(b Parbold, Lancashire, 27 June 1932). English composer. Despite encouragement of his musical talents from Alan Bush at the Bryanston Summer School in 1948, Wood read history at Oxford, only to spend most of his time making music anyway, particularly as a composer for theatrical productions. After leaving university he studied privately with Iain Hamilton, W.S. Lloyd-Webber, Anthony Milner and Mátyás Seiber, while working as a music teacher, at first in various London schools, then at Morley College and the Royal Academy of Music. At the same time he was beginning to establish a reputation with his earliest published compositions, especially the First String Quartet (1962) and Scenes from Comus, his first orchestral work, written for the 1965 Promenade Concerts. He subsequently held posts at various universities – Glasgow (1966–70), Liverpool (1971–5) and Cambridge (1977–99); he is regarded as a passionate teacher as well as a lucid and engaging writer about music.
Already in the earliest scores, from the Variations op.1 onwards, Wood's music declares its roots in the Viennese tradition, from Beethoven and before to Schoenberg and after. At a time when many English musicians were mistrustful of any form of European modernism, this cosmopolitan approach set him apart from a prevalent parochialism, and it is telling that one of his chief mentors throughout his career was the Spanish emigré Roberto Gerhard. While Wood's eclectic tastes are clearly discernible (especially Stravinsky, and Messiaen's Turangalîla symphonie), Schoenberg's serialism was a potent influence, but in contrast to many of his contemporaries Wood's main interest in the technique was as a means to intensify motivic argument: all his music is conceived in terms of motifs, clearly presented and densely worked. Like Schoenberg, he has particularly cultivated Viennese classical genres, with an emphasis on chamber music. Sometimes the forms of individual movements can be compared to Beethovenian models, as in the Piano Trio (1984), with its sonata and rondo designs, but Wood has also developed different and wholly unclassical formal procedures, always projecting an assured sense of direction and purpose. His control of long-range design is widely admired, and often leads him to put the greatest weight onto the final movement, or to weave together successive movements into a single continuous span, as in the Cello Concerto (1969). Like the previous Scenes from Comus, the concerto was acclaimed at its Proms première; the two works brought to the attention of a sizeable audience not only Wood's ability to shape dynamic forms on the largest scale, but also his characteristically intense, yearning lyricism, in which cantabile lines are stretched over angular contours defined by wide, dissonant intervals. Together with warm, sonorous harmonies based on 7th chords and moving by semitones or 5ths, such melodies reflect his love of Berg, the composer he is perhaps closest to in spirit. But there are also moments of reticence which give the music an oft-noted English quality, for all its European credentials. Indeed, this lyric impulse forms the basis of his idiomatic and refined response to English verse: his songs for voice and piano form a considerable part of his oeuvre and must be counted the most distinctive and substantial contribution to British song writing since Britten and Tippett.
After the success of the Cello Concerto Wood felt that he ‘should be seeking some new means of expression’. In his next work, the powerful Second String Quartet (1969–70), he confronted two compositional ideas markedly at odds with his meticulously crafted and organically unified music up to that time, and inspired by the exciting ‘roughness of outline, the unfinished quality’ he found in the paintings of William Scott. The first, revealing the recent impact of certain ‘texture’ pieces by Lutosławski and Ligeti, is a bold use of unsynchronized writing. It is especially bold in that the disruptive potential of the free rhythms is maximized by counterpoint which does not merely reiterate a single prevailing harmony, but continuously develops it. But after the Chamber Concerto (1971) this technique was not used again. The other idea, however, represents a response to a long-standing and ‘formidable challenge to all my formal preconceptions, and one of my favourite 20th-century works’, Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Already adumbrated in the early Trio (1961), it now became a distinctive feature of Wood's later style: this is the abrupt juxtaposition of contrasting and apparently unrelated fragments (again, accomplished in the Second Quartet with exhilarating vehemence), which are gradually made to interact and combine as this new, sectional thinking engages in a dialectic with Wood's original and still-underlying urge to integrate. This new style unleashed the creative energy for three large, symphonic works – the Chamber Concerto, Violin Concerto (1972) and Neruda Song Cycle (1974) – which were followed by a difficult period in which no major works were produced.
