Founder and chief conductor of the Proms for nearly 50 years, Henry Wood was just 26 when he put on and conducted the first ‘Prom’ concert, held at Queen’s Hall on 10 August 1895.
Wood and co-founder Robert Newman had a vision for a series of concerts that anyone could attend, regardless of how much money they earned. In 1895, Promming (standing) tickets to these concerts cost just a shilling; approximately 60p in today’s money.
Wood and Newman wanted to introduce a broad range of classical music to a much wider audience, always working to truly democratise the genre. The atmosphere of the concerts was informal; people were permitted to eat and drink during performances (providing they kept the noise down during the quiet pieces) and the music had to be popular.
In the first seasons, a tradition was established of a ‘Wagner Night’ on Mondays and a ‘Beethoven Night’ on Fridays and, as the seasons went on, Wood continually presented an enterprising mixture of the familiar and the adventurous, programming new works each season. By 1920 Wood had introduced many of the leading composers of the day to the Proms audiences, including Richard Strauss, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Vaughan Williams.
Henry Wood was passionate about promoting young and talented performers and fought to raise orchestral standards, abolishing the system in which orchestral players could send deputies to rehearsals and appear in person only for the concert.
An enduring legacy
Wood passed away on 19 August 1944 aged 75, having conducted at the Proms for nearly half a century. After his death, the concerts were officially renamed as the “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”, and the Proms continue to be the longest running series of orchestral concerts in the world.
Today Henry Wood is remembered every year at the Proms with the placing of a bronze bust – borrowed from the Royal Academy of Music – at the back of the Royal Albert Hall’s stage. On the Last Night of the Proms each year, a member of the audience places a chaplet over the bust and Wood’s ‘Fantasia on British Sea Songs’ is performed.
Once the Proms have finished, the chaplet is taken from Wood’s bust to St Sepulchre’s Church and a service is held in his memory.