Hugh Wood at 70 – Bill Newman interviews the composer

Written by: Bill Newman

I’m in London NW5 just north of Kentish Town. On one corner is an ancient pub, The Bull and the Last, which, together with another establishment further up the Highgate Road, traces back to the time of King Charles the Second; on the other corner is a dubious shop entitled “A Change of A Dress”. Both showed no signs of life, not surprising where dilapidation and affluence go side by side. Typically, a stone’s throw away, contractors were busy transplanting endless punnets of red-flowering geraniums into beautifully tended bedding areas fronting high rented properties. In a road distinguished by its long line of characterful Victorian terraces lives British composer Hugh Wood.

His first floor lounge includes a charming grandfather clock, while round four high walls copious shelving contains a huge cross section of books on History, Politics, Music and other subjects. I noted a few Alexandre Dumas d’Artagnan romances that reminded me of personal pleasures in earlier life. An ironing board with iron had a travelling clock alongside, while a kitchen to the rear had every utensil, item of crockery and cutlery that one required for culinary purposes. Through the window I espied my favourite tree, a ’Robinia pseudoacacia aurea’. As my host explained – “Unfortunately it grows next to a dilapidated garage in someone’s backyard!”

One of our most respected and admired composers, just five months older than myself, I have always felt an immediate kinship listening to his music. It communicates directly with the listener through the clarity of its statements, and a mastery of craftsmanship that tends to isolate it from the more banal, blatant, contrived creations that pulverise our ear drums on a more regular basis. The lyrical, more romantic basis to your music perhaps stems back to William S. Lloyd Webber – father of Andrew and Julian – your first teacher? “It wasn’t anything to do with that. Lloyd Webber taught me all my elementary stuff, for the ARCM exams. And the bloke who put me on to that – he’s still alive – is called Joseph Horowitz. He was a friend of my brother – they went to Oxford together – and I had a very disastrous interview with Herbert Howells. He just told me to go away – rather pompous, really – so my brother came along and picked up the pieces, and through Joe introduced me to Lloyd Webber. He was very good, a much more considerable musician than either of his sons. When I first went to him I was full of emotional tangles about becoming a composer. ’Look’, he said, ’I don’t think that is very interesting. What I suggest is that I set you some work, now. Go away, and we will arrange a time for you to come back and see me. I’ll correct it, and give you some more, then go on from there.’ Just the thing I needed. A very nice man, and although I still don’t know much of his music, it’s quite worthy – in the late Romantic brand you mentioned. I went to Iain Hamilton next, also to Anthony Milner for academic stuff. The idea was to get a B.Mus., which I never got because I failed it – from London University. There again, Howells was one of my examiners – not that that made any difference, one way or the other. Anthony is still alive, but rather ill; and I can’t find his whereabouts. He was connected with Morley College, and I took over from him when he wanted to give up First Year Harmony. I eventually went on to teach there, but this was a great source of education. Iain Hamilton also gave courses there, too, and I went to him privately for composition. I covered harmony, counterpoint, history, and so on.” [Since this interview, Anthony Milner has sadly passed away – ED.]

“Unfortunately – I don’t want to make excuses – I was bad at exams, but one of the contributory factors was that I became very interested in Bach Cantatas, which was one of the papers. So most of my preparatory period was spent with that, rather than spreading the work to include all the other things that I needed to prepare for. I don’t regret that for one minute, because Bach Cantatas have lasted me for a whole lifetime!” There’s this great backbone of the German Masters, which you feel you can quote in your works for some specific reason, if so desired. “Yes. If I quote, it is usually for a private reason, but what work of mine are you thinking of?” Nothing in particular, but looking back to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and so on – they would do this as an act of homage, very suggestively in a disguised sense, and one had that feeling of a continuation right the way up through the ages of music. I think it’s still prevalent today. “Yes, sure! Quotation has now taken on a different meaning, actually, in the late 20th/early 21st Century. People are conscious of going back to the past, almost as an act of showing that ’this is where I come from, and what I belong to’. It gets a bit tiresome, sometimes; showing off just how much music they know. It also indicates a lack of ideas. Mahler comes in for a lot of quotes. “Yes, there’s that too.”

