Every year, one man can be guaranteed to attend every Prom that takes place at the Royal Albert Hall. Well, in a way.
That man is Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944), whose bronze bust sits proudly in front of the organ for the duration of the season – and on the Last Night, his matchless record of attendance is famously and deservedly decorated by the Prommers with a laurel wreath.
To many, the BBC Proms are still, and will always be, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, a title that recognises his part in their founding in 1895.
But who was Sir Henry Wood?
Wood the conductor
Until Henry Wood, home-grown conductors tended to be low key to the point of anonymity.
When the orchestra played too loudly he would withdraw as if stabbed. According to Lady Jessie Wood, his heavy perspiration demanded 14 sets of underclothes a week. But the sweating maestro wasn’t just a showman.
He developed a huge repertoire giving 700 first performances from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in 1892 (Wood was then 23) to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in 1944 (a month before Wood’s death, aged 75).
His introduction of new work was a national crash course in musical education. Composers such as Mahler, Debussy, Sibelius, Stravinsky and Bartók had never been heard in Britain before. And he did much to promote the work of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten.
In 1913 he made another breakthrough by inviting women to join the orchestral ranks. There were already mixed orchestras in Paris and Brussels, but it was a first for London. Wood received 137 applications for six places.
Another of Wood’s innovations was to group all the violins on the left when previously they had been split (seconds on the right, firsts on the left).
He also pioneered the practice of sharing applause with the orchestra.
Wood the composer
After his rise as a conductor, Wood abandoned his ambition to become a composer. At the age of 28, two years after his debut at the Proms, he announced, in dramatic fashion, that he was destroying all his youthful compositions.
But throughout his career he was an indefatigable arranger and transcriber. And while critics often praised his conducting, they also found fault with his orchestrations – his beefing up of Bach, Purcell and Handel attracted withering comments; he was accused of making everything sound like Wagner by piling on the clarinets and trombones and doubling up woodwind and strings.
Wood’s best-known arrangement, Fantasia on British Sea Songs, was written to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar. He dashed it off in just three weeks before its first performance in October 1905 – conceived as a one-off, it became a hit with Promenaders.
Wood the Proms founder
Sir Henry Wood may not have been the sole founder of the Proms but, by force of personality, he soon made them his own.
Having introduced the British public to a breathtaking range of music during 49 seasons as conductor, it’s not surprising that we hail him as the Proms King with little mention of the two men who helped him to the throne.
But it was Robert Newman, the manager of the Queen’s Hall, who had the idea for a ten-week season of promenade concerts, and George Cathcart, a wealthy doctor, who first bankrolled the enterprise.
Newman hired Wood in 1895 when the pair created a magic formula that continues to cast its spell.
Promenade concerts – where people could move about and listen to music – weren’t new. French conductor Louis Jullien had done something similar in France in the 1840s and there had been promenade seasons at Covent Garden in 1878 and 1879.
But we have Newman, Cathcart and Wood to thank for launching an annual London festival that shows no signs of decline despite reaching the grand age of 125.
The aim was to attract new audiences to classical music. Cheaper tickets drew the crowds to the Queen’s Hall on Langham Place, which was later destroyed in the Blitz.
Smoking and drinking were permitted. On the promenade floor there were stalls for ice creams, cigars, flowers and even a fountain.
The first programme, with Wood conducting the Queen’s Hall orchestra, was made up of songs, lightweight instrumental pieces and novelties.
Original text by James Trollope