Wood, Charles (1866–1926), composer and musical academic, was born 15 June 1866 at Armagh city, fifth child and third son of Charles Wood, tenor lay vicar choral of St Patrick's cathedral, Armagh, and Jemima Wood (née Taylor), both of 11 Vicars’ Hill, Armagh. Of their fourteen children, seven sons and five daughters survived infancy. Together with his brothers, young Charles attended Armagh Cathedral School, and sang in the cathedral choir. Under the tutelage of Thomas Osborne Marks, organist of the cathedral from 1872, Wood developed a natural flair for harmony and counterpoint, and in 1883 successfully applied for the Morley open scholarship in composition at the newly founded Royal College of Music (RCM), London, where his teachers included Hubert Parry and fellow Irishman Charles Villiers Stanford (qv). As well as composition, Wood studied piano, horn, and organ. He appears to have been singled out for special encouragement by the college's director, George Grove, for it was on Grove's initiative that Wood entered Selwyn College, Cambridge (January 1888), supported for the five terms he spent there by the continuance of his RCM scholarship.
In September 1889 Wood was elected organ scholar at Gonville and Caius College, thus beginning an association that was to last for the rest of his life. Wood became associate of the RCM (1889), graduated with the degrees of BA and Mus.B. at Cambridge (1890), and proceeded to the degrees of MA and Mus.D. there (1894). In 1891 he was promoted to the position of precentor (college organist), and in 1894 elected to a fellowship – the first in music at any Cambridge college. In 1897 Wood became university lecturer in harmony and counterpoint, and in 1924 succeeded Stanford as professor of music. At the RCM, meanwhile, he taught harmony and counterpoint, initially (from 1889) as lecturer, later as professor and fellow. Among his students at Cambridge and the RCM were the composers Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, and Michael Tippett, and the musical scholars Charles Kitson and Edward Dent. He also gave private instruction to the wealthy conductor and pharmaceutical magnate Thomas Beecham. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Leeds (1904) and Oxford (1924), and was a founder member and vice-president (in 1904) of the Irish Folk-song Society.
He married (1898) Charlotte Georgina Wills-Sandford of Castlerea House, Co. Roscommon. The couple resided at 17 Cranmer Road, Cambridge, where they raised two sons and three daughters. Wood died on 12 July 1926 at a Cambridge nursing home, where he was receiving treatment for cancer. His tomb lies in the St Giles cemetery in Cambridge; his manuscripts are held in the libraries of the RCM and Gonville and Caius College, the BL, and Cambridge University Library.
A prolific composer, Wood attempted with varying success all the standard art-music genres of his time. Of his dozen or so cantatas for solo voices, mixed chorus, and orchestra, only the setting of Walt Whitman's ‘Dirge for two veterans’ (1901) proved popular for a time with British choral societies. His other orchestral works include an unpublished piano concerto (1885–6), incidental music for Euripedes' Ion (1890) and Iphigenia in Tauris (1894), and an unpublished set of symphonic variations on the Irish air ‘Patrick Sarsfield’ (1899). As an orchestral composer and conductor, however, Wood seems to have lacked confidence: apart from the one-act chamber operas ‘A scene from Pickwick’ (1921) and ‘The family party’ (1923), he abandoned the orchestral medium after 1905, leaving three symphonies and an opera uncompleted.
Wood deployed smaller forces with far greater success. His chamber music includes six string quartets (composed between 1885 and 1916, and published in a posthumous edition in 1929), three violin sonatas, and several arrangements for violin and piano of Irish airs and dances. For solo voice and piano Wood composed about fifty original songs and arranged nearly a hundred Irish folk songs; regrettably, many of the arrangements have been lost, but more than fifty were published in five volumes with English words by Alfred Percival Graves (qv) (1897, 1914, 1927), P. J. McCall (qv) (1928), and Padraic Gregory (1931). Wood's estimable output of secular music for unaccompanied choir includes arrangements of Irish and other folk songs, as well as many original settings of Shakespeare, Campion, Shelley, Longfellow, Thomas Moore (qv), and others. His compositions are listed in the works by Ian Copley and Jeremy Dibble cited below.
Generally speaking, Wood's secular music is let down by stylistic blandness and technical introspection. In his sacred music, however, those very tendencies work to great advantage. Here, a conventional sound combines with subtle technical interest in works that are both easy to perform and dignified in effect. With the exceptions of the ‘St Mark passion’ (1920), a ‘Mass in F’ (1922, published 1971) and a handful of Latin motets, all are intended for the anglican services of communion, matins, and evensong. Of some twenty settings of the evening canticles ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc dimittis’, several have entered the standard repertory and are performed daily by the world's anglican cathedral, collegiate, and church choirs. No less popular are the best of Wood's forty or so English anthems, among which are ‘Hail, gladdening light’ (1912; words translated from the Greek by John Keble), ‘O Thou, the central orb’ (1915; words by H. R. Bramley) and ‘Expectans expectavi’ (1919; a setting of C. H. Sorley's poem ‘This sanctuary of my soul’).
Wood can safely be classed as a minor figure in the late romantic school of British composers headed by Parry, Stanford, and Elgar. But an attempt to escape from the strongest influences acting on that school – Brahms and Wagner – is evident in Wood's fascination with Calvinist, Scots presbyterian, and early anglican psalm tunes, which serve as the basis for many of his less familiar sacred pieces and most of his works for solo organ. The modal characteristics of these melodies contribute to an austerity that contrasts markedly with the opulent sound-world of late romanticism, and anticipates the anti-romantic, neo-modal style that was to be decisively realised by Wood's pupils Vaughan Williams and Howells.