I become really interested in music in the early 1950s – with the emergence of composers like Peter Racine Fricker – and there was the excitement of the Festival of Britain. In the 1960s there was this sudden change. The Beatles were very much part of it, and a new group of British composers quickly became associated with the scene, where they formed their own circle – Peter Maxwell Davies, Gordon Crosse, Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, yourself… “Well, I was on the edge of it, but it was mainly because of my personal friendship with Sandy Goehr. Our families know each other, also our wives, and we would visit one another’s houses. Harry I really met at the Wardour Castle Summer School, 1964/5. I knew him before then, because we had been in concerts together. Max, I hardly knew at all. When he was in charge at Dartington he wrote me a letter asking me to carry on teaching there, but I didn’t really want to at that stage. It broke up the summer a lot!

“Those three were behind the summer school, and I did help with some of the teaching in a small way. But I was not a member of the circle. It wasn’t as close as that”. I wonder if all of this becomes a clue to the kind of emotions I hear in your music. Nicholas Maw’s Scenes and Arias also seems to have some connection. “My first String Quartet came out about the same time with the Aeolian Quartet (it was premièred by the Dartington, since disbanded). Nick’s Scenes and Arias dates from 1962; my Scenes from Comus followed in ’65. They have resemblances in a way; being big pieces for orchestra in which voices play a special part”.

I naturally feel attuned to Maw, Crosse, and yourself, but when it comes to Birtwistle, Maxwell Davies, Goehr, I have great difficulty in understanding what their music is about – it’s not hitting any soft spot, without me realising why! “Yes, I think a lot of people find that”. Somehow, you have got to hear the constructive elements, get emotional feedback from the orchestration, and Comus does that for me. “Oh, good!” The same with Tippett’s ’Ritual Dances’ from A Midsummer Marriage, the similarities in the writing for wind, horns, trumpets, the intervals and the silences. Then there is the pictorial essence, with the young girl lost and trapped in the forest awaiting her fate at the hands of Comus. “Yes, that’s right. Returning to the composer names you mention, I cannot remember much music by Gordon Crosse, but my own sympathies would lie with the harder edges of those you draw the line at, if we are going to put one against the other. Nick’s music I rather like, but there are exceptions to this. He did suffer from being terribly diffuse, spread out. They are terribly long pieces, and Odyssey is the longest ever written, but the work I really like is his recent Violin Concerto written for Joshua Bell. I like listening to Harry’s earlier music; I think it is rather repetitive now, since his Knighthood, and he’s always said that ’I only write the same piece’, time and time again. There’s a certain amount of truth in that, but he’s the sort of opposite of me. That I like. It’s as if you suddenly wanted to acquaint yourself with somebody who you weren’t – all his virtues were not your virtues, but you wish they were! That’s how I felt about Harry, in a way. But I’m somewhat out of date with his music. I have a tape of The LastSupper and I haven’t really listened to it. I should. Max, I think has become too productive, and he doesn’t care about the quality of the sound.”

I feel rather guilty in some ways. After 15 years with EMI, I went to CBS for just two years. Unable to adapt marketing ideas with recorded music, I changed over to Boosey & Hawkes Sheet Music department, and unexpectedly found myself in the presence of John Andrewes talking with Peter Maxwell Davies. Somehow, I was unable to get close to the composer. “No. I don’t think many do. And being on his own so much … on that absurd island of Orkney. I don’t myself hate human beings, and live on my own also – but that’s taking things a bit far!”

Reading about you as a composer interests me. You take a number of ideas which you work at painstakingly, turning them inside out, finding what you can do to them with different kinds of instrumentation. “Everyone does that!”But you don’t let anything go until you are 150 per cent satisfied. “I try, but generally it is some time afterwards that dissatisfaction occurs”. Do you then revise? “Sometimes, but in some cases they are beyond revision! You can’t do very much about that. They’re just dud pieces. All composers, if they are worthwhile, experience this. First of all comes simplicity of ideas, then the intense work on them. At what stage does this occur? Mozart spent much effort on this, but all the ideas were inside his head and came with speed. Yet, there are pieces which people forget, even with Mozart, that caused him great trouble. It’s quite a different process than Beethoven, with his business of sticking new versions over old versions in his sketchbooks, and then glueing another version on top of that! Now that scholars have literally unglued them, they find – in some cases – that the idea he originally had, was the version he ended up with. He had to go round the houses – which is very interesting – but it is obviously a different, more painful and obviously laborious matter on the whole, than it was for Mozart. But these are just generalisations.”

Some composers are quick, and the most obvious you think of is Bach. There you have someone who could write intricate structures in 4, 5, 6 parts, contrapuntally, in beautifully manageable forms at the same time. And they just pore out ready-made. “That must be true, because he only lived 65 years and wrote a hell of a lot of music. There it is – he didn’t have time really, because of his family. But he set them all to work doing parts. This is remarkable, as there must be others who produced similar amounts that is complete rubbish, which Bach is not! Search in vain for the worthless and ephemeral in this composer – and you never find it”. I suggest Villa-Lobos. “Yes, he’s a different sort of case. There is this story of him setting up house in Rio di Janeiro, with two rooms including his piano and manuscript paper, where he worked. The outer office had the secretary with a telephone. She also answered the door, receiving all the commissions for music, which she passed on to him. This whole idea of instant composition, including the perfect secretary, is very appealing. She presumably collected the money, too. Not so many composers are that well organised! Although I don’t know much Villa-Lobos, when I hear the occasional piece I am struck just how good it is. A strange mixture, also, and he was under the patronage of those endless series of very smelly South American dictators. Take the guy for whom Villa-Lobos was Court Composer. He was not pleasant at all. Overall, a nasty regime to be mixed up in. People don’t know of this, or have forgotten.”

Looking back to some of your early works, occasionally you were writing two pieces at the same time, like the Violin Concerto which you interrupted in order to complete your Chamber Concerto. In the process of literally pouncing on one, then the other, were you able to concentrate on what was more urgent and important for a particular occasion?“Well, I had a job during this period. When I wrote the Chamber Concerto – and the one for violin, too – I was in Liverpool. The funny thing is, having a job does makes you economise on the time factor. Most University jobs have ample time in the summer, but don’t have much during the rest of the year. The two occasions are very often filled up with University things – academic bits and bobs, and so on. In consequence of being pressed for time, you do actually produce more.”

“I’ve found that out since I retired, but in proportion to the amount of time I have – which should in fact be 100 percent – I haven’tdone the same amount of composing in the allotted period. I put this down to human nature, i.e. laziness, really. I’ve done other things as well, such as writing articles for the Times Literary Supplement, but for people who have expected a 100-percent rise in the amount of musical notes I write – this just hasn’t happened.It’s just not possible with me.”

“I cannot remember any successful piece which has really been written quite without pain, as it were, but on the other hand I can remember lots of instances where, because of a deadline, this has made me finish a piece satisfactorily, and has helped to give it a certain bite due to the fact that I was working against time. My First String Quartet was an instance of a commission from the Cheltenham Festival, where I fulfilled those obligations, ultimately. It made the piece better, really. Roberto Gerhard made a remark about’a composer needing heat to weld all the various bits together’. Just like red-hot metal welded to another piece. When it cools it holds together. There’s something in that!”

When composing your Violin Concerto, the first 50 bars were inspired walking by the Thames, the rest later while in Herefordshire. “It has nothing to do with the piece. I started thinking of initial ideas while on some Thameside walk, then it somehow went to the back of my mind, and I wasn’t able to take it up. Then sometime afterwards I found myself in an apple orchard, on the way down to the cottage in the region of Ludlow, somewhere… You know this is a very valuable moment, and you feel attached to it; where you are presented with adonnée – something ’given’ – and you don’t know where it has come from. Then the work begins, but without being given something the piece is probably not really alive. The initial idea is altered out of all recognition. It can be all sorts of things. With the fiddle, it is the highest note on the violin with the tone descending – like leaves falling in a pattern”. Also, your admiration for Manoug Parikian’s playing. “Of course, that plays its part, too.”

Going back briefly to Bach, and the contrapuntal element in his music – whether there is a connection or not, you mastered the 12-note technique in composition, early on. “I take, from what I understand of it, what is useful to me. But I don’t think I understand it thoroughly, otherwise I would use it systematically.”

I asked John Casken whether one of his works receiving a first performance at the Wigmore Hall was serial, or not. He replied that he incorporated it where he found an excuse for doing so, but didn’t embrace it. “I never answer questions like that; the only thing worth considering is whether the piece is good, or not. When you write a traditional piece, people listening can tell whether it is in a major or minor key. As you know, there is no equivalent of that which you can rely on, nor can people tell – although maybe Boulez can – whether a piece is strictly serial, or whether it sounds as if it is. The whole reason for being involved in that kind of music is gradually becoming the business of using a language. If you are writing English in an essay, and it is your mother tongue, then you don’t have a grammar book propped up in front of you to make sure you are doing it right. You do it naturally. The rules you follow are all the ones you have known since childhood.”

