Henry Wood was born on 3 March 1869 in Oxford Street, London, a short distance east of Oxford Circus, where his father ran a jeweller’s business. He took piano and organ lessons from an early age and enrolled as a 17-year-old student at the Royal Academy of Music in 1886. He began to build a reputation as a composer and accompanist but as yet showed little interest in pursuing a career as a conductor. His first steps in this direction came in 1889 when he was taken on by the touring Arthur Rousbey English Opera Company, but teaching continued to be his main source of income until the opening of the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, London in November 1893. Robert Newman, the new concert hall’s manager, launched an extended series of promenade concerts in 1895 to fill the quiet summer season. At this time, London had no permanent orchestras. To ensure the availability of an orchestra throughout the 1895 summer season, Newman formed the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and invited Wood to conduct. Only 26 years old, Wood had little practical conducting experience but Newman clearly saw in Wood the personality and drive necessary to sustain the momentum of a long series. Within two years Wood had leapt from a virtual unknown to arguably the most famous and influential conductor in Britain. Like Newman, Wood was an innovator and used the opportunity presented by the Proms to introduce new works to his audience, conducting over 700 British (many of them world) première performances throughout his career. In parallel, having consolidated his position of power over the orchestra, he set about a number of far-reaching reforms: he curbed the practice of allowing established players to find unrehearsed deputies to stand in for them at the last moment; he carried out two purges of inadequate players and, for the first time in a fully professional orchestra, introduced women players; he discouraged audience applause between the movements of a symphony but encouraged the whole orchestra to stand to share in the applause at the end of a work.
In 1898 Wood married Olga Mikhailov, daughter of a Russian princess and one of his vocal students. They enjoyed an apparently idyllic marriage which ended suddenly with Olga’s premature death in December 1909. Eighteen months later Wood married his secretary Muriel Greatrex, the mother of his two daughters Tania (born 1912) and Avril (born 1915). Although able to speak French and German, Muriel was in most respects the antithesis of Olga and, most significantly, had little interest in music. She brought to the marriage organisational skills rather than the enthusiastically shared interests he had found in Olga. Possibly to enable Muriel and the girls to escape the pressures of the London musical circles in which he moved, in 1915 Henry bought the family a house in the country – Appletree Farm, on the edge of Chorleywood Common near the top of Dog Kennel Lane.
While their London house remained the main family residence, the family decamped to Chorleywood each summer from Easter until at least the end of the Proms season.
Appletree Farm allowed Muriel to indulge her passion for gardening and Henry to find relaxation in his twin hobbies of carpentry and painting. Fitting out one of the smaller barns as a carpenter’s shop, he carried out a number of structural modifications to the property, building a large picture window, made mainly from old railway sleepers, and a staircase in the large barn, part of which he also converted into a music room. The barn was the venue for regular large parties hosted by Henry and Muriel on summer Sundays, which led in time to many of the prominent musicians of the day making their way to Chorleywood. The composers Janácek, Kódaly, Bloch and Hindemith all visited, as did Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen, while the tennis court at Appletree saw improvised matches in which Henry regularly partnered Dame Ethel Smyth.
The farm’s immediate environs and wider Chiltern vistas provided inspiration for a number of Wood’s oil paintings; surviving paintings include a number of Chorleywood Common (among them one of The Black Horse public house as seen from Appletree Farm and another of the Old Barn at the farm) while three others are titled September Sunset: A Cornfield near Chorley Wood; Evening near Amersham and The Aylesbury Valley, Winter.
At first Wood returned nightly to Appletree Farm during the Proms season; in later years, to avoid domestic friction, he remained in London on weekdays, returning to Chorleywood only after the Saturday concert. It would appear that such an arrangement suited both parties until, in the early 1930s, Wood bumped into a former student, a singer called Jessie Linton whom he had taught in the 1900s. She had been one of his favourite pupils but, once married, she gave up thoughts of a musical career. With her husband now dead, the relationship between Henry and Jessie quickly deepened. With her he could enjoy the meaningful discussions on music which Muriel came to despise. In 1935 Henry left Muriel and asked for a divorce but she refused. Henry and Jessie nevertheless set up home in London, Jessie changed her name by deed poll to “Lady Jessie Wood” and Henry even hoped that daughter Tania would move in with them to give their relationship greater respectability. In the event, Tania changed her mind at the last minute, travelling instead to Japan with her mother. Henry only saw Tania once more.
The new-found stability in Wood’s life ended with the outbreak of the Second World War. Within three days, the BBC declared that it would stop funding the Proms, believing that wartime conditions would cause a sharp drop in audiences and financial uncertainty.
Determined to prove the BBC wrong, Wood found alternative backing and, for the next two seasons, 1940-41, the Proms continued as a private initiative. Ironically, during these two seasons they were planned from the Victoria Hotel, Rickmansworth (Later the Long Island Exchange, now demolished), only two miles from Wood’s former home at Appletree Farm. Stunned by their continued success, the BBC resumed control in 1942. But the war brought other problems: the Queen’s Hall was reduced to rubble, a direct hit in the Blitz starting a fire which firemen were unable to control; and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was evacuated to the safer environment of Bedford. Always inclined to overwork, the added strains caused by these problems had an adverse effect on Wood’s health which began to decline markedly from late 1942. His appearances on the podium became sporadic and he conducted his last concert on 28 July 1944. The following month he was admitted to hospital in Hitchin where he died on 19 August, nine days after the fiftieth anniversary of the Promenade concerts with which his name will forever be linked.