North American British Music Studies Association

CFP: A Great Divide or a Longer Nineteenth Century? Music, Britain and the First World War

Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies One-Day Conference
21 January 2017
Durham University, UK
CFP Deadline: 1 September 2016

Conference website:

Keynote Address

‘Disruption or Continuity? Elgar’s Cello Concerto and the Modern Romantic Ideal’
Charles Edward McGuire (Oberlin College)

Call for Papers

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) casts the First World War as the birth of the Modern psyche for Britons. Through analysis of war literature and soldiers’ life writing, he argues the cataclysm of the war evinced a rupture with the clear moral standards, innocence, traditional artistic representations, and ways of constructing memory of pre-1914 Britain. In his “Modern” post-1914 Britain, disorientation, alienation, and irony become the dominant modes of representation. In contrast, Jay Winter, in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995), argues historical inquiry into the responses to the First World War have over-emphasized the progressive, Modernist responses, and in the process have ignored the traditional motifs in the myriad of responses to the war. He writes ‘this vigorous mining of eighteenth and nineteenth-century images and metaphors to accommodate expressions of mourning is one central reason why it is unacceptable to see the Great War as the moment when “modern memory” replaced something else, something timeworn and discredited, which (following contemporaries) I have called “tradition.”’  These two influential viewpoints have structured much of the subsequent discourse on the First World War coming from the disciplines of literature and history in the last several decades; it however has received little attention within music.

This conference aims to bring to music this crucial framework for understanding artistic and cultural responses to the First World War. We seek papers that explore these themes of rupture/ disillusionment and “mining of nineteenth-century” modes of representation/ tradition within the context of musical life throughout the British Empire. Participants from a range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives that engage with music are particularly welcome.

Possible topics on these rupture/ tradition themes are (but are not limited to):

1. How did British art music composers react to the war? Do we see rupture with the past or continuation of nineteenth-century practices?

2. How can we understand British Musical Modernism within this dichotomy of rupture/ tradition? How does it compare with European Musical Modernism? In what ways can we understand the Pastoral in these contexts?

3. What bearing does this rupture/ tradition dichotomy have on the historiography of British music and the notion of the long nineteenth-century?

4. In what ways did popular music—whether repertoire, performers, or the industry—change because of the war? In what ways did it carry on Edwardian and Victorian traditions?

5. In what ways did musical life in Britain help define, blur, or shatter traditional boundaries between
•    the home and war fronts?
•    wartime public and private spaces?
•    civilians and soldiers?
•    within the army (officers and non-ranking men, wounded and healthy)?
•    social classes?
•    men and women?
•    the motherland and dominion countries?

6. How does music contribute to Britain’s commemoration of the war and those lost and wounded? Do the modes of remembrance used indicate a break with the past, or do they carry on traditional mourning practices?

Abstract Submission Information

Abstracts are invited from academic staff, postgraduates, and other researchers for 20-minute individual papers and panels of three (90 minutes) or four papers (120 minutes).

All abstracts should be no longer than 300 words. Please also include your name, institutional affiliation or city, and a bio of up to 100 words.

Papers accepted will be considered for inclusion in a future edited collection.

Please send abstracts by 5pm (GMT) on 1 September 2016 to Michelle Meinhart at Acceptance decisions will be made by 1 October 2016.

This conference is supported by the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and the US-UK Fulbright Commission.

Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916) 100 Years On

By Jennifer Oates

The centenary of Hamish MacCunn’s death offers the opportunity to reflect on his fraught career and subsequent reception as well as to assess his place in the flourishing scholarship on music in Britain that has occurred over the past few decades. MacCunn’s career illustrates many of the challenges facing British composers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: mounting a successful career in their homeland, issues of identity in British music (which includes British, English, Scottish, pan-Celtic, etc.), music in and composers from the provinces, and the exploration of music throughout the British Isles.

