and the provinces, and appeared regularly at choral festivals in Norwich and Sheffield. In 1899 he founded the Nottingham Orchestra. He was also conductor of the Wolverhampton Festival Choral Society (1900), the Sheffield Festival (1902-1911), and the Norwich Festival (1908). In 1904 he was a guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He conducted many amateur groups, and was very generous with the time he gave to the students’ orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music. He was meticulous and thorough in his preparation, and built up a large library of scores, which were carefully marked up in coloured pencil. His famous medley Fantasia on British Sea Songs, prepared for the 1905 centenary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar, is now an indispensable item at the Last Night of the Proms.
In 1898 Henry Wood married Princess Olga Ourousoff (Urusova), a Russian noblewoman, and became greatly interested in Russian music, which he performed frequently at his concerts. He adopted a Russian pseudonym, Paul Klenovsky, for his compositions and arrangements, and supplied an imaginary biography of his alter ego for use in programme notes. Klenovsky was a real person, a recently deceased young musician friend of Alexander Glazunov's, and Wood thought a foreign name would secure a more favourable reception than his own. His wife died in 1909, and in 1911 Wood married Muriel Ellen Greatrex, with whom he had two daughters. In 1918 he was offered the conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as successor of Muck, but declined. In 1923 he was appointed professor of conducting and orchestral playing at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1938 he presented a jubilee concert in the Royal Albert Hall. Sergei Rachmaninov was the soloist, and for the occasion Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his Serenade to Music for orchestra and sixteen soloists. He had an enormous influence on musical life in Britain: he improved access immensely, and also raised the standard of orchestral playing and nurtured the taste of the public, introducing them to a vast repertoire of music, encouraging especially compositions by British composers. In Arthur Jacobs’ 1994 biography of Henry Wood, the list of premières conducted by Wood extends to 18 pages.
Among Henry Wood's popular arrangements were Frédéric Chopin's Marche Funùbre, some works by J.S. Bach and the Trumpet Voluntary (mistakenly attributed to Purcell, but actually by Jeremiah Clarke). His orchestrations of other composers' works drew frequent criticisms, so when in 1929 he made an orchestral transcription of J.S. Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor, he presented it as a transcription by Paul Klenovsky. It was a great success. Only several years later did he confess to the little joke. The work was nonetheless published in 1934 as "Bach-Klenovsky, Organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, for Orchestra (orchestrated by Sir Henry J. Wood)". He published The Gentle Art of Singing (4 volumes; 1927-1928) and About Conducting (London, 1945), and edited the Handbook of Miniature Orchestral and Chamber Music Scores (1937). He wrote an autobiography, My Life and Music (London, 1938).
A number of honours were bestowed on Henry Wood: knighted by the King in 1911, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1921 and was made a Companion of Honour in 1944.
Henry Wood tended to overwork himself, and the strain began to tell in his later years. Wood continued to conduct the Promenade Concerts almost to the end of his life (for half a century!), presenting the last concert on July 28, 1944. He died on August 19, 1944, just over a week after the 50th anniversary concert of the Proms, which he had been too ill even to listen to on the radio.
The poet laureate John Masefield composed a poem of six verses in his honour, entitled "Sir Henry Wood" but often referred to by its first line "Where does the uttered music go?". This was set to music as an anthem for mixed choir by Sir William Walton which received its first performance on April 26, 1946 at St. Sepulchre's Church, Holborn, London, on the occasion of a ceremony unveiling a memorial stained-glass window in Sir Henry Wood's honour. The Promenade Concerts became known after his death as the “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts” (now the “BBC Proms”). He is remembered today in the name of the Henry Wood Hall, the deconsecrated Holy Trinity Church in Southwark, which was converted to a rehearsal and recording venue in 1975. His bust stands upstage centre in the Royal Albert Hall during the whole of each Prom season, and is decorated by a chaplet on the Last Night of the Proms. A commemorative postage stamp with his portrait was issued by the Post Office of Great Britain on September 1, 1980.