Reflections by David Matthews

Hugh Wood, who died on 14 August this year at the age of 89, was one of our finest composers. He was born in Lancashire in June 1932 into a musical family (his mother was a pianist), but he was a late starter as a composer.

After public school (Oundle), he did National Service in Egypt, then read modern history at New College Oxford. His first attempts at composing there received no help from the music faculty, as he ruefully noted in an undergraduate article for the University magazine Isis. But moving to London, he had lessons successively from four composers – William Lloyd Webber, Iain Hamilton, Anthony Milner and Mátyás Seiber – and in 1957 wrote his Opus 1, Variations for viola and piano. 

Wood wrote relatively few works during his long life – though he did reach Op.61 – but   all of them are superbly crafted: every note counts. His earliest music had been tonal and much indebted to Tippett and Bartók. But like many English composers of his generation, when in 1957 Wood discovered the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, “I knew at once that they were to show me the way forward for my music; as, indeed, they have ever since.

The revelation was primarily an emotional experience for me, and however imperfectly their influence was received, it was obviously reflected in the all-out chromaticism (new for me then), in the many chains of the twelve notes, … the characteristic harmonic and rhythmic formations, the wide and sometimes angular intervals of the melodies and in general the introverted romanticism. Anyway, I knew then that this was the sort of music that I henceforth would want to write.”

Berg was a more important and lasting influence than either Schoenberg or Webern: like Berg, Wood was able to combine serialism (though rarely strict) with references to tonality, and with passages of intense emotional warmth. Of all those composers who were influenced by the Second Viennese School, Wood seems to me to have been one of the most convincing: the expressionist language he used was, like Berg, or in the USA Leon Kirchner, entirely suited to the things he wanted to say. 

Wood combined his career as a composer with teaching – first at Morley College and the Royal Academy of Music and then at the universities of Glasgow, Liverpool and Cambridge (where for many years he was a fellow of Churchill College) and writing. He wrote many reviews, articles on particular composers, and programme notes, which were always full of brilliant insights. Many of them have been collected in Staking Out the Territory, published in 2007 by Plumbago. Despite having a first-class mind, Wood himself was very modest about his abilities. But everything he said, like everything he wrote, was memorable. And he had a delightful, incisive sense of humour. He was in every respect an exceptional man, who enhanced the world.

I met Hugh more than fifty years ago through his friend Nicholas Maw, who had become a friend of mine. In my twenties the two pieces of new British music that most impressed me were Nicholas’s Scenes and Arias and Hugh’s Scenes from Comus. Throughout his life I kept in touch with Hugh and heard all his important premieres, which maintained the high standard he had set himself.

There was a stylistic development: the later works were less emotionally extreme and began to include more extensive references to tonality. His last major piece, the choral and orchestral An Epithalamion or Mariage Song, to words by John Donne, premiered at the BBC Proms in 2015, was an extended recomposition of an unfinished tonal work from 1955 and splendidly jubilant. Also thoroughly tonal were his Divertimento for strings from 2007, and the recomposed Three Early Songs from 2010. Hugh was not a composer to renounce his beginnings.

Pictured above from left to right are George Vass, David Matthews, Hugh Wood and Thomas Hyde

In this article I want to survey Hugh’s major orchestral works and his string quartets. I shall have to omit his many songs, all of which show how adept he was at setting words and writing intensely singable vocal lines. His Scenes from Comus is an early fine demonstration of this. It was written between 1962 and 1965 for soprano, tenor and large orchestra and premiered at the BBC Proms, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (who also premiered three more of Wood’s major orchestral works) conducted by Norman Del Mar.

It was his breakthrough piece; it immediately put him in the front rank of young British composers. The work sets part of Milton’s masque Comus. A Lady (soprano) journeys through a ‘wilde wood’ where Comus (tenor), the son of Bacchus and Circe, attempts to enchant her, and dances with his followers. As Wood writes: “At the height of the dances the Lady herself is glimpsed in their midst: she appears to be enjoying herself. The dances then build up towards a final climax, at which the whole fantastic scene collapses and vanishes as if it were a dream.” A duet for the singers leads to a quiet ending that recapitulates the beginning.

