Hugh Wood obituary

Composer of orchestral, chamber and vocal works that were intensely felt and finely crafted

There was great passion behind the music of the composer Hugh Wood, who has died aged 89. Nonetheless, he reconciled it with classically established standards, whether in symphonic, chamber or vocal works.

A BBC commission brought him to prominence when Scenes from Comus, for soprano, tenor and orchestra, had its premiere at the BBC Promenade Concerts in 1965. Around then he began work on a Cello Concerto, which for a while interested Jacqueline du Pré; he was hurt when she lost interest, but the project was rescued when Zara Nelsova agreed to be the first performer, at the 1969 Proms and later with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Later works – the First Violin Concerto (1972), Piano Concerto (1991), written for Joanna MacGregor, a pupil, Symphony (1982) and Third String Quartet (1978) presented, in the words of his biographer Edward Venn, “a passage from turmoil and tragedy to radiance and triumph” (The Music of Hugh Wood, 2008). His other major orchestral work, the Variations, was included in the last night of the 1998 Proms.

Hugh Wood at a rehearsal for the premiere of his Second Violin Concerto.
Hugh Wood at a rehearsal for the premiere of his Second Violin Concerto. Photograph: Alamy

As well as adding two more string quartets, over the course of more than half a century he produced a wealth of other chamber music, 70 songs with piano, and choral pieces. The Second Violin Concerto, begun in 2003, eventually received its premiere in 2009, by Alexandra Wood, another pupil, and the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, and the choral work Epithalamion was premiered at the Proms in 2015. The string trio Ithaka (2016) was based on the poem by Constantine Cavafy meditating on Ulysses’ homeward voyage.

Recordings included Scenes from Comus and the Symphony, conducted by Andrew Davis; a coupling of Manoug Parikian playing the First Violin Concerto and Moray Welsh the Cello Concerto; MacGregor playing the Piano Concerto; and the first four string quartets played by the Chilingirian Quartet. A selection of chamber works appeared on the Toccata label (2012), and Wild Cyclamen (2015) contained settings of Laurie Lee, DH Lawrence and others for voice and piano.

Born at Parbold, near Wigan, Hugh was the son of James, a solicitor, and his wife, Winifred (nee Bradshaw), a former piano pupil of Frank Merrick, and music was cultivated in the family. He was educated first at a Liverpool school evacuated to the Lake District, then at Oundle school, Northamptonshire, during which time a visit to William Glock’s Bryanston summer school gave him a musical epiphany of the kind reported by other substantial composers who grew up without formal musical training. From then on he was determined that music must be central in his life.

National service followed, then a modern history degree at New College, Oxford (1951-54), where he wrote incidental music for student theatre productions. When a set of songs for choir and piano was performed, an unexpectedly positive review by a music faculty student who did not know him provided crucial encouragement. In London he took lessons from William Lloyd Webber, Iain Hamilton, Anthony Milner and Matyas Seiber, whom he declared his best teacher of all.

His works became more accomplished as he mastered the traditional techniques of composition, and he discovered the Second Viennese school, which attracted him less through its system than because of the emotional power of its best products and the total, uncompromising integrity of its major figures. A set of variations for viola and piano, first heard in 1959 at a concert of the Society for the Promotion of New Music, was accepted for publication the following year, appearing as his Opus 1.

In his early London years he supported himself by a mixture of music copying, supply teaching, and very soon classes both at Morley College and for the Workers’ Educational Association (now WEA). In 1960 he married the pianist Susan McGaw, to whom his Three Piano Pieces, Op 5, are dedicated. They settled in London and had two daughters and a son.

A movement from an un-numbered quartet from the 1950s by Hugh Wood, performed in 2012 by the Chilingirian String Quaret

His First String Quartet was commissioned by the BBC for the 1962 Cheltenham festival, and he began to broadcast as a speaker in BBC music programmes, as when presenting the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s late-night modern-music concerts at the Round House, north London, in the 1970s.

After a few years of teaching at the Royal Academy of Music in London, in 1966 he moved to Glasgow University as a research fellow, and then to a lecturership at Liverpool University (1971-73). A turning-point came when in 1976 Alexander Goehr, newly appointed as professor at Cambridge, invited him to become a lecturer there. From then until retirement in 1999 he divided his time between weekdays in Churchill College and weekends and vacations in London. Given his invariably meticulous preparation, academic work was bound to eat into the time available for composing, so that deadlines could be something of a nightmare.

