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Thread: William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)

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    Senior Member Joachim Raff's Avatar
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    Default William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)

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    William Sterndale Bennett was born in Sheffield on 13th April 1816 into a musical family but was orphaned at the age of three. Taken into the care of his paternal musical grandfather in Cambridge he entered the choir of King's College Chapel at the age of seven. Three years later he won a scholarship to the newly formed Royal Academy of Music to study the piano and violin but it was the influence of his composition teacher Cipriani Potter who provided him with a thorough grounding in the music of Bach, Scarlatti, Clementi and above all Mozart who was to be his true mentor (not Mendelssohn as is so often assumed, nor indeed was he a pupil of his). His skill as a very fine pianist and promising composer soon attracted considerable attention. So impressed was Mendelssohn on a visit to the Academy in 1833 that he immediately invited Bennett to Leipzig 'not as my pupil but as my friend'.

    Bennett made three extended visits to Leipzig between 1836-42 in the close company of Mendelssohn and Schumann both of whom greatly admired and encouraged his prodigious talents. Regarded as a beacon of hope for English music, this was to be his most prolific period as a composer. He also wrote a spontaneous, intimate, self deprecating and often very amusing set of diaries which have survived.

    On his return to England in 1842 aged 26 he found himself confronted with an atmosphere described by John Betjeman as a stagnant swamp, struggling with a transition from his natural spontaneous artistic expression and relative financial freedom in Germany to one which provided little room for his indigenous talent. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that he failed to sustain that early success. This might be attributed to a lack of confidence, the early death of his parents and overwork from the demands of high profile administrative duties placed upon him in later life. Despite being tenacious in times of adversity, he was at heart a somewhat retiring person who fastidiously avoided taking centre stage or being associated with anything he judged to be remotely pretentious or ostentatious, regardless of the consequences. Fortunately he came to recognise his shortcomings so began to divert his energies to other important musical endeavours, a decision that was not to prove in vain.

    He started by setting about organising a series of Classical Chamber Concerts between 1843 to 1855 at the Hanover Square Rooms in London . Not only did he perform works of the great masters and occasionally his own but he introduced for the first time such important artists as Jenny Lind, Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann. In 1851 he was appointed a Metropolitan Local Commissioner and musical Juror for the Great Exhibition and the music for the opening procession was formally placed under his superintendence. For the International Exhibition of 1862 he was commissioned to write an Ode for the opening ceremony.

    Bennett’s interest in Bach’s music can be traced back to his friendship with Mendelssohn who had rediscovered the St Matthew Passion in 1829. As a measure of Bennett's good standing in Germany he was able to obtain a copy of some of the unpublished vocal parts from Berlin and in 1849 founded the Bach Society (a precursor to The Bach Choir in London) with a view to introducing this work to the English public at a time when Bach's music was largely unknown. Entrusting the English translation from the German to Helen Johnson, a young student of his, he directed the ground breaking first performance of an abridged version at the Hanover Square Rooms on the 6th April 1854 which then set in train a long and distinguished history of performances of this monumental work. He went on to produce Classical Practice, being editions of works by several of the 18th and 19th century keyboard masters; then in 1863 in collaboration with Otto Goldschmidt, husband of the singer Jenny Lind, he co-edited The Chorale Book for England based on translations from the German by Catherine Winkworth.

    The (now Royal) Philharmonic Society was an organisation with which Bennett was associated for most of his working life. On becoming a director in 1841 he was able to persuade both Mendelssohn and Spohr to appear thus attracting full houses and much needed income. In 1856 he succeeded Wagner as chief conductor of their orchestra for ten years having turned down a similar post in Leipzig which would have been an unprecedented honour for a foreigner. However, in the background he had to contend with turbulent internal politics but finally emerged having sustained its fortunes and reputation. In 1871 he was among the first to receive their coveted Gold medal.

    He became greatly revered as a music educator and for his nurturing of many who were later to be associated with the so-called English musical renaissance. As a founding director of Queen's College London and of Bedford College (now part of Royal Holloway London University) he sought to champion female music students whom he regarded as being socially marginalised. In 1856 he was elected professor of music at Cambridge University and set about raising the standards required to obtain a doctoral degree.

    His appointment as principal of the Royal Academy of Music in 1866 came at a time when the institution was under threat of closure due to falling standards and serious financial problems. As with the Philharmonic he effectively saved it from extinction. His many students there and elsewhere included Sir Arthur Sullivan, Sir Hubert Parry, Francis Edward Bache, Tobias Matthay, Joseph Parry, and Alice Mary Smith. A scholarship and prize in his name founded in 1872 are still awarded to this day. He was knighted, died in office at his home in St Johns Wood on the 1st February 1875 aged 58 and was buried at Westminster Abbey. Several of his descendants followed into the musical and theatrical world.

    At the time of his death he was widely regarded as the head of English music and later in Grove's Dictionary described as the most distinguished English composer of the early romantic era. The educational reformer Sir Henry Hadow (1931) wrote 'Bennett held a most honourable place on the mid slopes. He found English music a barren land, enriched its soil and developed its cultivation'. Yet, like so many Victorian artists, he was soon to be relegated to the footnotes of musical history only to be rediscovered a century later.

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    Senior Member Joachim Raff's Avatar
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    Recommended listening:

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    I've always wondered why British composers had virtually no presence during the romantic classical era.

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    Senior Member joen_cph's Avatar
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    It's surprising how little he is known outside the UK generally - a good deal of nice and original music, say in the piano concertos, definitely worth hearing.

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    Senior Member Bulldog's Avatar
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    I like his music. He might not be in a special category, but the music is straight from the heart, well-crafted, and always interesting.

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    Senior Member JAS's Avatar
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    Bennett's music is pleasant, in a good performance, and competently composed. It never seems terribly memorable to me. There are certainly much worse things that I can say about a composer. Glancing over this thread, I note that I have not really tried much by him beyond the piano concertos, so perhaps I should branch out a bit.
    Last edited by JAS; Nov-28-2020 at 15:01.

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