Wood, Sir Henry Joseph (1869–1944), conductor
by Arthur Jacobs

Wood, Sir Henry Joseph (1869–1944), conductor, was born in London on 3 March 1869. His father, identically named, was an optician and engineering model-maker residing and trading at 413A Oxford Street, London, and his mother, Martha, née Morris, was Welsh; he was their only child. Both parents were musical, Henry Wood senior being a keen amateur cellist and a solo tenor in the choir of St Sepulchre's, Holborn. Their son's early aptitude for music (he took with equal zeal to painting) was nurtured mainly from home, though he also took organ and piano lessons from E. M. Lott, the organist of St Sepulchre's.

Wood first won public notice as a fourteen-year-old organ recitalist in 1883. After taking private lessons in music theory from Ebenezer Prout, he entered the Royal Academy of Music (1886–8), where he acquired unusual skill as a piano accompanist for singers, playing for the great vocal teacher Manuel García. His principal studies were composition with Prout, organ with Charles Steggall, and piano with Walter Macfarren.

Wood's first ambition was to be a composer: several songs and other short pieces were published while he was still at the academy, and three operettas were later (unsuccessfully) produced. But an advertisement of his talents in The Stage in June 1889 as ‘pianist, composer and conductor’ brought an engagement as musical director of Arthur Rousbey's touring opera company. A similar post followed with the more highly esteemed Carl Rosa Opera Company and then an appointment as assistant conductor in a London opera season presented at the Olympic Theatre by an Italian impresario, Lago. Wood's conducting of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (17 October 1892, London's first production of any Tchaikovsky opera) marked him out in his destined role.

The Promenade Concerts

So, by self-discovery, Wood became the first British-born career conductor. He had observed the techniques of eminent visiting conductors, making Arthur Nikisch his idol and even imitating his appearance. He took only one further operatic engagement, conducting the London run of Stanford's Shamus O'Brien (1896). His place was to be on the concert platform, in particular that of the recently opened Queen's Hall (1893). Its manager, Robert Newman, engaged Wood at the age of twenty-six as conductor of the hall's first series of Promenade Concerts, opening on 10 August 1895. Financial support was provided by Dr George Cathcart, a musically minded throat specialist, who insisted on the adoption of the lower ‘French pitch’ in place of the prevalent higher pitch which caused singers such difficulties.

Initially, programming adhered to the model of earlier seasons of Promenade Concerts in London: the fare was mainly of lighter music, including ballads, with a cautious infusion of classics. Wood's double command over orchestral players and audiences, at a time of generally improved musical awareness, permitted an increase in the symphonic component in such a way as to give the new series its distinction and its year-by-year renewal as a summer event (with occasional extensions to other seasons). By 1896 the dedication of Monday nights to Beethoven and Friday nights to Wagner was in place, with miscellaneous lighter music being played after the interval.

Minimal rehearsal time was allowed. Six concerts a week (from Monday to Saturday) were prepared in only three rehearsals of three hours each per week. Even with the economy of repeating favourite works several times during the season, and the inclusion of songs and other items without orchestra, acceptable standards could not have been achieved without the iron discipline which Wood developed—the rehearsal of each item rigorously pre-timed, and the players' parts copiously marked with precautionary instructions.

Wood's gifts, however, not merely as trainer but as interpreter, took him further. From January 1897 Newman made him the regular conductor of his most prestigious series at Queen's Hall, the Saturday afternoon symphony concerts, as also (from September of that year) of the shorter Sunday concerts and other events. The works of Wagner and of Tchaikovsky were recognized as among Wood's chief strengths. Queen Victoria chose selections from both when Wood and the orchestra were summoned to perform at Windsor Castle on 24 November 1898.

Concert innovator

In Newman's London music festival of 1899, the Queen's Hall Orchestra under Wood was pitted against the Lamoureux Orchestra from Paris (Lamoureux, its conductor, was Wood's senior by thirty-five years) to public satisfaction. Wood pursued a parallel career as choral conductor which reached a peak with his appointment in 1902 to the triennial Sheffield music festival, where his later radical reinterpretations of such works as Handel's Messiah aroused both admiration and fury. Elgar and Delius were among the composers gratified by Wood's vivid interpretations of their recent choral works.