The solo horn that begins and ends the piece shows how Wood, like Britten, could fashion a memorable – and beautiful – theme from a 12-note row. The vocal lines are deftly lyrical, while the orchestral writing is simply superb, as Wood’s handling of the orchestra was always to be. Scenes from Comus is more of an orchestral work with vocal interludes than the other way round. Its climax comes in the dance sequence whose additive rhythms parallel and indeed rival in sheer exuberance Tippett’s Ritual Dances from The Midsummer Marriage

Wood’s next orchestral work was a Cello Concerto, also premiered at a Promenade Concert in 1969 by Zara Nelsova, and later recorded by Moray Walsh. It is a large-scale single movement lasting around 25 minutes. The orchestra is again large, but like Elgar, Wood never uses the full orchestra when the soloist is playing, so he or she is always audible. It begins with an extended, slowly rising melody for the soloist, initially over repeated rising tritones on the harp. Long, often anguished passages for the soloist alternate with passionate, sometimes violent outbursts from the orchestra.

The prevailing mood is one of turbulent darkness, with occasional moments of hard-won triumph. At the end, the mood quietens and softens; there is a brief quotation from Elgar’s Cello Concerto (from the sad meditation near the end of the finale) before the cello ends the work pianissimo with the repeated rising tritone from the beginning of the Concerto, now high in the treble clef. The Concerto is a masterpiece – though, like Elgar’s, a disturbing one. 

The first of Wood’s two violin concertos followed soon after the Cello Concerto. It was written for Manoug Parikian, who gave the first performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 1972. It is a calmer work than its predecessor: the opening high B on the violins persists for 38 bars while the soloist muses underneath it. The three movements are continuous: after much varied and vigorous display, the first movement ends quietly as the basses play the opening theme while solo violin phrases rise above them.

The basses sink to their lowest C as the scherzo begins (Wood was very fond of scherzos) with constantly changing time signatures. It has an epigraph, ‘flame, sword, flower’, which perhaps refers to Robert Nichols’s wild, passionate love poem The Flower of Flame, with its line ‘Sheer light falls in a single sword like a sign’, although Wood’s music, mostly delicately scored, with tripping energy, does not often reflect the poem’s mood. The third movement begins with a long cadenza, then builds to a recapitulation of the opening of the Concerto with its high B, before a boisterous Allegro coda: as Wood writes: “the work ends briskly with a touch of flamboyance”.

It was 10 years before Wood wrote another orchestral work, but in 1982, his fiftieth year, his Symphony was premiered, again at the BBC Proms. It is his longest, most ambitious work, stylistically his most diverse, and uses his largest orchestra, with six horns, four each of trumpets and trombones, two tubas and much percussion. The Symphony is in two parts, each in two linked movements.

The first movement is headed tempesta, and we are immediately plunged into a terrifying storm, with the two sets of timpani at the forefront of the turmoil. At the height of the storm the music suddenly breaks off, leaving the cellos to quote the love theme for Act 1 of Die Walküre. Because Wood did not write his own programme note, this is left to our imagination to explain. Another outburst calms to the second movement, elegia, which is prefaced by a quotation in Greek: ‘The God Abandons Antony’, the title of a poem by one of Wood’s favourite poets, Constantine Cavafy. In the elegia Wood’s love of wide-spaced, highly expressive string melodies was never used to better effect.

