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Charles Wood (composer)

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Charles Wood
Born(1866-06-22)22 June 1866
Armagh, Ireland, UK
Died12 July 1926(1926-07-12) (aged 60)
Cambridge, England, UK
  • Organist
  • Composer
  • Academic teacher
SpouseCharlotte Wills-Sandford

Charles Wood (15 June 1866 – 12 July 1926) was an Irish composer and teacher; his students included Ralph Vaughan Williams at Cambridge and Herbert Howells at the Royal College of Music. He is primarily remembered and performed as an Anglican church music composer, but he also wrote songs and chamber music, particularly for string quartet.


Born in Vicars' Hill in the Cathedral precincts of Armagh, Ireland, Charles was the fifth child and third son of Charles Wood Sr. and Jemima Wood. The boy was a treble chorister in the choir of the nearby St. Patrick's Cathedral (Church of Ireland). His father sang tenor as a stipendiary 'Gentleman' or 'Lay Vicar Choral' in the Cathedral choir and was also the Diocesan Registrar of the church. He was a cousin of Irish composer Ina Boyle.[1]

Wood received his early education at the Cathedral Choir School and also studied organ with two organists and masters of the Boys of Armagh Cathedral, Robert Turle and his successor Dr Thomas Marks. In 1883 he became one of fifty inaugural class members of the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry primarily, and horn and piano secondarily. Following four years of training, he continued his studies at Selwyn College, Cambridge until 1889,[2] where he began teaching harmony and counterpoint. In 1889 he attained a teaching position at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, first as organ scholar and then as fellow in 1894, becoming their first director of music and organist. He was instrumental in the reflowering of music at the college, though more as a teacher and organiser of musical events than as composer. After Stanford died in 1924, Wood assumed his mentor's vacant role as Professor of Music at the University of Cambridge.[1]

According to his successor at Cambridge, Edward J Dent, as a teacher of composition, Wood "was surpassed only by Stanford himself [and] as a teacher of counterpoint and fugue he was unequalled".[3] His pupils at Cambridge included Ralph Vaughan Williams, Nicholas Gatty, Arthur Bliss, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs and W Denis Browne. Dent says that, because Stanford did not reside in Cambridge, Wood took on the real burden on teaching for many years before his own election as Professor of Music, by which time his health was already undermined. He died in July 1926 after only two years in the post.

Personal life[edit]

He married Charlotte Georgina Wills-Sandford, daughter of William Robert Wills-Sandford, of Castlerea, County Roscommon, Ireland, on 17 March 1898. They had two sons and three daughters, including Lieutenant Patrick Bryan Sandford Wood R.A.F. (1899-1918), who was killed in an aircraft accident during the First World War and is buried at Taranto, Italy.[1][4] The family's address in Cambridge was 17, Cranmer Road. He is buried at the Parish of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge,[5] together with his wife. There is a memorial to him in the north aisle at St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh.[6]

The organist and composer William G Wood (1859-1895), also associated with Cambridge, was his elder brother.[citation needed]


Like his better-known colleague Stanford, Wood is chiefly remembered for his Anglican church music: there are over 250 sacred works and many hymn tunes. As well as his Communion Service in the Phrygian Mode, his settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis are still popular with cathedral and parish church choirs, particularly the services in F, D, and G, and the two settings in E flat. During Passiontide his St Mark Passion, written in 1920 for Eric Milner-White, the then Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, is sometimes performed. It demonstrates Wood's interest in modal composition, in contrast to the late romantic harmonic style he more usually employs.[7]

Wood's anthems with organ, Expectans expectavi, and O Thou, the Central Orb are both frequently performed and recorded; as are his unaccompanied anthems Tis the day of Resurrection, Glory and Honour and, most popular of all, Hail, gladdening light and its lesser-known equivalent for men's voices, Great Lord of Lords. All Wood's a cappella music demonstrates fastidious craftsmanship and a supreme mastery of the genre, and he is no less resourceful in his accompanied choral works which sometimes include unison sections and have stirring organ accompaniments, conveying a satisfying warmth and richness of emotional expression appropriate to his carefully chosen texts.

After the fashion of the time Wood composed a series of secular choral cantatas between 1885 and 1905, including On Time (1897-8, setting Milton), Dirge for Two Veterans (1901, setting Walt Whitman), and A Ballad of Dundee (1904, setting W.E. Aytoun). There were also madrigals (including If Love be Dead, setting Coleridge), part songs (such as Full Fathom Five) and solo songs, one of which, Ethiopia Saluting the Colours (setting Walt Whitman) attained high popularity.[8]

Of the orchestral works, both the Piano Concerto (1886) and the Patrick Sarsfield Variations (1899) remained unpublished, although the Variations received a performance at the Queen's Hall Beecham Concerts in 1907. Walter Starkie said the work "shows his power of creating what may be called the Irish atmosphere in music".[9] It has been revived in modern times by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Simon Joly.[10] However, Wood appears to have lost confidence and abandoned the orchestral medium after 1905. Three symphonies and an opera remained uncompleted.[1]