Sketch of Hamish MacCunn by J.B.B., after John Pettie, lithograph, 1886. Used by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Sketch of Hamish MacCunn by J.B.B., after John Pettie, lithograph, 1886. Used by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

At the age of fifteen, MacCunn entered the Royal College of Music on a composition scholarship in the fall of 1883, the inaugural term of the institution. He later, rather foolishly, declined his degree in 1887 complaining at the time that: “[t]he professors [at the RCM] seem to teach at the lectures a form of musical gymnastics! Dry bones! Never once did they speak of the ideal of art. I have, therefore, resigned my scholarship.”[1] (In later years, he attempted to downplay his departure noting, “I held my scholarship at the R.C.M. for four years and then, having already received some encouragement from the public, ‘pushed off’ into the stream ‘on my own.’”[2]) By the late 1880s MacCunn’s three “Scottish” overtures (The Land of the Mountain and the Flood, 1887; The Ship o’ the Fiend, 1888; and The Dowie Dens o’ Yarrow, 1888) and four choral-orchestral works (Bonny Kilmeny, 1888; Lord Ullin’s Daughter, 1888; The Lay of the Last Minstrel, 1888; and The Cameronian’s Dream, 1890) clearly placed him among the rising stars of British composition at the time. All of these works, written in what could be characterized as a later nineteenth-century style in the vein of Mendelssohn and Schumann, were featured at the Crystal Palace, thanks to Sir August Manns and Sir George Grove, and also regularly performed by provincial choral and orchestral societies. For the rest of his life, these early successes tended to eclipse his later efforts as a composer of both serious and popular music, while his difficult personality won him few allies and limited his opportunities. With the dawn of the new century, he saw his popularity fade as his name appeared less frequently in the press and on concert programs. When his works were performed, it was the earlier works rather than more recent compositions that were featured. In 1915, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and his health forced him to reduce all of his activities. His music suffered a further decline in popularity after his death in 1916.

In many respects, MacCunn’s career illustrates some of the typical paths available for native composers. He benefitted from increased educational opportunities in London, had the support of major figures in the musical world (particularly Manns, Grove, and Sir Hubert H. Parry), and received commissions for major works: a cantata for the 1890 Norwich Festival and the Carl Rosa Opera Company commissioned his first opera. (The cantata, Queen Hynde of Caledon, was not completed until 1892; the festival featured his overture The Ship o’ the Fiend instead. One of the last commissions from Rosa himself, MacCunn’s opera Jeanie Deans was contracted in 1889 but not finished until 1894 due to changes of librettists and topics.) In many respects, MacCunn sabotaged his own success: arrogantly declining his degree, failing to fulfill commissions in a timely manner, relying on operas produced solely in Britain to further his career, and burning bridges with his hot-headed actions. It would seem in considering his biography that MacCunn had all the elements available for a successful career, but, as he aged, his personality and actions seem to have worn down the goodwill of his peers and his unprofessionalism closed doors to opportunity.

One factor in both MacCunn’s rise to fame and fall was his devotion to his homeland. The question of what was “British” was a challenge for all interested and resulted in a panoply of burgeoning musical styles focused on aspects of Great Britain—such as Ireland, Scotland, the “Celtic North,” and, in England, Tudor, pastoral, or folksong-influenced music—rather than any sense of unity. With fewer opportunities for musicians, particularly composers, outside of the metropolis, British composers tended to flock to the capital and write music that catered to the London public. While some, such as Charles Villiers Stanford, Arthur Sullivan, and fellow Scot Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, explored their homelands within a more diverse musical output, MacCunn distinguished himself with an unique, and, it could be said in this context, exotic artistic persona. In 1885, while at the Royal College of Music, he changed his name to Hamish, the Scots Gaelic form of his birth name James, and his compositions for major venues, like the Crystal Palace and major concert halls, were devoted almost exclusively to Scottish topics. Though he claimed his name change was to avoid being confused with his father James, he was clearly distinguishing himself as a Scottish composer, as he confirmed in an 1893 interview: “the more I look into the large and interesting tradition of [Scottish] ballad music and ballad literature that has been bequeathed to us, the more I feel that here there is plenty of material for the work of more than one life. I really feel no interest in foreign subjects—not doubt because I am a Scotsman.”[3] Though initially viewed as novel and refreshing, critics soon tired of MacCunn’s Scottish topics and what they perceived as his unwillingness or inability to grow as a composer.

