Sir Henry J. Wood was Britain’s first professional orchestral conductor, but he was much more than that. Sir Henry was a thoroughly modern late Victorian musician who used Britain’s world-leading rail network to conduct performances of all varieties throughout the country. In this initial period of his prolific career, Sir Henry led orchestras for varying quality and performed music that ranged from the serious and classical to the light and popular – as well as every conceivable genre in-between.
During his long life, Sir Henry helped to change the musical landscape of Britain by becoming an internationally respected maestro in a field that had for centuries tended to exclude British musician. Sir Henry was never one to rest on his laurels and continued to champion both the great shibboleths of the classical canon (Beethoven in particular), whilst championing new music, something which at the beginning of his career meant Wagner and Tchaikovsky whilst in his later decades this meant Elgar and Vaughn Williams.
Even by the standards of his day – a day in which orchestral and even operatic rehearsal time was sparse (particularly in Britain) compared to the mid-20th century, Sir Henry’s desire to play as wide a variety of music as possible meant that often times he had but one brief rehearsal with the players, prior to taking the stage with his orchestra.
Sir Henry sought to overcome this potential handicap by writing careful performance instructions on the sheet music passed out to players. Even so, Sir Henry’s ability to create highly regarded orchestral performances with very little rehearsal time earned him a reputation as a musical workhorse.
This reputation was enhanced when in 1895, Sir Henry spearheaded a new series of promenade concerts to be simply called The Proms. Sir Henry’s Proms were designed to attract audiences more familiar with light and popular music to the serious classical canon. In order to do this, Sir Henry devised programmes which included a calculated mix of light music and more serious classics. Tickets were less expensive than those for more standard classical concerts whilst the ability to consume refreshments and smoke tobacco during performances helped to create a relaxed atmosphere.
The Proms were both a popular and artistic success although Sir Henry was not without his critics. Many mistook his workhorse indefatigably for one which prioritised performances that were technically adequate rather than artistically superior. However, the many recordings that Sir Henry left behind betray this analysis.
Whilst Sir Henry’s performances did not reach the spiritual heights of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Willem Mengelberg or Nikolai Golovanov (few if any ever did and none have done so since) – Sir Henry’s performances were by no means a dry and stagnant affair. Sir Henry’s unique English sound that he cultivated over many decades was soulful without being soppy and was exciting without being self-indulgent. Whilst Arturo Toscanini was known as the master perfectionist of earl 20th century orchestral performance, Sir Henry’s performances tend to offer a far greater warmth and personality than those of the hot tempered Italian.
Sir Henry’s music making helped Britain through both world wars although he did not personally live to see victory in the second, having died in August of 1944. But whilst many great modern maestros leave behind a collection of recordings, Sir Henry did that and more. His original musical arrangements of composers ranging from Bach to Mussorgsky are an often forgotten part of his legacy, but his creation and leadership of The Proms remains the central part of Sir Henry’s living legacy.
This is one of the reasons why it was so disheartening to see anti-democratic opponents of Britain’s Brexit referendum transform the highly anticipated Last Night of The Proms into a garish, vulgar and miserable political rally. The Last Night of The Proms has always been an evening of joyous patriotic music that is attended by revellers from across the world. Although Sir Henry did not live to see television’s dramatic rise to prominence, his wireless broadcasts which helped bring his music into homes across Britain is surely the predecessor to today’s broadcasts of The Proms on internet and television.
This year however, those insisting on transforming the Last Night of The Proms into a political rally blighted the experience for a great many people. Pro-EU and in the UK context anti-democratic agitation groups waited outside the Royal Albert Hall where they handed out free EU flags and other pro-EU paraphernalia prior to the beginning of the performance.
During the performance, large EU flags, EU hats and a giant pro-EU phallus were never out of shot as the BBC cameras seemed to be fixated on a message that sought to reduce patriotic British music to a mere accompaniment to the vision of the EU which ultimately seeks to abolish nation-states whilst crushing both national and regional cultures through a process of bleak homogenisation.
Because of the strong feelings of contempt for the current pro-EU Parliament throughout every part of England outside of the affluent but aloof capital, the waving of EU flags during what was designed to be an evening of music and a gay national spirit, was a provocation designed to spit in the face of 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit and specifically, it was designed to spit in the face of many of the 17.4 million who had hoped to watch and listen to The Last Night of The Proms without being bombarded by hostile symbols of a foreign entity with which Britain is currently in a protracted dispute.
The most awkward part of the sordid affair is that whilst the planting of EU flags on audience members was deliberate rather than organic or spontaneous, those who handed out the EU flags do not even understand why a great many people are so upset.
The pro-EU “remoaners” act as though they are on some holy mission to politicise every element of public life in the manner of a totalitarian communist regime. By contrast, not a single “Brexit Party” banner appeared at the Royal Albert Hall. There is a reason for this. Supporters of the Brexit cause and the Brexit Party self-evidently knew that it would be wrong to politicise an evening of joyous and patriotic music. Those who believe they have a divine right to rule in the name of liberalism do not however share the good manners and restraint of those who respect and cherish democracy.
It is high time to restore The Proms to the traditions set in motion by the great Sir Henry Wood. Anything less would constitute a theft by this generation, committed against the next generation who have every right to enjoy The Proms in the spirit in which the concerts were first created.