He also composed eight string quartets (six numbered, plus the Variations on an Irish Folk Tune and a first movement fragment in G minor), spanning 1885 to 1917.[11] The early quartets show the influence of Brahms, but from No. 3 in A minor (1911) a more personal voice emerges, partly through the use of Irish folk melodies and dance tunes as thematic material.[12] There is a modern recording of No. 3 by the Lindsay Quartet[13] and the London Chamber Ensemble has recorded No. 6 for release in 2024.[14] The quartets were edited after the composer's death by Edward Dent and published in a collected edition by Oxford University Press in 1929.[15]

Wood collaborated with priest and poet George Ratcliffe Woodward in the revival and popularisation of renaissance tunes to new English religious texts, notably co-editing three books of carols including The Cowley Carol Book. Their collaboration also produced Songs of Syon.[16] He was co-founder (in 1904) of the Irish Folk Song Society. Wood's arrangement of The Irish Famine Song (The Praties They Grow Small Over Here) was recorded in the early 1920s by the Russian tenor Vladimir Rosing, and released on Vocalion A-0168.

List of works[edit]


  • Anthems, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (2003), Choir of Gonville and Caius College. Priory Records (2001, 2003)
  • The Choral and Organ Music of Charles Wood, Blackburn Cathedral Choir, David Goodenough (organ). Priory Records (1995)
  • Nunc dimittis in B-flat (Latin, à 6, a cappella) (1916), Expectans expectavi (1919), It were my soul’s desire, O Thou the central orb (1915), Charles Wood Singers, David Hill, Philip Scriven (organ), Regent REGCD567 (2023)
  • St Mark's Passion, Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge, Jonathan Vaughn (organ). Naxos 8.570561 (2008)
  • Septet, Berkeley Ensemble, recording available on YouTube
  • String Quartet No 3 in A minor, Lindsay String Quartet, ASV CD DCA879 (1993)
  • String Quartet No 6 in D, London Chamber Ensemble, forthcoming (2024)


  • Ian Copley: The Music of Charles Wood: A Critical Study (London: Thames Publishing, 1978), ISBN 0-905210-07-7
  • Ian Copley: "Charles Wood, 1886–1926", in The Musical Times, vol. 107 (1966) no. 1480, pp. 489–492.
  • "Charles Wood", in The Musical Times, vol. 67 (1926) no. 1002, pp. 696–697.
  • Margaret Hayes Nosek: "Wood: A Personal Memoir", in The Musical Times, vol. 107 (1966) no. 1480, pp. 492–493.
  • Royal School of Church Music (ed.): English Church Music (Croydon, UK: Royal School of Church Music, 1963).
  • Nicholas Temperley (ed.): The Athlone History of Music in Britain, vol. 5: The Romantic Age, 1800–1914 (London: The Athlone Press, 1981).
  • Geoffrey Webber: "An 'English' Passion", in The Musical Times, vol. 133, no. 1790 (April 1992), pp. 202–203.


  1. ^ a b c d Andrew Johnstone, Charles Wood (Dictionary of Irish Biography), 2009.
  2. ^ "Wood, Charles (WT888C)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. ^ Dent, Edward J. Preface to Charles Wood: Eight String Quartets (1929)
  4. ^ Ina Boyle Society Limited, Ina Boyle and World War One, 25 August 2015.
  5. ^ A Guide to Churchill College (Cambridge, 2009), text by Dr. Mark Goldie, pp. 62 and 63.
  6. ^ J. S. Curl: Funary Monuments & Memorials in St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh (Whitstable: Historical Publications, 2013), pp. 52-53, ISBN 978-1-905286-48-5.
  7. ^ Charles Wood. St Mark Passion, notes to Naxos CD 8.570561 (2008)
  8. ^ Percy Scholes: The Mirror of Music, p. 481.
  9. ^ Arthur Eaglefield Hull (ed.): A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians (1924), p. 536.
  10. ^ Charles Wood. Patrick Sarsfield Variations, performance on YouTube
  11. ^ Jeremy Dibble: "Wood, Charles", in Grove Music Online (2001).
  12. ^ Charles Wood. String Quartet No. 3 in A minor, Edition Silvertrust.
  13. ^ British String Quartets, ASV CDDCA 879 (1993), reviewed in Gramophone
  14. ^ 'London Chamber Ensemble – Charles Wood, Herbert Howells – and Debussy', in Salon Music, 21 January, 2024
  15. ^ Charles Wood. Eight String Quartets (1929), Google Books
  16. ^ Illing, Robert (1963). Pergamon Dictionary of Musicians and Music. Vol. 1: Musicians. Oxford: Pergamon Press. p. 130.
  17. ^ "The Prize Grace". wcomarchive. Retrieved 25 June 2021.
  18. ^ Gant, Andrew (24 September 2015). O Sing unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music. Profile Books. p. 251. ISBN 978-1-78283-050-4. Retrieved 12 July 2022.

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