MacCunn succeeded in establishing himself as a “Scottish” composer; yet, this label only reflects one aspect of his music. There is little to no trace of his homeland in a significant proportion of his music, including most of his compositions from after 1900. These works—particularly his songs, partsongs, and works for cello and piano—are some of his most sophisticated efforts. As Arthur M. Thomas noted in 1928: “About thirty years ago great things were expected of Hamish MacCunn. He disappointed the expectations he had aroused; but he left behind him many beautiful songs to show that the hopes for his future had not been formed without cause.”[4]

Remarkably, events marking the centenary of MacCunn’s death have gone beyond his Scottish legacy, instead focusing on his music for popular venues or his more intimate, urbane works:

  • In February 2016, the Glasgow University Chapel Choir’s performed The Wreck of the Hesperus with new lantern slides (the original slides for the London Coliseum have been lost).
  • The New York City chamber choir Cerddorion featured two of MacCunn’s partsongs (“Solider, rest!” and “Oh where art thou dreaming?”) on their two May concerts.
  • The first of two volumes of MacCunn’s complete songs for voice and piano will appear in A-R Editions’ Recent Researches in the Music of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries series in late 2016.
  • In November 2016, Glasgow University will feature more of MacCunn’s music in a choral concert, focusing on his partsongs.

Why this interest in MacCunn’s cosmopolitan works? These compositions, particularly his songs and partsongs, are among his most refined pieces featuring some of his most inventive harmonies and voice leading as well as witty and sensitive text settings. All of these features transcend his Scottish label and his fraught career. Ironically, it is those two factors that have long kept performers and listeners from considering his later compositions. The shift from focusing on his self-sabotaged career to his music and how it speaks to us today is a welcome change. It invites us to rethink the place of MacCunn’s music outside of his limiting Scottish guise and celebrate his unique and, at times, vibrant compositional voice without reference to tired cliché. Doing so will take more than writing about MacCunn, we need well-prepared and thoughtful performances of his works—and not just his “big hit” The Land of the Mountain of the Flood. Only then can we understand MacCunn’s compositional achievements and see what place his music has in our contemporary musical culture.

(A selection of MacCunn’s part songs can be heard here.)

[1]“Hamish MacCunn,” MM (Mar. 1888): p. 55.

[2]MS Farmer 264 quoted by kind permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.

[3]MacCunn as quoted in James Cuthbert Hadden, “Scottish Composers and Musicians: Hamish MacCunn,” Scottish Musical Monthly 1/3 (December 1893): 54.

[4]Arthur M. Thomas, “Some Neglected English Songs,” Sackbut 9 (August 1928): 23.

CFP: Midwest Victorian Studies Association 2017: Victorian Taste

Oberlin College & Conservatory, Oberlin, Ohio, April 28-30

What was Victorian taste? How did British Victorians at home and abroad discuss, theorize, market, judge, and consume taste? How was taste imagined and envisioned in relation to literary, visual, and musical arts? How did new knowledge of Britain’s historical and aesthetic past impact tastes of contemporary Victorians? MVSA’s 2017 conference invites papers that reflect fresh and current thinking about taste and the Victorians. Proposals are sought from scholars working in art history, musicology, history, science, philosophy, theater, and literature. We particularly encourage presentations that will contribute to cross-disciplinary discussion.

The 2017 conference will be held at Oberlin College & Conservatory, in the 1963 Minoru Yamasaki-designed buildings that reflect the neo-gothic splendor of some of the college’s oldest buildings. Aside from attending panels, seminars, and the Jane Stedman plenary lecture, conference participants will have the opportunity to tour a special Victorian exhibit at the Allen Memorial Art Museum and attend “What the Victorians Heard,” a concert by Oberlin’s Collegium Musicum (directed by Steven Plank), as well as dozens of other ongoing musical and theatrical performances.

MVSA’s 2014 Jane Stedman Lecture will be given by Candace L. Bailey of North Carolina Central University. Professor Bailey is a leading social and cultural musicologist, and an expert on music in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. She is a past president of the North American British Music Studies Association.

For the fourth year, MVSA’s conference will feature three seminars open to graduate students, faculty, and independent scholars led by senior scholars on topics related to the conference theme. Participants pre-circulate 5-to-7 page papers. Stay tuned for the forthcoming seminar CFP on the MVSA website.