It was at this time that Wood began to grapple with ideas for a symphony. But the first piece to break the near silence was the Third String Quartet (1978), a moving work that depicts an awakening from paralysis to new life. There is an equally palpable sense of dramatic progression in the Symphony itself (1982), which traces a Beethovenian, heroic path from tempestuous violence to hard-won affirmation. His largest work to date, it exemplifies the way that he can inform a highly cogent thematic and harmonic argument with a directly communicative, late-Romantic kind of rhetoric, to overwhelming effect. As if in reaction, Wood then turned to two untried and exacting chamber genres, piano trio and horn trio, to produce finely-wrought works of great character and verve which demonstrate his contrapuntal invention at its height. He had begun a setting of Eliot's poem Marina before his daughter died tragically in 1988: together with the following Cantata (1989) and several later works it is dedicated to her memory. The Piano Concerto (1989–91), written for Wood's former student Joanna MacGregor, was another Proms success; it is characterized by an exuberant rhythmic drive which recalls his many scherzo movements (and perhaps ultimately Schoenberg's dance rhythms); it also finds space to tease out a hushed poetry from the jazz standard Sweet Lorraine. References to other music are quite frequent in Wood's oeuvre (surprisingly, perhaps, given the highly coherent and integrated nature of his musical language): they range from direct quotations – such as the passages from Wagner and Mozart in the Symphony which, like Berg's quote from Tristan in the Lyric Suite, clearly signal an almost programmatic import underlying the musical argument – to gestures wholly appropriated and reconceived (two striking examples are the ending of the Symphony and the opening of the Piano Concerto, with their evocation of equivalent passages in Janáček and Rachmaninoff). Throughout the 1990s Wood continued to write in orchestral, vocal and chamber genres with equal freshness and intensity. His Fourth String Quartet (1992–3), with its searingly expressive slow movement and powerfully cumulative finale, sums up the qualities of his music at their most compelling: the fierce energy, derived from an urgent counterpoint of vivid themes, the searching lyricism, the ability to sustain, fulfil and ultimately exceed long-range expectations, the ardently dramatic, involving nature of the musical argument, and the absolute commitment to the expressive value of pure music.
Choral: Songs from Springtime, chorus, pf, 1954, orchd 1958; 3 Choruses, op.7, SATB, 1966: The Hawk in the Rain (T. Hughes), Sirens (J. Joyce), All We (E. Muir); 2 Choruses (W.B. Yeats), op.16, SATB, 1973, rev. 1989; A Christmas Poem (D. Davis), op.27, SATB, 1984; Cant. (D.H. Lawrence), op.30, SATB, orch, 1989; The Kingdom of God (F. Thompson), op. 38 SATB, 1994
Songs (S/T, pf, unless otherwise stated): Laurie Lee Songs, 1959, rev. S, orch as op.28, 1986–7; Songs to Poems by Christopher Logue, op.2, Mez, cl, vn, vc, 1961; Songs to Poems by D.H. Lawrence, op.14, 1966; Robert Graves Songs, set 1, op.18, 1966–7; Robert Graves Songs, set 3, op.25, 1966–83; The Horses (song cycle, Hughes), op.10, 1967, rev. 1968; The Rider Victory (song cycle, Muir), op.11, 1968; Robert Graves Songs, set 4, op.36, 1972–84; Songs (Neruda and others), op.23, 1974–83; Robert Graves Songs, set 2, op.22, 1977–82; Songs (Neruda and others), op.37, 1984–93; Marina (T.S. Eliot), S/T, a fl, hn, hp, va, 1988–9; Gk. Songs (L. Durrell and others), op.41, 1993–8