Thursday, 31 October 2013

Sir Henry Wood: A Tribute by Sir Arnold Bax

I recently came across a small book entitled Homage to Sir Henry Wood. This had been published in 1944 as a ‘world symposium’ by the London Philharmonic Orchestra to commemorate the great conductor’s 75th birthday. Alas he was to die a few months after this celebration.  A number of eminent musicians contributed to this volume including Ernest Ansermet, Leopold Stokowski, Alan Bush, RVW and Harriet Cohen.  Bax’s tribute is particularly attractive. No commentary is required.

" ... A physical giant" The very first time that I saw Henry J. Wood was in 1896, when as a small boy I was taken to a Promenade Concert, by an aunt. We arrived late, just as the violins began that Tannhauser Overture figure in the slow movement of Mozart's G Minor symphony.
Not unnaturally I cannot remember any of the rest of the programme. To my juvenile eyes the Queen's Hall was a vast bewilderment and the imposingly black-bearded conductor a physical giant.
Two years later I stole off alone from Hampstead to attend my earliest symphony concert. Though still super-human the conductor's stature had slightly diminished. Sir Henry has always seemed a little touched that I recall my first hearing on that occasion of Brahm's Third Symphony in a programme concluding with the ‘Prelude and Liebestod’ [Tristan & Isolde]. I had never yet heard this adored work either, but dared not stay for it for fear of reprimand at home. (I was supposed to have gone with my brother and tutor to a Memorial Exhibition of the paintings of the recently dead Burne-Jones.)
In September, 1910, I was summoned to a preliminary run-through on the piano of ‘n the Faery Hills’, the first piece of mine to be performed under Wood's direction. I knocked at his door in considerable trepidation, but was quickly relieved when he bustled into the music room-quite normally life-sized-and proved kindness itself. Ever since that morning he has been my fast friend, has conducted most of my orchestral works and given the first performance of many of them-always with the same sympathy and quick appreciation of the essentials of the score.
Perhaps I may boast of being the only composer who has ever played lawn tennis with Sir Henry. I must confess-and he is unlikely to put in a counter-claim-that his dexterity with the racquet was scarcely on a par with his skill with the baton. But, he brought plenty of zest to the game, even though he often seemed vague as to the court in which he should be standing.
I hope that someone else will write fully of his delightful paintings of the Alps and Grampians.

Arnold Bax Homage to Sir Henry Wood, 1944

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