The deadline for proposals will be September 30, 2016. The official call for papers and additional information about the conference will soon be available.

Recent Publications, Spring 2016


Aspden, Suzanne. “‘Sancta Cæcilia Rediviva’. Elizabeth Linley: Repertoire, Reputation and the English Voice.” Cambridge Opera Journal 27/3 (November 2015): 263-287.

Atlas, Allan. “On the Reception of Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies in New York, 1920/1–2014/15.” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle 41/1 (2016): 24-86.

Baade, Christina. “‘Something We Cannot Get in England’: Hearing Anglo-American Difference in America Dances.” American Music 33/3 (Fall 2015): 307-344.

Banfield, Stephen. “Grainger the Edwardian.” Musicology Australia 37/2 (March 2016): 148-166.

Bucciarelli, Melania. “Senesino’s Negotiations with the Royal Academy of Music: Further Insight into the Riva–Bernardi Correspondence and the Role of Singers in the Practice of Eighteenth-Century Opera.” Cambridge Opera Journal 27/3 (November 2015): 189-213.

Desler, Anne. “The little that I have done is already gone and forgotten’:Farinelli and Burney Write Music History.” Cambridge Opera Journal 27/3 (November 2015): 215-238.

Duncan, Cheryll. “New Purcell Documents from the Court of King’s Bench.” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle 41/1 (2016): 1-23.

Grimley, Daniel M. “Music, Landscape, and the Sound of Place: On Hearing Delius’s Song of the High Hills.” Journal of Musicology 33/1 (Winter 2016): 11-44.

Guthrie, Kate Guthrie. “Awakening ‘Sleeping Beauty’: The Creation of National Ballet in Britain.” Music & Letters 96/3 (August 2015): 418-48.

Hamilton, Katy. “‘A man of many hobbies…’: Alan Adair and the Concerts of the Adair Wounded Fund.” Fontes Artis Musicae 63/1 (January-March 2016): 33-43.

Hill, Jennifer. “Deeply helpful training’: Percy Grainger’s First Piano Teachers in Late Nineteenth-century Melbourne.” Musicology Australia 37/2 (March 2016): 135-147.

Johnstone, Jennifer. “Welshness and Choral Singing: Cognitive and Sociohistorical Aspects of Cultural Identity in North Wales.” Journal of the Canadian Society for Traditional Music 42/1 (2015):

Kingsbury, Stephen. “Aesthetic Meaning in the Congregational Masses of James MacMillan.” Yale Journal of Music & Religion 2/1 (2016):

Loomis, Karen, Ticca Ogilvie, and Lore Troalen. “Reidentifying the wood of the Queen Mary and Lamont harps.” Early Music 43/4 (2015): 623-634.

Marini, Stephen A. “Whitefield’s Music: Moorfields Tabernacle, The Divine Musical Miscellany (1754), and the Fashioning of Early Evangelical Sacred Song.” Yale Journal of Music & Religion 2/1 (2016):

McLaughlin, Noel. “Another Green World?: Eno, Ireland and U2.” Popular Music History 9/4 (2014): 173-194:

Nedbal, Martin. “Reinterpreting The Bartered Bride: Vašek as a Model for Britten’s Albert Herring.” Journal of Musicological Research 34/3 (2015): 275-298.

Owen, Ceri. “Making an English Voice: Performing National Identity during the English Musical Renaissance.” Twentieth-Century Music 13/1 (March 2016): 77-107.

Robinson, Suzanne. “‘Life’s Major Crossroads’: Study and Career Paths of Four Australian Women Composers at the Royal College of Music in the 1930s.” Musicology Australia 37/2 (March 2016): 167-184.

Russell, Dave. “Key Workers: Toward an Occupational History of the Private Music Teacher in England and Wales, c.1861–c.1921.” Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle 41/1 (2016): 145-72.

Scobie, Christopher. “Ephemeral Music?: – The ‘Secondary Music’ Collection at the British Library.” Fontes Artis Musicae 63/1 (January-March 2016): 21-32

Sharpe, Richard. “Tommaso Giordani, Gregorio Ballabene’s Messa a dodici cori con organo and Sacred Music in Late-Eighteenth-Century Dublin.” Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland Vol. 11 (2015-16): 25-35.

Smith, