Sometimes violently expressionistic, sometimes poignantly lyrical, his music is powerfully communicative and intensely felt, though when creating lighter moods, such as in the jazzy Piano Concerto, his writing is equally eloquent. He typically prefers chamber music genres, though large scale works such as Symphony and Violin Concerto are amongst his most striking.
Critical Acclaim...one of our most craftsmanly composers... he fashions scores that go straight to their purpose. You can almost hear the clink of the anvil on which he hammers them out; but besides their brilliant clarity they have an athletic vigour. - Paul Driver, The Sunday Times
...imaginative richness and technical assurance. What gives this music its lasting freshness … is the natural grave and eloquence with which it speaks a language once thought heavy and inarticulate. - Financial Times
Hugh Wood was born at Parbold, near Wigan, Lancashire, on 27 June 1932. His mother had been Frank Merrick’s first piano pupil in Manchester: both his father and his elder brother were actively fond of music. Wood went up to Oxford on a major scholarship to New College, and read Modern History. He remains grateful for early support from Alan Bush, Dr. H.K. Andrews (organist of New College) and Joseph Horovitz. He started serious academic study when he was 22, working with Dr. W.S. Lloyd Webber and gaining an ARCM. He continued to study harmony and counterpoint with Anthony Milner. He took composition lessons from Iain Hamilton and (briefly before his untimely death in 1960) Mátyás Seiber.
Wood has taught music at Morley College (1958-67), the Royal Academy of Music (1962-65), the universities of Glasgow (1966-70), Leeds (1975-6), Liverpool (1971-5) and finally Cambridge where he was appointed University Lecturer and became a Fellow and Director of Studies in Music at Churchill College in 1977. He retired from these posts in 1999.
He was a regular broadcaster at the BBC and has always written a good deal about music—mainly a huge number of programme notes but also longer articles in Beethoven (originally a broadcast) and Brahms. Both these latter essays are to be found in a book of his collected writings staking Out the Territory, which was published by the Plumbago Press in January 2008.
Wood has always liked to write chamber music. An early string quartet was played at an SPNM concert in July 1959 as part of the Cheltenham Festival, and has recently been successfully revived. His Op. 1, the Variations for Viola and Piano was first heard in a London SPNM concert in July 1959 then repeated in January 1960. His Trio for flute, viola and piano was commissioned by the John Lewis Partnership and performed in December 1961. Wood’s first commission from the BBC—one of many—was his 1st String Quartet - premiered at Cheltenham on 5 July 1962. The Second and Fourth Quartets were commissioned by the BBC for performance in 1970 and 1993 and the third was premiered at the Bath Festival in 1978. The Fifth Quartet was first heard at Sheffield in October 2001.
Wood has written very little for solo piano. The Three Piano Pieces Op.5 was first performed at Cheltenham in 1963: his Ballade was premiered at the 2012 Bath Festival. He has however written a number of Trios, for various forces: a Piano Trio in 1984: a Horn Trio (Koussevitzky Award) in 1989 and a Clarinet Trio in 1997. There is also a Quintet Op.9 for clarinet, horn and piano trio (1967); a Paraphrase on Bird of Paradise for Clarinet and piano (1985); and Poem for violin and piano which was premiered in 1994, when Wood was featured composer in the PLG Young Artists series; and also a Clarinet Quintet (2007).
Wood’s orchestral output began with Scenes from Comus which marked his first appearance at the Proms in 1965. Concertos for cello (1969), for violin (1972), and for piano (1991) followed: the first and last of these were Prom premieres, commissioned by the BBC. A 2nd Violin concerto was first performed in London in March 2012. The Chamber Concerto, written for the London Sinfonietta, was premiered in 1971.The Symphony, which took eight years to write, also appeared first at a Prom concert in 1982. A set of Orchestral Variations for the BBCSO was written for their tour of Japan, but was first heard here at the Last Night of the Proms in 1998. The Serenade and Elegy for string orchestra and string quartet, in memory of Wood’s daughter, was first heard at Cheltenham in 1999.
Wood has produced a certain amount of choral writing, both accompanied and unaccompanied. A cappella are the Three Choruses for the John Alldis Choir (1966) The Kingdom of God for St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir (1994) and a work for the BBC Singers …from the Pisan Cantos, premiered at Cheltenham in July 2012. Accompanied choral works are the Cantata Op.30 (D.H. Lawrence Bavarian Gentians) also a memorial piece, for choir and small orchestra; and Tenebrae, a setting of poems by Geoffrey Hill, which uses a small choir and group of instruments.
The soprano and tenor who took part in Scenes from Comus were to have their successors in works for solo voice and orchestra. The Song Cycle to Poems by Pablo Neruda of 1974 set chamber-orchestral forces against a solo voice. Beginnings, a re-working of three early songs (anon., Dylan Thomas and Auden) is for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra and first performed at Presteigne in 2010.
There are many songs of which settings of Laurie Lee, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, Edwin Muir, Neruda, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Erich Fried and Christopher Logue are only a small part: these are the perhaps the most neglected part of his output. Nevertheless, Wild Cyclamen Op.49, commissioned by the BBC and the Royal Philharmonic Society for Andrew Kennedy, was performed by him and Simon Lepper at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, and given a British Composers Award in 2006.
Many of Hugh Wood’s works have been commercially recorded. They include Scenes from Comus and the Symphony (both NMC); all three concertos, four of the string quartets, The Kingdom of God, the Horn Trio (Erato), and a re-issue of the 1st and 2nd quartets with two song collections The Rider Victory and The Horses (Lyrita). A CD of most of Wood’s chamber music was released on the Toccata Classics label in 2009: and a CD of some of his songs is currently planned.
Edward Venn has written about Hugh Wood’s music in a book published by Ashgate in 2009. This is a thorough account of all his music (with a certain amount of biography thrown in) and treats all his works up to and including Wild Cyclamen, though it mentions later ones.
The music of Hugh Wood is published exclusively by Chester Music Ltd.