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ARTICLE Plain text for smartphones & printers

William Sterndale Bennett
by Barry Sterndale Bennett

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.

Bicentenary in 2016
We in this country rather like musical anniversaries. It's an opportunity for researchers to reassess the contribution made by relatively unknown composers who might otherwise have become lost in the mists of time. Whilst Bennett's name is quite well known amongst musicians in England this is often mistakenly associated with a little church music written largely to order and criticised for being a restatement of a past. This is in stark contrast to his youthful compositions which included some fine well crafted and innovative orchestral and piano works which would probably have been lost had it not been for the recordings made by Lyrita, Marco Polo and more recently Hyperion for an albeit specialist market. The problem with his music is that whilst much of his output was very well received in his lifetime he was at heart of a gentle and reservd disposition. He was effectively a musical water colourist rather a conceiver of a grandiose canvas. So it is not surprising he stood little chance against the latter for box office appeal. However more recent research places him in a much more kindly light and there is certainly an appetite to hear some of his works again.

A substantial database of enthusiasts and practitioners, backed by a comprehensive inventory of scores and research material built up over several years was available. Bennett had left a well documented music library and a large proportion of the autograph scores are now deposited at the Bodleian Library. Printed scores of most of his works and key reference material are to be found in many music libraries not just in the UK but also as free internet downloads. Some of the large scale orchestral works are also available from Scores Reformed Ltd, a specialist computer engraving service.

An essential presence on the internet was facilitated by an independent rewrite of the Wikipedia entry which earned featured article status. Apart from the excellent support from Rob Barnett for MusicWeb , David Owen Norris generously used his own regularly updated website to promote Bennett, not to mention his high profile performances and writings on the subject. An obvious first port of call was to Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, principal of the Royal Academy of Music and his deputy Dr Tim Jones both of whom were quick to take up the challenge recognising its historical importance. It is to their great credit that they did this despite conflicting demands on their time to mark the anniversaries of Shakespeare and Menuhin against a background of major complex internal rebuilding works. The Academy was to play an early pivotal role starting with a series of concerts and a research seminar under the heading The Leipzig Connection performed by current students and staff. Also, some of the composer's artefacts were on display there for six months.

An early approach to BBC Radio 3 took many months to elicit any meaningful response. It soon became clear Bennett's music would not be programmed into the Prom season (although the history of the latter shows works were included on ten occasions between 1899 and 1922!) but they would consider him as the subject of Radio 3's Composer of the Week at the time of the actual anniversary in mid April. Once a commitment was made they could not have been more helpful. It generated much interest not least in some rarely heard anthems specially recorded by the BBC Singers for the series. Meanwhile Classic FM featured a number of the recordings.
The Bodleian Library staged a display and promoted two concerts in Oxford. Meanwhile Cambridge marked the fact Bennett had been an influential professor of music there with a concert at their fine faculty of music concert hall. In his birthplace Sheffield, the Sterndale Singers promoted a concert of solo vocal, choral and piano music attended by the Lord Mayor. In collaboration with the London Bach Society, Bennett's contribution to the introduction of Bach's music into this country and in particularof the St Matthew Passion in 1854 was remembered at a reception at the RAM and in the programme for the annual Bach Choir's performance of that work in the Royal Festival Hall. Given their financial constraints, particular encouragement was given to good amateur groupings to perform virtually unknown works. Of particular note was the initiative taken by the Orpington Symphony Orchestra, and in March 2017 the Exeter Symphony Orchestra, to include the fourth piano concerto.

During the year just over one hundred events included Bennett's music. The works most frequently performed were all the overtures and chamber music, some of the piano solos and vocal music. Apart from several locations in the London area and those mentioned above, performances also took place in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Durham, Sherborne, Stockbridge, Stockport, Stratford-upon-Avon, the English Music Festival, Lakeside District Summer Music Festival and in the Hatchlands series. Abroad included Husum, Leipzig, Zwickau and the Bamberg Festival in Germany, the Mendelssohn Festival of Aarau in Switzerland, Geelong and Melbourne in Australia and somewhat surprisingly the Indian Summer Festival of Levoca in Slovakia as well as in Kuwait and South Korea. Several lectures were delivered across the country partly at the behest of the Federation of Recorded Music Societies. Articles were written for publications of the British Music Society, BRIO, the RCO Journal, the Nineteenth-century Music Review plus magazine articles for Choir & Organ Fine Music Australia, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, the North American British Music Studies Association, and as composer of the month for the website of the Museum of Music History.

