2015-03-08 Notes from the Bench

“How Dazzling Fair” by Charles Wood

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


Charles Wood (1866-1926), an Irish composer and teacher, wrote music in a variety of genres orchestral and chamber music, piano and organ music, secular vocal works, and cantatas. However, Wood is best remembered for his Anglican Church music; he composed a number of sacred anthems and service music settings. Today, his sacred music is frequently performed in liturgical and concert settings, a staple of Anglican choirs around the world. Today’s anthem, “How Dazzling Fair,” is an example of his collaborative work with George Ratcliffe Woodward, a priest and poet who set new English religious texts to renaissance melodies, contributing to their revival and popularization.




Charles Wood was born in Vicars’ Hill located in the precinct of Armagh, Ireland. As a child, he sang as a chorister in the local cathedral, St. Patrick’s, and received his early education at the Cathedral Choir School. Wood also studied organ with two of the local cathedral organists, Robert Turle and Thomas Marks.

In 1883, he became a class member of the Royal College of Music, one of fifty inaugural members, where he studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Stanford would become Wood’s life-long mentor. After four years of training at the Royal College, he continued his educational pursuits at Selwyn College in Cambridge. Wood later taught harmony and counterpoint at this institution. Wood held other teaching positions at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge and in 1924, following Stanford’s death, he assumed his mentor’s vacant position at the University of Cambridge as Professor of Music. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells are among the well-known English composers who studied with Wood. In 1904, Wood was a co-founder of the Irish Folk Song Society.

Many of Charles Wood’s compositions are written in a late-romantic era style; he often utilized the type of harmonic language that was common with many of his contemporaries, which was occasionally contrasted with the employment of modality, to set carefully chosen texts with warmth and richness of emotional expression that demonstrate his craftsmanship as a composer.

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