His ‘sweeping, incisive, and picturesque’ gestures and ‘dark, wavy hair and full black beard’ were noted by the American Musical Courier magazine when Wood appeared as one of the guest conductors of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra during its 1904 season. He was accompanied on this first transatlantic trip by his wife, the former Olga Hillman, née Mikhailov (1868–1909); Russian-born, she was divorced from her first British husband when she and Wood married on 10 July 1898. It was the happiest of marriages: a gifted soprano, she sang at Wood's concerts as Mrs Henry J. Wood, and it was as her piano accompanist that Wood made his earliest recordings in 1908–9. Her death in the latter year at the age of forty-one was one of the severest blows to him.

Wood's concert life had undergone a major change, Newman having been made bankrupt in 1902 in an ill-advised venture into theatrical management. Newman was nevertheless retained as adviser by Sir Edgar Speyer, a banker of German origin who took over the Queen's Hall Orchestra with lavish financial support. Wood's status was now enhanced as the conductor of new music by such composers as Debussy, Strauss, and Sibelius, and as the trainer of the orchestra which served those composers as guest conductors. Wood was likewise the pioneer of Mahler in Britain, giving the symphony no. 1 in 1903 and no. 4 in 1905. Audiences' occasional hostility he took in his stride, as when he gave the world première of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1912.

In 1904 Wood consolidated his command by ending the deputy system, which permitted a player to send a substitute if a more attractive engagement presented itself. In 1913 he became the first conductor to admit women to the general ranks of a major British orchestra. Newspaper reviews noted, as a novelty, his discouragement (by gesture) of applause intruding between the movements of a symphony or similar work. Equally innovatory was his gesture of motioning the orchestra to its feet to share in the applause for the conductor. At this time he began to conduct also for G. W. Brand Lane's concerts in Manchester.

Knighted in January 1911, Wood was reapproached in that year by the New York Philharmonic and offered the succession to Mahler as its titular conductor: he declined. In June 1911 he remarried; his bride, Muriel Ellen Greatrex (1882–1967), was a highly capable businesswoman to whom Wood happily left the burden of correspondence and legal matters. The couple resided (as Wood and his former wife had done) at 4 Elsworthy Road, Primrose Hill, in north London, with the addition from 1915 of a country retreat, Appletree Farm House, Chorleywood, Hertfordshire. There were two daughters of the marriage.

The New Queen's Hall and BBC Symphony Orchestras

Wood successfully resisted pressure, at the beginning of the First World War, to ban German music. But Speyer, despite his British baronetcy, was driven out of Britain by anti-German feeling; Wood, to his discredit, made no protest. Fortunately the music-publishing firm of Chappell, already the hall's leaseholder, was willing to take over the Promenade Concerts and others under Wood's baton; his forces were now renamed the New Queen's Hall Orchestra. From 1915 he began to make orchestral recordings. In 1917 he declined the permanent conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, though he was to be a guest conductor in 1934.

At the Zürich festival in 1921, Nikisch and Bruno Walter were among Wood's fellow conductors. His success at the Hollywood Bowl in 1925 secured further summer engagements there in 1926 and 1934. Yet in comparison with that of Thomas Beecham, a conductor acclaimed equally in concerts and opera, Wood's star was paling and his British reputation becoming more narrowly focused on the annual Promenade Concerts and on his choral conducting. A grievous blow in 1927 was Chappell's abandonment, for financial reasons, not only of the Promenade Concerts but also of the year-round symphony concerts at Queen's Hall. The newly powerful BBC took over the Proms (the abbreviation had become general) and Wood as their conductor, but he no longer commanded an orchestra of his own.

Increasingly, Wood's artistic and financial fortunes came to depend on what share of concerts he might be allotted in the year-round season of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The BBC chose Wood for important collaborations with Bartók (as pianist–composer) and Hindemith, and for the first performance in Britain (1930) of Mahler's symphony no. 8, the so-called ‘Symphony of a Thousand’. But in the general repertory he had to compete against the availability not only of Adrian Boult as the orchestra's chief conductor but also of Beecham and such eminent foreign visitors as Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, and Arturo Toscanini, in comparison with whom he was increasingly seen as a workhorse.

