Hugh Wood the writer

Medium hugh wood

The composer Hugh Wood died last month. He was a neighbour and friend of The Bach Players, and came to write notes for some of our concert programmes. Some memories follow.

In December 2005, when we went to live in Dartmouth Park, our friend and colleague Rachel Stott said ‘oh, that’s where people like Hugh Wood live’.1 Rachel had been a student of Hugh’s at Cambridge and they had stayed in touch. By then Hugh Wood had been a presence in my mind for 30 or so years. I remembered his voice on Radio 3 in the 1970s, when it broadcast an enlightened high-cultural musical sensibility, under the sway of Hans Keller, then producer of music talks for the station. I had read his occasional book reviews in the Times Literary Supplement. A few days after moving house we went to a Christmas party in Bethnal Green, given by a friend with wide connections in the world of music. I entered the room and saw a man standing on his own. He introduced himself: Hugh Wood. I was able to say that I knew him already from his work, and I could add ‘and you live in Dartmouth Park’. That was the start of knowing him personally, as a neighbour and friend.

In 2007, when Nicolette started a series of Bach Players concerts in Hampstead at St John’s Downshire Hill, we asked Hugh if he would like to write programme notes. I knew already that he was a special writer and a man without pretensions. I suppose he was happy to do this for a group with this name and with this set of priorities. He had not written anything for print about music before the classical period, but Bach was a great love of his. And from our mailing list, we saw that he must have been in the audience for some of the Bach Players concerts in the first London series, played from spring 1997 to autumn 1999 at St John’s Wood Church. This was his parish church.

Postcard with the typescript for the first programme note, September 2007. Hugh liked to write to length – a mark of the real professional.

So starting with ‘Bach arranging and arranged’, 20 September 2007, Hugh wrote notes for our programmes, some of them being adapted for the booklets in the CDs that we started to issue, from 2008. These short essays were occasions for him to think and make arguments, as well as inform and instruct. He mixed some detailed discussion of the music with confident generalization about the context of time and place, about the place of a work in history. He was able to call on a long life of composing and teaching, with his knowledge lightly carried. As well as Bach or Haydn, he was happy to cover the less well-known composers that we began to include in these concerts – for example, Erlebach or Graupner. This first programme note opens thus:

‘Composers learn from each other, and from their predecessors. Bach taught himself to compose largely by the immense industry with which he made copies of other peoples’ scores. Indeed, that the best way of learning how a piece works is simply to copy it out is still true today. Bach’s list is a long one, with practically equal numbers of Italian and French composers on it, and even more Germans, both Catholic and Protestant. He goes back as far as Palestrina and Frescobaldi. But a creator can scarcely remain content with being a copyist. So transcriptions become arrangements, and these in turn enrich Bach’s own style. The Italians, Vivaldi at their head, rubbed away from Bach’s music a certain North German dourness, and gave it southern energy and dynamism. Towards the end of his life, Bach was to look to Italy again.’

Next year, 2008, we recorded this music – Bach’s reassembly of Pergolesi’s ‘Stabat Mater’, and Mozart’s arrangements of fugues from Bach’s ‘Well-tempered Clavier II’ – and asked Hugh to write a fresh piece, specifically about arranging. He began by considering what an arrangement is or could be, and referred to the problem of Theseus’s ship: ‘how many parts of the original can be replaced before we have to admit, “this is no longer Theseus’s Ship”.’ Then, after discussing Bach’s practices, he takes us easily on a journey through musical history, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The piece closes with the following paragraph.

‘If the arranger is a great composer he is bound to leave the mark of his own personality upon his work. Busoni’s transcription of the D minor Chaconne is a notable concert piece in its own right. Stravinsky’s instrumentation of the Canonic Variations for organ on “Vom Himmel hoch” has some curious changes in it. But if you go back to the original you will find some mysteriously Stravinskian moments in the counterpoint, for real Bach is by no means the same thing as academic Bach-style. A more radical transformation is achieved in Webern’s arrangement of the Ricercar from the Musical Offering, which gently fragments the lines, then proceeds to colour them in, making them polychrome in a kaleidoscope of timbres. Nevertheless, we are still sailing in Theseus’s Ship.’

It was an honour to publish writing of this quality in perhaps obscure booklets. I knew this already, but the point was reinforced by an email I once got from a reviewer on a large circulation magazine, asking if the writer of the notes was really ‘the composer Hugh Wood’. In the audience at one of the St John’s Downshire Hill concerts, a doyenne among singing teachers, who had known Hugh years before at Dartington summer schools, asked me the same question.

Hugh’s book Staking out the territory, and other writings on music had appeared in 2007. It is a wonderful collection, edited with exemplary care and love by Christopher Wintle, and issued by a small publisher (Plumbago Books). Unasked by the publisher we used to place advertisements for the book in our programmes. The main sources for these texts are occasional magazine and journal articles, programme notes mainly for BBC Proms booklets, and book reviews for the TLS. An appendix lists all his publications and adds notes on manuscripts of unpublished pieces. Under the heading ‘Early writings’, we are referred to his contributions to Oxford student magazines in the years 1952–55 and ‘there are also a number of opera and concert reviews for the Gazette of the John Lewis Partnership (1956)’. Hugh loved to express himself in writing as well as in music.

The book also includes photographs, mostly informal, of the author throughout his life. A remarkable component is the set of reproductions of paintings by William Scott. Hugh was perhaps unusual among musicians in having a sure visual sense and taste. He wrote about the meaning of Scott’s work for him in a piece published in The Listener in 1970. His explanation ran as follows:

‘Well-composed music is rare enough today and we should cherish each piece, if only as a member of a dying species. Nevertheless, the well-composed is not enough. I came to realize this through looking at paintings. I love the smell of paint, and looking closely at brush-strokes, and gobbets of paint, and washes of colour. The best painters have rejoiced in the life of the senses in a way few musicians have or could. I started thinking about how a painter develops. His early paintings are careful and craftsmanlike, “well-composed”, but cautious, derivative and a bit characterless. Gradually, painting by painting, the quality that in the end you call simply by the painter’s name emerges.

‘When and how, I asked myself, does he find the courage to draw a rough circle with one stroke of his hand and leave it? I’m thinking of William Scott, of whose paintings I’m particularly fond. I gaze and gaze at the objects he has evolved out of his kitchen landscape. Now they are abstract, ambiguous – slightly flattened circles, sometimes like pods, panniers, pepper pots, or like udders or even cells under the microscope – and they were once pudding basins or deep-fry pans. Whatever they are, they have power: and I gradually realize that the boldness of the image, and the extent to which it haunts you, is inseparable from the roughness of the outline, the unfinished quality, what Scott himself has called “the almost careful-careless way in which a picture’s painted.” And as I look at these rough, magic not-quite circles, I long to bring just that quality somehow to my own work: to use a thicker brush, to make a bolder gesture, to play off rough against smooth, to leave rough edges and drips of paint. Can it be that I may be going down with a mild attack of the Birtwistles? I wish in a way that were possible: for he is the most painterly of our composers.’2

To read Hugh Wood is to want to quote him! As I think in his own music, every element of his prose is put to work, there is no flab or blah blah. His writing stays close to ordinary speech and has a compelling, propulsive quality. As a young man he had written poetry, and this early verse was published late in his life by his admiring editors at Plumbago: Summer in Tewfik. These poems are very obviously those of a young person, yearning, looking for his place in the world. There are many clumsy lines, but the spirit is pure and very touching. Seeing the book, I was surprised that he should have wanted, at the age of 82, to publish such obviously ‘early work’. But he had suggested an explanation already in an essay of 1973:

‘Do I disdain the earlier pieces? Well, no. I’m sorry if that sounds big-headed, but you don’t disown the older children in favour of the younger ones. In any case, I’m not the sort of composer who suddenly does a right-about-turn in mid-career (or even a series of cartwheels every year): one piece has a family resemblance to the next. Schoenberg put the whole attitude into much better words when he said of his early pieces, “I liked them when I wrote them”.’3

In the preface in the book itself, he disarms any criticism:

‘Children can produce surprisingly attractive pieces of visual art, which are then overpraised as Kinderkunst and later forgotten, not least by the children themselves. A little later comes the wish – and occasionally the ability – to put verses, which may or may not rhyme, down on paper. It is one of the more agreeable – or the least disruptive – manifestations of adolescence, and usually forms a subsequent embarrassment only to the perpetrators. It is all very well to say that many of our greatest lyric poets (and, oddly, mathematicians) have done their best work before their 25th birthdays. By that date most of us have discovered that we don’t belong to that select crowd, and have already found other preoccupations. What follows here has survived to be flourished in a fit of recklessness only too characteristic of old age.’4

One of these poems is ‘Bach’, written November 1950, when he would have been 18. It begins as follows:

‘What design the world’s? That this
Ordinary ageing mortal of a usual
And not far distant century, who lived
And died in Time, amid the ordinary
Wars and famines and distresses
Among the courts of Europe and its thrones,
Who, limited to his sixty years of hard
Unsuccessful life of daily work,
Knowing all the worries of the underpaid,
Between his suppertime and bed, by candlelight
Found a window on to the heavenly fields,
And knocked, and it was opened unto him,
Sought by labour; it was found.’5

The last programme note that Hugh wrote for us was in October 2013, for the second part of our ‘Bach and his rivals’ concerts. It was clear that this writing was becoming an imposition rather than a pleasure. The hard work he put in was clear from the pages he gave me as copy: he wrote on a manual typewriter, its characters not well aligned, with amendments made with correcting fluid and handwriting. The typescript might be headed ‘third draft’. (I used to scan the pages to capture the keystrokes with an OCR program, but this was hardly an economy of time.) We had the sense that this writing was taking time from his own real work of composition, and so by mutual agreement the collaboration came to an end. He still came to the concerts, driving in his heavily bashed car around Hampstead Heath from Dartmouth Park; and we maintained the friendship.

I will close these memories by quoting from the end of his note for ‘Bach and his rivals II’. It shows his usual skill in concise summary of musical workings in the service of larger meaning, and his sense of plot in bringing the essay to a suggestive close.

‘We do not know who wrote the text for Bach’s “Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen”, Cantata 81. But he showed superior skill in sticking closely to the gospel text and providing a degree of continuity that the other settings lack. He keeps a perfect balance between unfolding the story and displaying its spiritual significance. Alfred Dürr, doyen of Bach scholars, divides the first three movements to do with the hidden Jesus (i.e. absent because asleep) from the fourth (His voice) and the others, when He is awake and ready to save the disciples from the tempest.

‘So the sombre and sublime opening aria for alto expresses despair over His absence: the sense of deep sleep is emphasized by a somnolent and prolonged low B natural for the soloist. The following recitative continues the theme of slumber absence. The third movement breaks the mood with exuberantly wild music. The savagery of the storm is depicted by tempestuously rushing figuration, miraculously conjured from very limited resources, over which the tenor rides with fantastic athleticism. At intervals the tumult is momentarily abated, to let the words “Ein Christ soll zwar wie Felsen stehn …” (“A Christian should stand like a rock”) be heard.

‘The voice of Jesus is now heard, in a direct quotation from Matthew – “Why are you so fearful, O ye of little faith?” The bass sings this against the continuo in a masterly two-part fugal invention. Another concerted number follows. The tempest is now calming, but waves are still lapping dangerously: the unison strings support two-part imitative writing on a couple of oboi d’amore. A short calm recitative precedes a setting of the second verse of Johann Franck’s chorale “Jesu, meine Freude”, leaving us with a last reference to the storm.

‘The two big concerted pieces are, with the opening aria, the outstanding glories of this masterwork. Bach reveals here a side of his musical personality never to be fulfilled – that of a gifted operatic composer.’

Robin Kinross


1 This was a perceptive remark. The population of the area has had a large quotient of university teachers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, and other members of the liberal intelligentsia. They have lived there since at least the 1970s, when its spacious Victorian houses were still relatively affordable.

2 Staking out the territory, p. 6

3 Staking out the territory, pp. 10–11

4 Summer in Tewfik, p. vii

5 Summer in Tewfik, p. 21



Staking out the territory, and other writings on music, London: Plumbago Books, 2007

Summer in Tewfik, and other poems, London: Plumbago Books, 2013


Programmes notes

Bach arranging and arranged, St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 20 September 2007

Bach in autumn, St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 23 November 2007

Haydn: The Seven Last Words, St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 28 March 2007

Haydn & Boccherini: folk tunes, St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 30 June 2008

Every one a chaconne, St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 24 November 2008

In with the new, St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 31 January 2009

Rendezvous in Vienna, The King of Hearts, Norwich, 18 September 2009 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 19 September 2009

Nun komm!, The Octagon Chapel, Norwich, 27 November 2009 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 28 November 2009

Haydn: The Seven Last Words, The King of Hearts, Norwich, 9 April 2010 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 10 April 2010

Italy versus France, The Octagon Chapel, Norwich, 16 July 2010 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 17 July 2010

Pachelbel and Bach: canons and cantatas, United Reform Church, Norwich, 4 November 2010 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 6 November 2010

Salve Regina, The Octagon Chapel, Norwich, 4 March 2011 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 5 March 2011

Pachelbel and Bach: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, The Octagon Chapel, Norwich, 17 November 2011 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 19 November 2011

Bach and his rivals II, The Octagon Chapel, Norwich, 3 October 2013 / St John’s Downshire Hill, London NW3, 5 October 2013


CD notes

Bach arranging and arranged, Hyphen Press Music 001, 2008

Every one a chaconne, Hyphen Press Music 002, 2009

Nun komm!, Hyphen Press Music 003, 2010

Italy versus France, Hyphen Press Music 004, 2011

Pachelbel and Bach: canons and cantatas, Hyphen Press Music 005, 2012

Bach and his rivals, Hyphen Press Music 008, 2015


The photograph at the top of the page is by Chris Wood