Surely, in several ways – consciously or otherwise – you must be aware that what you compose should be truthful and good, and has to communicate with a large audience who will accept it and wish to hear it again. “I always try and direct it to the hypothetical audience who I hope will be sympathetic, but I never know whether it gets through or not.”

The 40-minute Symphony you wrote with Mahlerian proportions, which contains so many rhythmic, instrumentally colourful, personal imprints. It all connects well; from its inception it grabs the attention. “I hope so. Of all the works I have written, its intention is to communicate. All the extra hints – the ’Tempesta’, ’Funeral March’, etc. are intended to contribute. One hopes that it is the result of their being there.”

I would value your views concerning music suddenly going in or out of fashion? After Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Barbican performance of Scenes from Comus, I mentioned to a colleague that the music was far too good to become popular. I refer also to many other examples of cacophony on Radio 3 by younger, and in some instances established composers. Literally rammed down listeners’ eardrums, causing me to switch off. With your music, and some of your contemporaries already referred to, performances are rare, and several worthwhile composers are ignored, their works regarded as ’old fashioned’. “Yes, this is more of a social than a music thing. Like generations elbowing you out of the way, because they have to be heard.”

Also composers, roughly between the death of Elgar and the emergence of Britten and Tippett. Ireland, Bax, Moeran, and so on. “They are beginning to come through. We have tons more of a composer like Frank Bridge now, than at any stage before”. That is due to the record companies. “Yes, it is. Someone like Mr. Itter of Lyrita, and several bodies – societies who show fantastic interest. Those, for instance who support John Ireland, Alan Rawsthorne, British Music – all along similar lines”. Someone of the genius and originality of Rawsthorne, particularly. “I think so, too. At present, recordings play a much larger part than performances – primarily orchestral works, and those that require big resources. It’s terribly difficult to bring about, because all London orchestras are looking desperately towards the box office, scared stiff of going out on a limb in a special way-out series, or perhaps gathering augur by appointing a Composer in Residence to ease their consciences.”

“Apart from that, you have only to look at programmes to see how dull, safe and repetitive they are. Anything of interest ’live’ is generally tied up with a recording contract. A question of wheels within wheels, and a whole organisation of people that we composers know nothing about, who decide whether we get heard or not. Without any sort of personal or artistic commitment to our music, series of intricate and financial deals are taking place. It’s a great shame that this has started to affect the BBC, which always used to be the patron of new music. I don’t know whether you have read a book by Jennifer Doktor, based on her researches of the Caversham Archive. It’s about the earliest days of the BBC, when it stopped being known as the British Broadcasting Company, until about 1935/6. They had a kind of wild new music policy then, largely due to Edward Clark”. With select works handed over to Sir Adrian Boult for ’first’ performances. “It was a great patron for us, then, and continued to be so until now. This happens to be one of the bad patches. Half of it is to do with the sort of music politics that I don’t understand, and have no desire to take part.”

Going back to yourself, I would like to bring in your third teacher, the late Mátyás Seiber, who was unfortunately killed in a car crash. “I was reminded of him again, recently, when I was invited to do a talk for the Jewish Institute for Music. I was to go and speak to them about Jewish emigrés. You know that Daniel Snowman has written a book that deals with all the artistic and scientific people who came to this country for the benefit of our lives, and as a result of the war. Would I speak for twelve minutes about Mátyás? I brought along all my material – I had written about him before, and he was at the forefront of my mind. An absolutely marvellous teacher; and to consider him we need to go back again to Morley College when Michael Tippett was newly appointed in charge. Seiber was invited along with a recording expert, Pears and Britten as visiting artists, Racine Fricker and Anthony Milner – both early pupils. It all spread out, because he was quite exceptional, especially in composition; he knew the repertoire, and exactly what was going on. It had a very fine effect, in my opinion; but I respected him greatly as a marvellous person altogether. He opened one’s eyes, and certainly kept us in check. You had to do exactly what he said.”

