Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
by P L Scowcroft
The average music lover can find it confusing where there are several composers with the same, rather common, surname. Take the case of Wood for example (It is perhaps as well that Sir Henry is not generally known for being a composer!) We may remember Charles, an Irishman who wrote church music, partsongs and so on and was Professor at Cambridge. We may remember Arthur and Haydn, light music composers both, even if for just one piece each: respectively Barwick Green (The Archers theme) and Roses of Picardy. We may remember Hugh, who is still active. But what of Thomas born at Chorley, Lancs on 28 November 1892? Who remembers him?
Thomas Wood was the son of a master mariner and spent much of his childhood afloat, experience which, as we shall see, he reproduced in many of his subsequent compositions. He became a Mus B in 1913 after private study and then went to Exeter College, Oxford. Though medically unfit for military service (his eyesight was always poor) he did work at the Admiralty (1917-18) after which he studied composition (under Stanford, like his namesake Haydn nearly twenty years before) and piano at the Royal College of Music. In 1920 he became a Doctor of Music at Oxford and took up the position of Director of Music at Tonbridge School where he composed two songs with a cricketing flavour. Four years later he returned to Exeter College as Lecturer in Music or Precentor but "went freelance" in 1928 devoting himself to writing, occasional examining and composition though his list of compositions never became extensive. He was Chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1947 and Chairman of the Arts Council's Music Panel in 1949 and was a member of the BBC's Music Advisory Committee; he died just short of his 58th birthday in November 1950 at Bures in Essex where he had lived for many years.
Much of his music was choral, either short partsongs suitable for competitive festivals or cantatas lasting 15-25 minutes and sometimes longer. In the former category were Comfort, A Country Lullaby, Hay Harvest, Mally O, Old Winter, Trip and Go and The Seaman's Compass (for mixed voices), Milking Pails for women's voices, Early Morning Drinking Song, Together (Marching Song), Salt Beef, and the Swazi Warrior (for male voices), This England for unison voices and settings of folk or popular tunes like Bobbie Shaftoe and Waltzing Matilda for various groupings. The longer items, which are mostly with orchestra, included A Ballad of Hampstead Heath (1927), Daniel and the Lions (premiered on the BBC in January 1939), Over the Hills and Far Away (1949) based on nursery rhymes and - perhaps his most ambitious work, unaccompanied and experimenting with then novel choral effects - Chanticleer: A Tale for Singing, which appeared in 1947 and taking something over 40 minutes to perform, is quite the longest of these works or anything else penned by Wood for that matter. However the most popular of his short cantatas were those on nautical themes: Forty Singing Seamen (1925), for baritone, chorus and orchestra, Master Mariners (1927) and Merchantmen (1934) for similar forces and the posthumously published (1951) The Rainbow: A Tale of Dunkirk for tenor, baritone, male chorus and brass band. I have happy recollections of rehearsing and performing Master Mariners in my last year at school, around the time of the composer's death - rousing stuff, in the basic idiom of his teacher Stanford (who was also fired by naval history in his choral work) but with sufficient tang to the harmonies to supply a personal touch. Wood also produced a hymn tune St Osyth and songs and choruses for a play Will Shakespeare.
His instrumental works are few. I remember an orchestral march "with bugles" (I think it was called St George's Day) being played in a Sheffield Philharmonic concert around 1950. He wrote another march Six Bells for brass band but this is not heard these days. The concert overture Suffolk Punch appeared in 1930; Daniel and the Lions (choral and orchestral of course) was premiered by the BBC in January 1939 and received a revival at the 1951 Colchester Festival. The BBC Music Library has in its "orchestral" category only a setting of Greensleeves for strings and two Fanfares (entitled General Salute and C-in-C's Salute) for flute, piccolo, E flat clarinet, three trumpets, three trombones, cymbals and side drum. For woodwind quintet he wrote a piece intriguingly entitled The Brew House at Bures. We have noticed his vocal settings of Waltzing Matilda (SATB, and accompanied two-part voices); he must have had a liking for the tune which he is credited with popularising outside Australia, in which country he travelled widely. It was also the basis for his Waltzing Matilda, A Frolic Founded on an Australian Tune, published for two pianos. for organists he made a version of his unison song This England (set, by the way, to John of Gaunt's inspiring panegyric in Shakespeare's Richard II but never as popular as Hubert Parry's setting of the same words) and produced in 1923 a Fantasy in A subtitled The Hill Country.
Wood wrote much about music (and other things too). His publications included: The Oxford Song Book, Vol 2, a supplement to the original by Percy Buck; Music and Boyhood (1925) suggestions on the possibilities of music in schools and drawing no doubt on his experiences at Tonbridge; Cobbers (1934), a personal record of a journey from Essex to Australia, Tasmania and the Coral Sea in 1931-3; and his autobiography True Thomas which appeared in 1936 when he was only 44 and had fourteen more years left to him.
Despite a voracious appetite for British music I have not heard any of Wood's music for a generation, yet my memories of such as I did get to know are wholly enjoyable. Is he not overdue for a modest revival?
© Philip L Scowcroft.
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