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Wood at 150: a composer’s inner light  

01 July 2016

Garry Humphreys on folksong and quiet devotion in a church musician’s work


THE name of Charles Wood is familiar to anyone who sings or listens to Anglican church music — the anthems “O Thou the Central Orb” (1915) and Expectans expectavi (1919), his Communion Service in the Phrygian Mode (“Wood in the fridge”, 1919), and his arrangement of a 17th-century Dutch melody for the carol “This joyful Eastertide” (1901), to name only four of the most often heard — but perhaps little is known of the man.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Charles Wood’s birth — and the 90th anniversary of his death — and a celebration at St James’s, Sussex Gardens, in west London, on his actual birthday, 15 June, afforded an opportunity to hear some of his music and to learn something about its composer.

Central to this event was Nigel Kenyon, whose father, Derek Kenyon, was one of Wood’s pupils and one of the last people to see Wood alive, visiting him in hospital a few hours before he died. Nigel Kenyon delivered the narration linking the music in this 75-minute presentation, bringing the composer to life with his father’s reminiscences. The story of that last visit was particularly touching.

Wood died at the relatively early age of 60: he began as a foundation scholar at the Royal College of Music, age 16, later becoming a teacher there, as well as at Cambridge University and privately, and numbered among his pupils Thomas Beecham, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, and Michael Tippett.

According to another pupil, Edward Dent, what Wood really wanted to do was to write for the stage and for the concert room. There was some incidental music, two chamber operas based on Dickens, a small amount of orchestral music, including a piano concerto (1886), and the Patrick Sarsfield symphonic variations on an Irish air (1899).

But more significant are eight string quartets, the first written when Wood was 18, the last around 1916/7, during the course of which — as Wood’s biographer, Ian Copley, observes — “the contours of Irish folk song and the rhythms of Irish folk dance came more and more to modify Wood’s basically classical style.”

At St James’s, we heard a movement from one of the two E-flat major quartets (the “Highgate”, 1892-93), played superbly and with evident enjoyment by a quartet from the Royal College of Music. I hope they have the complete work in their repertoire: I would love to hear it. This was preceded by Quodlibet (1888), in which each instrument (including a third violin) plays a well-known tune – “Garryowen”, “The British Grenadiers”, the National Anthem, “Home, sweet home”, and “All through the night” — ingeniously combined contrapuntally. This was a trifle, perhaps, but brilliantly done.

It was disappointing that the names of the members of the quartet were not announced and di not appear in the printed programme. For me, their playing was the highlight of the evening.

The choral music was sung by two choirs — the Holy Trinity, Brompton, Chamber Choir and the Crofton Singers, separately and together, in various combinations — clearly relishing the expansive acoustic of St James’s, ideal for this music: not only examples of Wood’s anthems and service settings, but also some delightful secular part-songs.

Wood also wrote solo songs, including several Whitman and Christina Rossetti settings, and I would have happily settled for fewer choral pieces, given the opportunity perhaps to hear something from the volume of Ten Songs for Low Voice (1927).

Wood made a very large number of folksong arrangements, many of them collected in the Irish County Songs series. But it was church music that flowed most swiftly from his pen. As well as the services, anthems, carol arrangements, and hymn tunes, his crowning achievement is generally seen as being The Passion of our Lord according to St Mark, written in 1920 and published the following year.

During his centenary year, 1966, his pupil Margaret Hayes Nosek said of him that he “did not shine like a sun on the international scene. He was one of those steadfast, true musicians of whom England has produced so many to her glory; who shed their inner light on those around them.” He has often been compared to his near-contemporary and fellow Irishman Charles Stanford; but they were very different in temperament and many, including Nosek, “consider Wood’s work higher in quality; it is certainly deeper emotionally”.

Indeed: after the inevitable climax — “Hail, gladdening light” (1912) for unaccompanied double choir — there was a period of silence, then “True love’s the gift” (1912), setting words by Sir Walter Scott as a wedding anthem later issued as a part-song, ended the programme with a depth of emotion immediately apparent.

Perhaps these 150th-anniversary celebrations, masterminded by the Royal School of Church Music — and with proceeds divided between the RSCM and Lost Chord, a dementia charity using music to help patients — will widen our appreciation of Wood and encourage a wider exploration of his music.


A collection of Wood’s church music has been recorded by the choir of his old college, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge.


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