Taking up Cavafy’s lines about ‘an invisible procession going by/ with exquisite music’, the strings are interrupted several times, first by quiet drums and gongs, then a little march for woodwind, percussion and celesta which anticipates two quotations of Tamino and Pamina’s trial march from The Magic Flute, the first grotesquely embellished, the second pure Mozart. This is prefaced by another Magic Flute quotation: a little episode in F sharp major for string quartet which is a transcription of the vocal quartet – a hymn to music – from the end of Act 2. After a brief pause the third movement is an extensive scherzo, as hectic as ever, before it slows to the finale. As in Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, this is a passacaglia, with 21 variations. As it approaches the end, the harmonic progressions become more and more masterfully precise as they approach the resplendent A major of the final chord, the only possible conclusion.

After attending a performance of the Symphony in April 1991 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis, who later made a fine recording of the work, I wrote in a letter to my then partner Maggie Hemingway “Hugh’s Symphony is very like Hugh. It’s a ‘take that’ piece – forceful, quite angry, with some wild gestures, and also intensely romantic & full of feeling, but held back by the constraining discipline of its language, which is perhaps too clogged & knotty at times – yet one feels he needs a cage around him in order to have something to escape from.

When he finally does escape – at the very end of the piece – he almost goes over the top. What has been a film noir – some dark tragedy about betrayed love (one senses very strongly a secret programme), which opens with a violent storm & is set in some bleak no-man’s land, suddenly bursts into technicolour & cinemascope at the end, flowers appear everywhere & summer arrives overnight. It’s dangerous territory but it comes off, & redeems a lot of the earlier grit & grimness, so that altogether it makes a strong & moving impression. There was a tiny audience – a great shame – but Hugh was very pleased.”

Eight years later came a third concerto, for piano. This was written for Joanna McGregor, a former pupil of Wood’s at Cambridge, and was another Prom commission. Wood exploits her capacity and willingness to play the most difficult modern music – there are fistfuls of notes – and her love of jazz. The tone of the music is new: Wood called it “brash and extrovert”. In the first movement the familiar leaping string lines recall late Stravinsky rather than Berg, as do the frequent chugging chords.

The slow movement presents another new side of Wood: it is a set of variations on the 1920s song ‘Sweet Lorraine’, made famous by Nat King Cole in the 1950s. The tune itself does not appear until Variation 5 – on solo trombone, then again on the piano in Variation 7, but the seductive blues harmonies are there from the start. The finale amalgamates the two styles, racing along in a molto vivace dance.

The last of Wood’s four concertos, his second concerto for violin, was written for another Cambridge pupil, Alexandra Wood, and completed in 2004. It is similar in conception to the Piano Concerto, beginning with a rather stern, angular Allegro which, in this case, becomes calmer as it proceeds, and ends with a lengthy meditation over first a G minor triad and then an E flat minor one. It is followed by a slow movement whose quiet lyricism is interrupted by a faster, more disturbed central section. The mood is quite Bergian, and in in fact Wood almost quotes a four-note motif from the first movement of Berg’s Violin Concerto which, as in the Berg, is presented together with its inversion. The finale introduces a Spanish flavour (“Alexandra is good at Sarasate”, Wood wrote in his programme note) with castanets and much use of other rhythmic percussion. As it develops the music becomes more and more tonal, and popular in style, and it ends jubilantly. 

Like the concerto and the symphony, the string quartet was a medium that Wood always regarded as important for him. In addition to his five numbered string quartets, there is also an earlier Quartet in B flat written in 1956-7, which is strongly influenced by Tippett’s Second Quartet and by Bartók’s quartets and his Divertimento for String Orchestra, but attractive in its own right. Wood revised it in 2012 for a performance by the Chilingirian Quartet. His official First Quartet was composed for the Dartington Quartet in 1962 to a BBC commission (his first).

It is perhaps Wood’s most Schoenbergian work, in the traditional four movements, concise and concentrated, with all the notes are precisely imagined and placed, in particular in the brief but eloquent Adagietto. But is there a slight lack of freedom? Wood seems to have felt this himself, writing in 1970 “the well-composed is not enough. I came to realize this through looking at paintings.” He then refers to a favourite artist of his, William Scott, and his “rough, magic, not-quite circles” and continues: “I long to bring just that quality somehow to my own work: to use a thicker brush, to make a bolder gesture, to play off rough against smooth, to leave rough edges and drips of paint.”

He had just finished his Second Quartet, also for the Dartington Quartet, which is indeed an attempt to do this. Instead of division into movements, there are 39 numbered sections, in some of which there are no time signatures and no fixed durations for the notes, the kind of writing that Lutoslawski was experimenting with at the time, and that Wood was aware of. Wood described the Quartet as “a sequence of short pieces of material simply laid end to end, objets trouvés shown off in different lights by their constantly changing juxtapositions with each other, the individual quality of each item, rather than its underlying relationship with the rest, determining its inclusion in the whole.”  But, he continued, “I couldn’t, and can’t, stomach the arbitrary; and soon found myself drawn back to old interests in trying to develop different characters and make transitions between them.” 

His Third Quartet, composed between 1976 and 1978 for the Lindsay Quartet, demonstrates how he did this. Although it is also in numbered sections – 24 of them – there is much more of a feeling of development throughout towards a goal. Quotations from Donne (A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day) and George Herbert appear in the score, indicating a progression from darkness to light, from midwinter to spring. But the initial darkness (a chorale in the lower strings) is lightened by many fragments of birdsong, which gradually guide the music towards an awakening, announced by long lyrical melodies, first for the viola and then the cello. The harmonic progressions towards the end anticipate the closing passage of the Symphony, and the Quartet ends positively in almost C major. 

The Fourth and Fifth Quartets both return to a separate movement form, the Fourth with four movements and the Fifth with five. Both show his stylistic change, which is already apparent in the second half of the Piano Concerto and I suppose could be called ‘late’, though Wood still had nearly 30 years to live when he completed No.4 in 1993 for his favourite quartet, the Chilingirian, to whom it is dedicated. From the start, one senses greater harmonic stability, which is very apparent in the scherzo that follows the brief introductory movement without a break. With its cascades of pizzicatos, it is an exuberant dance, lighter in mood than most of his previous scherzos. The lengthy Adagio could even be described as serene, and its coda is one of the most beautiful passages in all Wood’s music. The finale’s energy is again exuberant, and the quartet ends on the dominant of C, resisting the temptation to add a C major chord. 

The Fifth Quartet, composed for the Lindsays in 2000-1, is, perhaps surprisingly, a more expressionist work than its two predecessors. Its five-movement form, with two scherzos surrounding a central slow movement, is deliberately modelled on Bartók’s Fourth Quartet, and apart from the slow movement it emulates Bartók’s high level of dissonance. The Allegro energico first movement begins quite violently and hardly relaxes, while the finale mirrors its restless, driving energy. The two scherzos are both nocturnes – again the uneasy Bartókian kind of nocturne – and both are marked Prestissimo. The second, over in a flash, is almost entirely in pizzicato and harmonics. The slow movement, headed Romanza, provides a welcome few minutes of relative relaxation, with its main theme full of lyrical warmth. 

There were to be no more string quartets, but there were two more chamber masterworks to come: a Clarinet Quintet in 2007, a serene and cheerful tonal piece, and a string trio in 2016.

Hugh was a Christian, a rather private one: he never wrote any specifically religious works, though he wrote amDg (ad maiorem Dei gloriam) at the end of his later scores. He had a deep love for poetry, and set some of his favourite poets in his songs, many of which are tonal and show clearly his relation to his English predecessors. He was a rather fine poet himself in his youth – he wrote very little after 1951, but his collected poems were published by Plumbago Press in 2013 as Summer in Tewfik.

Hugh’s last composition, his string trio Ithaka, was based on a poem of that name by his beloved Cavafy, which relates Odysseus’s long journey homewards after the Trojan War to the journey of life, in deeply moving meditative music. Some lines towards the end of Cavafy’s poem might be a summing up of Hugh’s own life, as he surely realised.

Always keep Ithaka in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.