As both composer and teacher he insisted on the virtues of craftsmanship, precise inner hearing and the composer’s responsibility for every note he writes. His first publisher, Universal Edition, soon proved a disappointment (it was distasteful to be told home truths such as “Dr Kalmus doesn’t like chamber music”), and he moved to Chester Music (now part of Wise Music), where George Rizza and later Sheila McCrindle made him feel they were behind him in his efforts.

His marriage ended in the late 1980s, though he and Susan remained on good terms, living less than half a mile away from each other in north-west London. In 1988 their elder daughter, Jenny, died while on holiday in Bavaria. A conservation trust in her memory was later merged into the Woodland Trust.

Wood’s intrinsic musical virtues could be summed up in his own tribute to a predecessor, Frank Bridge, whose music spoke unmistakably, he said, of “an inner life, intensely lived”. He was also a writer with a fascinatingly individual and recognisable style, deployed in countless erudite programme notes and a wide range of more extensive reflections, reprinted in Staking Out the Territory, and Other Writings on Music (2007). Included there is his essay A Photograph of Brahms, from the Cambridge Companion to Brahms (1999); he was delighted when reproached by his Cambridge colleague George Steiner for reading like Kingsley Amis in that piece. Like others of the generation that salutes Amis (senior) and Philip Larkin, he was sceptical about more recent and trendy phenomena. In 2013 Plumbago published a collection of his poems, Summer in Tewfik, written between 1947 and the mid-1980s.

His joy in the world extended in its time to a systematic attempt to take in what was on offer at the great London music halls even as they closed down during the 1960s (our many letters were full of music hall catchphrases along the lines of “I do not wish to know that” and “Kindly leave the stage!”). He was a great laugher: I saw him literally rolling in the aisles when watching the twin Grouchos at the mirror in Duck Soup, or Mr Whitmore’s Florida call in another Marx Brothers film, A Day at the Races – though he once sent me Friedrich Hölderlin’s remark translatable as “Are you forever playing and joking?! You have to! O friends, that goes to my heart, for only desperate men have to do so.” A man of great personal warmth, he went to endless trouble to keep in touch with people and help them.

He is survived by Susan, his daughter Rebecca and son, Christopher.

• Hugh Bradshaw Wood, composer, born 27 June 1932; died 14 August 2021

Leo Black died in 2019


Leo Black

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Anthony Payne obituary
Composer celebrated for completing Elgar’s Third Symphony but whose own voice was more modernist in style

Barry Millington

04, May, 2021 @4:53 PM

Article image
John Mitchinson obituary
Tenor who sang Wagner’s Tristan under Reginald Goodall, Beethoven and Mahler at the Proms, and many rarer works

Barry Millington

23, Jan, 2022 @4:39 PM

Article image
Gerald English obituary
Singer and academic who brought a distinctive, unvarnished light tenor timbre to his wide-ranging repertoire

Barry Millington

04, Mar, 2019 @2:58 PM

Article image
Hugh Beresford obituary
Other lives: Opera singer who performed on the world’s major stages in a career lasting more than 30 years

Pat Upstone

17, Jan, 2021 @12:25 PM

Article image
Sidney Denbin obituary
Other lives: Cellist who travelled the world with orchestras and was a fixture at the Proms

Oli de Botton

27, Apr, 2021 @4:43 PM

Article image
Alastair Putt obituary
Other lives: Composer, singer and guitarist whose works were performed widely, including at the BBC Proms

Matthew Kaner

05, Oct, 2022 @4:54 PM

Article image
Elaine Hugh-Jones obituary
Composer whose settings of texts in English display dramatic flair, poetic awareness and assured piano writing

William Coleman

30, Apr, 2021 @4:55 PM

Article image
Robert Ponsonby obituary
Arts director whose inspired programming enriched the Edinburgh festival and BBC Proms

Barry Millington

20, Nov, 2019 @4:42 PM

Article image
Hugh Masekela obituary
Trumpeter and singer-songwriter who was a pioneer of jazz in South Africa and a campaigner against apartheid in exile

Robin Denselow

23, Jan, 2018 @1:47 PM

Article image
Wanda Wiłkomirska obituary
Violinist who specialised in the works of her Polish compatriots

Anne Inglis

18, May, 2018 @3:50 PM