In 1929 Wood launched a hoax on an unsuspecting Proms public, fathering on one ‘Paul Klenovsky’ an arrangement for vast orchestral forces of Bach's toccata and fugue in D minor, originally for organ; only after five years of successful performances did Wood disclose his authorship. A quite different type of arrangement, his Fantasia on British Sea Songs, created for a Trafalgar day centenary concert in 1905, survived as a festive contribution to the last night of later seasons.

In 1923 Wood had taken on the conductorship of the senior orchestra at the Royal Academy of Music, giving its twice-weekly rehearsal dates priority in his diaries and retaining the post (to the great benefit of British orchestral playing) for some twenty years. With no less generosity and self-inconvenience he accepted the conductorship (1923–39) of the amateur Hull Philharmonic Orchestra, travelling thrice yearly to rehearse and conduct its concerts.

Private life

Wood never ceased to give singing lessons, and in 1927–8 published a four-volume treatise, The Gentle Art of Singing. Among his early pupils had been a very young mezzo-soprano, Jessie Goldsack [Lady Jessie Wood (1882–1979)], to whom he gave an unusual number of concert engagements around 1900–02. (Born Jessie Amy Louise de Levante on 23 November 1882, she had adopted her mother's maiden name of Goldsack for professional purposes.) In 1902 she married, moved to Bowdon near Manchester, and almost completely withdrew from professional performance. After being widowed in 1933, she returned to London and, in the hope of resuming a career, recontacted Wood.

At a time of domestic strain between Wood and his wife, whose behaviour had become increasingly self-centred, the sympathetic personality of Jessie Linton (her married name) offered him refuge. He wrote to his wife in February 1935 announcing that he wished to set up home with his ex-pupil but to retain the conventional appearances of the existing marriage. Devastated, Lady Wood would consent neither to that nor to divorce. Accompanied by her elder daughter she sailed for Japan (her brother was British consul in Nagasaki) and afterwards indulged her passion for travel by visiting China, New Zealand, and elsewhere. She did not return to England until after Wood's death.

Through solicitors, a bitter legal dispute took place over the division of matrimonial assets, Wood accusing his wife of having cheated him in using his earnings to place substantial investments under her sole name. He could not prove, however, that she did so in bad faith, and the eventual settlement compelled him to give up Appletree Farm House to her. Apprehensive of further claims on his estate after his death, he also signed a statutory declaration (19 January 1938) charging his wife with constant cruelty and neglect throughout their marriage, a charge reinforced in a private document called My Confession, dated 4 February 1939.

The accusations were exaggerated, but latterly Wood's unkempt appearance on the conductor's rostrum had been noted, as was his new spruceness when Jessie Linton took over his life with solicitude for every private and professional detail. The problem of how they might assuage social proprieties while living as though man and wife was solved by Wood's solicitor Stanley Rubinstein. On 27 September 1938 Jessie Linton changed her name by deed poll to Lady Jessie Wood, Lady being a forename rather than a title. The conductor freely spoke of her as his wife—and inevitably, though in breach of protocol, she was often addressed as Lady Wood.

Most of Wood's friends—even Ethel Smyth, who at first had been violently critical of Wood's desertion of his wife—were won over by Jessie's charm and her utter devotion to Wood. She played a vital part in the renewed vigour which marked his last years. The year 1938, somewhat arbitrarily chosen as his fiftieth in the role of conductor, called forth nationwide celebrations, culminating in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall (5 October) at which Wood conducted a force of combined London choirs and orchestras. Vaughan Williams contributed to it (and dedicated to Wood) his Serenade to Music, for sixteen solo voices and orchestra. Proceeds from this and other celebratory events went to the charitable cause Wood chiefly cherished, the endowment of hospital beds for orchestral musicians.