Key reference material

The Life of William Sterndale Bennett by his son James Robert Sterndale Bennett (Cambridge University Press 1907)
William Sterndale Bennett: A Descriptive Thematic Catalogue by Rosemary Williamson (Clarendon Press, Oxford 1996) – This describes in detail and contextualises all of Bennett's 122 compositions. Those prefixed WO denote works without opus numbers.

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Among Bennett's student compositions were a Symphony in G minor WO31, the overture Parisina Op 3 based on Byron’s poem, a String Quartet in G WO17, a Sextett Op 8 and most notably his Piano concerto No 1 in D minor Op 1 which so impressed Mendelssohn for its energetic tuttis contrasting with lyrical melodies, economic scoring and a technically brilliant solo piano part. His Piano Concerto No 2 in E flat major Op 4 written just before departing for Leipzig is noted for its effervescent finale whilst anticipating Sullivan at his wittiest.
He chose his Piano concerto No 3 in C minor Op 9 for his debut at the Leipzig Gewandhaus conducted by Mendelssohn. The impact was to astound the highly critical Leipzig audience and was to be followed with equal delight when he conducted his overture The Naiades Op15 with its delicate colouring, gentle dance rhythms, highly chromatic writing punctuated by strong chords and fine handling of wind and string textures. Of his piano concertos, the fourth in F minor Op 19 is probably his masterpiece. This, together with the Caprice Op 22,, are acknowledged as being among the finest embodiments of the classical spirit between Beethoven and Brahms.

Some fine solo piano pieces fall into this period notably Three Musical Sketches Op 10 a set of graceful watercolour sketches; the Piano Sonata No 1 Op 13. dedicated to Mendelssohn; grandly proportioned and conveying an ardent and unchecked romantic longing. The Three Romances Op 14 with their tapered sentimentalism caused Schumann to observe a great step forward with some deep and strange harmonic combinations and a bold broad structure. The Suite de Pieces Op 24 is possibly his finest solo piano work having juxtapositions of restraint and emotional freedom. Then there are some shorter and more placid pieces with the student in mind. His Diversions Op 17 were played at soirees as a duet with Mendelssohn which was not surprising given that they frequently exchanged their new draft compositions for comment and encouragement. Schumann, whose works were considered very modern in those days, dedicated his Etudes Symphoniques Op 13 to Bennett who reciprocated with his Fantasia in A Op 16, a most demanding work which critics observed as being perfectly controlled in form as it is passionate in feeling, crowned by splendid outbursts of sustained lyricism. His Chamber Trio Op 26 contains an unusual second movement with violin and cello playing pizzicato against the percussive sounds of the piano.

At their best, the successful works are characterised by youthful vitality, a strong sense of style, timing and economy, first rate craftsmanship and structural finish, an individual gift of melody, an accurate and pure sense of tone-colours. Like Chopin, he was a pianist’s musician with mastery of the instrument’s natural potential.. But above all he was inwardly poetic by nature, a miniaturist with watercolours rather than a conceiver of a grandiose canvas as he chose to adhere to what became known as the London Pianoforte School founded by Muzio Clementi to embrace works written for the London market.
Later in life he returned to composition with his Sonata Duo for cello and piano Op 32 premiered by and dedicated to Alfredo Piatti in 1852; the overtrure Paradise and the Peri
Op 42 based on the poem by Thomas More, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Philharmonic Society in 1862 and regarded as one his most original and imaginative works.

Bennett wrote best for his own instrument, the piano. However two extant symphonies survive, one in G minor WO31 written as a student and another written much later in life in the same key as Op 43 dated 1864-7. Of his vocal music the part songs Come live with me WO47, Sweet Stream WO78 and two sets of Six songs Ops 23 and 35 regarded as good examples of the English lied have retained popularity. However the pastorale The May Queen Op 39 written for the Leeds Music Festival to commemorate the Queen's opening of their Town Hall in 1858; and the sacred cantata The Woman of Samaria Op 44 written for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival of 1867, although very popular in their day, suffer from being a restatement of the past and tend to lack the vitality demanded by today audiences but both are certainly worth an airing by truly first rate performers.

Anthems of note are Remember now thy Creator Op 30 & as WO54; O that I knew where I might find Him WO58; Great is our Lord WO59; The fool hath said in his heart WO61;
Now my God, let, I beseech Thee WO70; In Thee O Lord do I put my trust WO84; and for double chorus Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle WO57.

At the end of his life an unexpected gem in the nature of programmatic music inspired by Schiller’s poem, appeared as a second Piano sonata No 2 (The Maid of Orleans) Op 46 which was quickly taken into the repertoire of several leading pianists. Finally, there is a Piano Concerto No 6 in A minor WO48 first conceived in Germany and originally entitled Concert-Stuke which was premiered to critical acclaim at the Philharmonic Society in 1843 conducted by Sir Henry Bishop with Bennett as soloist but unfortunately this work currently remains in private hands, unpublished and unavailable.

