Henry Wood: the "Proms," and National Identity in Music, 1895-1904
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Henry Wood, the “Proms,” and National Identity in Music, 1895–1904

Tell me, Mr. Wood, are you quite English? Your appearance is rather un-English" (qtd. in Jacobs, Wood 62). Queen Victoria directed this provocative question to the young conductor Henry Wood on the occasion of a command performance at Windsor Castle on 24 November 1898, perhaps motivated by the cut of his beard, modeled on that of Arthur Nikisch, the Austro-Hungarian conductor. The question was not necessarily an insular or xenophobic one, since a preference for German music had always prevailed among the royal family, dating back to the visits of Felix Mendelssohn half a century earlier. For this occasion, the queen had chosen five selections from Richard Wagner, rounding off the program with Engelbert Humperdinck's overture to Hansel and Gretel, and selections from two non-German composers, Camille Saint-Saëns and Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky. A later concert at Windsor was devoted entirely to music from Parsifal. Having spent sixty years on the throne in no way necessitated the queen's attention, it would seem, to sixty years of English music.

One recent judgment that "the Victorians, it seemed, could do anything with music—except compose it" (Hoppen 394) follows a long line of obiter dicta that a lively scholarly dialogue in the twenty-five years has increasingly challenged. The Victorians composed a great deal of music, much of it better than the merely pedestrian and some of it of a quality that renders its neglect unjustifiable. Even in the current climate of scholarly revisionism, the study of such music, its reception, its performance history, and its role as cultural expression continues to lag well behind the study of other nineteenth-century music among musicologists, just as it has lagged behind literature, history, and the visual arts as objects of study among Victorianists.1 In the annals of this music, arguably only the death of the composer Arthur Sullivan in 1900 could be assigned a cultural resonance akin to that accorded the deaths of Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning.2 [End Page 397]

I argue in this essay that Victorian music was preempted by Continental music before it properly registered its weight in late Victorian England. Evidence for this claim is, I believe, offered by the popular success and cultural importance of the early Promenade concerts at Queen's Hall, for which Robert Newman was the indefatigable proprietor, Wood the conductor, and Edgar F. Jacques the program annotator. From their inception in 1895, the "Proms" (to use the sobriquet which gradually attached to them as the twentieth century wore on) were consciously intended as a bridge between "serious" and "popular" taste, designed to promote greater musical appreciation. The Proms, even when they did not feature Victorian or even British music, constituted a distinctive and lasting ritual of British Victorian musical culture.


Promenade concerts were well established on the London and Paris musical stages long before Wood made his first appearance (Weber, Music 108–13). Percy Scholes traces "the idea of standing or walking whilst listening to music, instead of sitting in solemn rows," to the great eighteenth-century and Regency gardens such as Vauxhall, Marylebone, and Ranelagh. The term itself probably came from France, where the musician Philippe Musard had developed concerts on the Ranelagh model in Paris in the 1830s (Scholes 1: 192). On 6 December 1838, the Musical World sardonically commented that "the chief interest lies in the elegant perambulators themselves, who wander in pairs, finished by the Stultz and the St. James Street milliners, and arranged to orchestral accompaniments by Strauss and Musard" (qtd. in Mackerness 180). By 1846 the popular French conductor Louis Jullien conducted nightly an orchestra of three hundred at the Surrey Gardens where polkas, operatic selections, and waltzes alternated with isolated movements from symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven; Jullien later directed concerts featuring similar programs and inviting similarly stylish strollers at Covent Garden in the 1850s.

As the century wore on, promenade concerts became less a venue for social display than an attempt to bring concert music within the range of the pocketbooks of the middle classes. In Manchester, the...