Last years

Under the conditions prevailing in the Second World War the BBC declined to organize the Promenade Concert seasons of 1940 and 1941, but, by collaborating with a private entrepreneur, Keith Douglas, Wood kept them going. His beloved Queen's Hall, however, was destroyed by German bombing on 10 May 1941 and the concerts of that year were moved to the Royal Albert Hall—and remained there when the BBC resumed them from 1942. The entry of the USSR into the war (June 1941) led to a new receptivity to Soviet music, and the BBC entrusted to Wood the first British performance (and indeed the first performance outside the USSR) of Shostakovich's symphony no. 7 (the ‘Leningrad’ symphony) in June 1942. His eagerness to give new works never dimmed.

Though in his seventies, Wood also travelled to provincial centres amid the difficult conditions of the blackout to conduct the London Symphony, the Hallé, and other orchestras—as much in order to help the orchestras survive as to gratify audiences. From 1943, however, his physical powers perceptibly diminished. In that summer's Promenade season he was compelled not only to share the conducting of certain concerts (as in the two previous seasons) but to withdraw entirely from others.

Wood's seventy-fifth birthday (3 March 1944) was marked by as much celebration as war permitted. A book of tributes had signatures of composers, conductors, and performers from the USA (including the exiled Bartók) as well as from Britain; a meeting of Soviet musicians saluted him in Moscow. The queen attended the concert given in Wood's honour by four London orchestras at the Royal Albert Hall on 25 March 1944, when Wood divided the programme with Boult and Basil Cameron. Proceeds went towards the building (which Wood always hoped for) of a new Queen's Hall, or a similar hall in central London.

Almost immediately after the 1944 Promenade season began at the Royal Albert Hall, new German aerial attacks with the V1 caused the BBC to terminate it. Instead, the BBC Symphony Orchestra performed from its Bedford base only those items which were to be broadcast. A performance of Beethoven's symphony no. 7 on 28 July 1944 was Wood's last. He became ill that night at his hotel in Bedford and died at Hitchin Hospital on 19 August. The death certificate stated the causes of death as ‘(1) coma; (2) uraemia; (3) arterio-sclerosis’.

Wood was cremated after a service at Hitchin parish church, and his ashes placed (by Lady Jessie Wood's decision) on 14 June 1945 at St Sepulchre's, Holborn, where he had learned the organ as a boy; a memorial window was designed by Gerald Smith in association with Frank Salisbury, who had painted Wood's official portrait (now in the National Portrait Gallery) in 1943. A bust by Donald Gilbert is displayed annually behind and above the orchestra during the Promenade season; it was given to the Royal Academy of Music with eight oil paintings by Wood on the condition that it should be thus displayed. At his death Wood left a modest £6460.


In May 1943 the BBC had accepted ‘the exclusive right to use the title “the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”’ and after Wood's death (not before) began to use it; the series reached its centenary in 1995. To Wood's artistic energy, variety of taste, and avidity for new music is due the survival of those concerts not merely as a nightly summer entertainment but as a vital creative and educational force. His gargantuan capacity for work, the Proms forming only a sector of it, is further reflected in his unparalleled record of first performances (or first performances in Britain): at least 716 works by 356 composers.

Nevertheless it could be argued that Wood's peak as a conductor was reached in the decade before 1915. That was when, at the head of the orchestra which he had trained (and Speyer financed) to be the finest in London, he captured the most discriminating audiences with his strongly emotional performances of Wagner and Tchaikovsky as well as proving such a powerful advocate for the new music of Sibelius, Strauss, and Debussy. Later his work was perceived as too reliant on routine, and even his omnivorousness of taste showed up negatively against what the public saw as the virtue of specializing—as demonstrated in the repertories of Beecham or Bruno Walter.

No longer with his own orchestra to command, Wood became increasingly identified with the Proms almost to the exclusion of everything else, and the conditions of that seasonal engagement encouraged reliability above penetrative insights. The companies which issued his gramophone recordings directed them mainly to the popular end of the classical market, and the reappearance of some of his work on compact disc has not won him any significantly upgraded esteem as an individual interpreter. What he sustained to the end (through half a century of public prominence) were the qualities of energy and integrity. He was the supreme trainer of British orchestral players and the magnet of a popular adoration which was purely musical, his demeanour owing nothing to either exhibitionism or verbal asides. The failure in his last decades to consolidate a place in the pantheon of great interpreters does not topple his position as one of the most remarkable musicians Britain has ever produced.