Note for piano students

A senior examiner for the ABRSM comments on a book of 20 piano pieces that they are suitable for good grade 7 level and above but some passages require considerable dexterity.

Selected Discography
Piano Concertos: No.1 in D minor, op. 1; No.2 in E flat major, op. 4; No.3 in C minor, op. 9 (1836) [29:08]
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Howard Shelley (piano) Hyperion CDA68178 [79:31]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op.1; Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 9.
Malcolm Binns (piano), Nicholas Braithwaite (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Lyrita CD SRCD 204 (1990)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in E flat major, Op 4; Piano Concerto No. 5 in F minor, WO32.
Malcolm Binns (piano), Nicholas Braithwaite (conductor), Philharmonia Orchestra.
Lyrita CD SRCD 205 (1990)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in F minor, Op.19; Caprice in E major, Op. 22.
Howard Shelley (piano/conductor), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
Hyperion CDA 67595 (2006)

Symphony in G minor, WO31 (1835). Hilary Davan Wetton (conductor), Milton Keynes Chamber Orchestra. MKM CD 861 (1987)

Symphony in G minor, Op. 43. Douglas Bostock (conductor),
Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Classico CLASSCD 634 (2004)

Symphony in G minor Op. 43. Nicholas Braithwaite (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra. Lyrita SRCD 206 (2007)


Overtures Parisina, Op. 3; The Naiades Op. 15; The Woodnymph. Op. 20; The May Queen from Op. 39. Nicholas Braithwaite (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra,
Lyrita SRCD 206 (2007)

Overture The Naiades, Op. 15. Dirk Joeres (conductor), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra,
IMP/Carlton Classics CD 30367 00152 (1995)

Piano solos

Capriccio in D minor, Op. 2; Three Romances, Op. 14; Three Impromptus, Op. 12;
30 Preludes and Lessons, Op. 33. Ilona Prunyi (piano), Marco Polo CD 8.223578 (1992)

Four pieces, Op. 28; Allegro grazioso, Op. 18; Genevieve, WO42
Rondo piacevole, Op. 25; Scherzo, Op. 27; Three Musical Sketches, Op. 10;
Sonata No 2 in A-flat major, Op. 46 (The Maid of Orleans). Ilona Prunyi (piano),
Marco Polo CD 8.2223512 (1992)

Suite de pieces in B major, Op. 24; Piano Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op. 13
Ilona Prunyi (piano). Marco Polo CD 8.223526 (1992)

Sonata No 1 in F minor, Op. 13; Simon Callaghan (piano). Gents Muzikaal Achief Vol 34
CD RP/GMA 069/073 (2007)

Three Musical Sketches, Op.10. Kumiko Ida (piano), Lotusland Mittenwald MTWD 99008

Three Romances, Op.14; Sonata No 2 in A-flat major, Op.46. (The Maid of Orleans)
Ian Hobson (piano), Arabesque Tape ABQC 6596 (1990)

Sextet in F sharp minor Op 8; Chamber Trio Op 26; Quartet in G WO17
Villiers Quartet, Jeremy Young (piano), Leon Bosch (double bass)) Naxos 8.571379
Piano Sextet, Op. 8; Sonata Duo for Cello and Piano, Op. 32.
Ilona Prunyi (piano) and others of the Budapest String Ensemble, Marco Polo CD 8.223304 (1993)


Part song: Come Live With Me, WO47, from The Romantic Englishman. The Hilliard Ensemble, Duo DUOCD 890009 (1990)
Two sets of six songs Opp. 23 & 35: Gordon Pullin (tenor) and Roger Fisher (piano)
Chris Tann Recording (2010)

Songs from Opp 23 and 35; Winter’s gone, Musing On The Roaring Ocean, May Dew,
Forget me not. Stephen Roberts (baritone) and Terence Allbright (piano)
PRCD 2552 (2010)

Works recommended to be recorded

Selections from the pastorale The May Queen Op 39
Selections from sacred cantata The Woman of Samaria Op 44
Anthem: Remember now thy Creator Op 30 & as WO54
Anthem: O that I knew where I might find Him WO58
Anthem: Great is our Lord WO59
Anthem: The fool hath said in his heart WO61;
Anthem: Now my God, let, I beseech Thee WO70
Anthem: In Thee O Lord do I put my trust WO84
Anthem for double choir: Lord, who shall dwell in Thy tabernacle WO57.

Barry Sterndale Bennett
January 2017
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