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A YORKSHIRE MUSICIAN - ARTHUR WOOD (1875-1953)
by Philip L Scowcroft
BBC Radio 4's The Archers has made the name of Arthur wood immortal, for its signature tune, which has been played ten times a week for more than three decades is his Barwick Green the finale of a suite entitled My Native Heath whose other movements are Knaresborough Status (or Hiring Fair), Ilkley Tarn (or Dance of the Sprites) and Bolton Abbey (Slow Melody). Although as we shall see, much of Wood's career was spent in London, where he died on 18th January 1953, his native heath was indeed Yorkshire, and the titles of many of his compositions besides this show that he never forgot this.
Arthur Wood was born at Heckmondwicke on 24th January 1875, the son of a tailor who was a violinist in a local amateur orchestra. As a boy Arthur played the violin but the flute (and piccolo) soon became his major instruments. When the family moved to Harrogate in 1882 he received free flute lessons from Arthur Brookes of the spa orchestra, an orchestra Arthur was soon to play in. (Brookes later emigrated and played in the Boston Symphony Orchestra). Arthur left school at the age of 12 and two years later became Organist of St Paul's Presbyterian Church in Harrogate. By the time he was sixteen the flautist, accompanist, solo pianist and deputy conductor to J Sidney Jones, father of the composer of The Geisha, conductor of the Harrogate Municipal Orchestra which played four times a day in the Valley Gardens. Later he moved to the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra and played under the baton of Dan Godfrey.
His ambition, however, was to conduct and this was realised in London's theatre land. When he became Musical Director at Terry's Theatre in 1903 he was, at 28, the youngest M.D. in the metropolis. He is said to have owed this engagement to Sidney Jones, the son of his former chief at Harrogate, who was impressed by Wood's Three Old Dances published in 1902. From Terry's he moved to the Apollo, where he directed Messager's Véronique; the Adelphi, the Shaftesbury, where between 1908 and 1917 he conducted The Arcadians, The Pearl Girl, Princess Caprice etc; the Gaiety; His Majesty's; Daly's where, between 1922 and 1926, he was required to conduct The Merry Widow; The Prince of Wales; and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Wood conducted London theatre orchestras for more than three decades; in between times he toured America with Véronique and conducted some of the early recordings of certain of the Savoy operas.
Wood composed prolifically. As a theatre conductor it was natural for him to try his hand at musicals of his own, like Yvonne, Petticoat Fair and Fancy Fair, the latter two around the end of the Great War. His many orchestral arrangements included: selections from operettas such as Oscar Straus' Cleopatra and his own works in that genre; the overture to The Arcadians: Elgar's early violin piece Mot d'Amour and, for the BBC, accompaniments to traditional songs. As was the case with Elgar, Wood's study of orchestration, which began when as a boy he copied out music at 2d a sheet, was purely practical and owed nothing to academic study. He was a staff composer with Boosey & Hawkes for whom he brought out dozens of orchestral suites and short genre pieces. Many of these recall his North Country origins: Three Dale Dances, Three More Dale Dances, Yorkshire Moors Suite, the Yorkshire Rhapsody Barnsley Fair, A Lancashire Clog Dance, the Overture Shipley Glen and the miniatures Moorland Fiddlers and On The Moor. But like Albert Ketelbey and Eric Coates he could create all kinds of mood pictures. For example the Three Old Dances, which as have seen, helped him on his way as a conductor: their titles are True Hearts, Forget-Me-Not and Gaiety. The suite Widow Malone (1937) affords Irish colour and there was also the Three Mask Dances and the Ballerina Suite not to mention trifles like Coquetterie, Fairy Dreams, Fiddlers Three, Too Many Girls and an Oriental Scene, which never attained the popularity of Ketelbey's In a Persian Market. Wood composed a Concertino in A major for his favourite instrument, the flute, published in 1948 in a reduction for flute and piano, also a trifle Merriment for piccolo and orchestra. One item which was popular in its day, a One-Step You Can't Keep Still achieved publication as a solo for violin or cello.
Apart from perennially popular Barwick Green, we hear little of Arthur Wood's music today though brass bands for whom he wrote marches like All Clear and Royal Progress remain faithful to his transcription of the Three Dale Dances in which form they sound well. He was a respected adjudicator of brass band contests. He has been dead for over thirty years; surely it is high time to dust down some of these orchestral suites and maybe even the Concertino for flute, so that we can see for ourselves just how good an answer to Nottingham's Eric Coates was Yorkshire's Arthur Wood.
Readily available material on Arthur Wood is not plentiful; the standard music dictionaries maintain in relation to him the same conspiracy of silence they accord other "light music composers". This little study has been assembled from many sources, The Times (20 Jan 1953), The Cleckheaton & Spenborough Guardian (23 Jan 1953), etc - (acknowledgement to Kirklees Library Services for making these available.)
© Philip L Scowcroft.
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