Wood's autobiography, My Life of Music, vivacious in style but factually unreliable, appeared in 1938, his book About Conducting in 1945. Throughout his life he was a passionate amateur painter in oils: several of his paintings survive at the Royal Academy of Music along with his library of musical scores and other memorabilia. He had almost no other non-musical interests and very rarely read a newspaper. He became in 1906 a member of the Rationalist Press Association and was elected in 1937 an honorary associate of that body, but no explicit pronouncements of humanist (or any other) belief are known. His relations with fellow musicians usually remained formal, but many anecdotes survive of his considerateness towards his orchestral players and also of oddities of speech in rehearsal (‘both sides of the orchestra aren't together’). His players nicknamed him Timber—more than a play on his name, since it seemed to represent his reliability too.

At the time of his seventy-fifth birthday celebrations in 1944 it was widely thought that Wood might be given a peerage or the OM; he received instead the less conspicuous distinction of Companion of Honour. He was made a member of the order of the crown of Belgium in 1920 and an officer of the French Légion d'honneur in 1926. He was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's gold medal in 1921, and became an honorary freeman of the Worshipful Company of Musicians in 1938. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Manchester (1923), Oxford (1926), Birmingham (1927), Cambridge (1935), and London (1939). He became a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music in 1920 and of the Royal College of Music in 1923.

His wife, Lady (Muriel) Wood, died at Roehampton, London, on 21 May 1967. His unmarried companion Lady Jessie Wood, who continued indefatigably to promote his memory and wrote a valuable memoir, died at Seaford, Sussex, on 14 June 1979, aged ninety-six.



A. Jacobs, Henry J. Wood: maker of the proms, rev. edn (1995) · R. Newmarch, Henry J. Wood (1905) · R. Newmarch, A quarter of a century of promenade concerts at Queen's Hall (1920) [and typed additional list] · B. Hall, The proms and the men who made them (1981) · R. Elkin, Queen's Hall, 1893–1941 [1944] · D. Cox, The Henry Wood Proms (1980) · J. Wood, The last years of Henry J. Wood (1954) · H. J. Wood, About conducting (1945) · H. J. Wood, My life of music (1938) · d. cert.


BBC WAC · BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 56419–56443, 56464–56466 · priv. colls. · Royal Academy of Music, London, scores and papers |  BL, letters to Edward Speyer, Add. MS 42233 · Elgar Birthplace Museum, Broadheath, letters to Edward Elgar




Royal Academy of Music, London, recordings


E. Kapp, sketches, 1929–44, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham · M. Frampton, oils, 1930, Savage Club, London [see illus.] · F. Lion, oils, 1937, Savage Club, London · F. Man, photograph, 1938, NPG · H. E. Wiener, pencil drawing, 1938, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1940, NPG · F. O. Salisbury, oils, 1943, NPG; copy, Royal Academy of Music, London · H. Coster, photographs, NPG · A. Ellis, cabinet photograph, NPG · D. Gilbert, bronze bust, Royal Academy of Music, London · C. Harris, photograph, NPG · W. K. Haselden, ink drawing, NPG · C. P. Hawkes, ink and wash drawing, Royal College of Music, London · A. P. F. Ritchie, cigarette card, NPG · W. Rothenstein, drawing, NPG · G. Smith and F. Salisbury, memorial window, St Sepulchre's Church, Holborn, London · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (17 April 1907) · drawings, repro. in Jacobs, Henry J. Wood · photographs, repro. in Jacobs, Henry J. Wood · photographs, priv. coll. · portrait (Queen's Hall), repro. in VF (1907)

Wealth at death  

£6460 2s. 10d.: probate, 29 Sept 1944, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £60,972—Lady Jessie Wood: probate, 3 Sept 1979, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

© Oxford University Press 2004–16 All rights reserved  

Sir Henry Joseph Wood (1869–1944): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37001
Lady Jessie Wood (1882–1979): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/53468