Like Kurtág, today. “Yes, he also. Mátyás put all sorts of possibilities before me, lesson by lesson, as they would occur to him. New ways of doing things. Any dull pupils, he would stimulate them deliberately in new directions. I knew what I wanted to do, more or less. He was a very good thing, and will be sadly missed. His anniversary is in 2005, which I hope I will still be here for. I think it is up to me and like-minded people to do something about his 100th birthday”. The conductor Antál Doráti spoke to me about him, shortly after Seiber’s untimely death. I believe they were fellow students at the Budapest Academy. Doráti planned some performances when he was in charge of the BBC Symphony.

Other valuable trademarks of Hugh Wood’s orchestral music are its architectural span, reminding me of Sir Arnold Bax’s Second Symphony, with its striding structures planned on a huge dimensional scale. There is also a strong vein of lyricism, backed up by intervallic writing for strings and winds that connects sections and holds the attention. “All a composer can reasonably hope for, is that his music sounds like him, and no one else. If you are already launched on the composition, then architecture becomes part of the process of working ideas out. If one is having a bad day, then you cannot think about architecture even in the abstract, let alone anything else. But this is nothing besides the kind of continuity you get in a Wagner opera, with its span greater than any of us could achieve.”

Your music has been described as Brahms through to Schoenberg, on one side, and Debussy to Messiaen on the other. “This is all flattering, as they do happen to be composers whom I have a lot of time for”. The recorded works embrace the years 1962 mainly, the Violin Concerto arriving ten years later, and the symphony stemming from the late 70s-early 80s. “What you have to realise is, quite a different set of criteria are involved when comparing earlier pieces to my later work.”

On a disc featuring the String Quartets 1-4, the last, started in 1992, was premièred by the Chilingirians at the BBC’s Birmingham Studios the following year. “Irrespective of the merits of my music overall, the choice is made by the record companies. Some get through, others don’t, but in the case of John Tavener, every single blast and fart is recorded. This doesn’t mean that they are equally good, or that any of them are good at all!”

It’s all to do with the dictates of fashion. At times, it makes me feel I would like to go some place and hit somebody. “Yes, that’s right. Do something violent! But that’s a different question. When did I perhaps feel happiest with the music I was producing? Maybe, in a way it was in the 1960s, and just round the turn of the 1970s. Finishing the Cello Concerto (1969), then deciding to do something completely different – the Second String Quartet, which I am rather proud of.”

Did the music, post 60s, become meatier, more terse in style? “Looking back, I realise that violence in music was for me, and the whole of the Expressionist generation who were tied up with specialist projects, just a way of speaking, raising one’s voice. I see it as an artistic manner, and if some of the voicings contain any semblance of violence, this is regrettable.”

With the recording of the Cello Concerto, I was impressed by its distinctive, assured qualities. In the Quartets I could sense a developing style of approach: No.1 – where you are tending to experiment, No.2 – we discussed, No.3’s re-birth attitude, quoting John Donne’s ’For I am every dead thing, and I am re-begot/Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not’, and No.4 with its new voice and obtuse message. Shostakovich often said that he was happiest writing string quartets – he experienced that personal sense of freedom, minus the restrictions, proscriptions, and severe regulations. “That’s the great advantage. While composing, you are doing them for yourself.”

What about No.5, which received is first London performance in July at the Wigmore Hall? “It’s rather a look-back to numbers 1 and 4, but not 2 and 3 that comprise small sections which are joined together. It has five movements, including two scherzos travelling outward either side of a central slow movement, which is not very slow – it’s marked ’Romanza’, meant to be played fairly lightly. The first movement is vigorous; the last, very vigorous. The language is the same … if people recognise me from my music, I hope they will do so from this quartet!”

In his ’retirement’. Hugh Wood has the desire to compose some late, visionary pieces, but doubts whether he will get around to doing this. Instead I asked him about his Songs, of which there are quite a number. “A lot of Robert Graves – more than any other single poet, Ted Hughes, Edwin Muir … then there is a poet who I know very well, but never tried to set before – Geoffrey Hill, an Englishman who has a university job in Boston. He’s the same age as me – so these were designed as a Birthday Present for him, from a poem called Tenabrae. It’s early days yet, and I am just half way through. He loved what I sent him, and responded warmly.”

Ex-wife Susan McGaw and Hugh Wood still see each other. “She lives not far away in Highgate Village, and is very nice”. Susan recorded his Three Piano Pieces back in 1967 on an EMI LP in the ’Music Today’ series under the auspices of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The following week we exchanged pleasantries at the London premiere of Wood’s Fifth String Quartet.

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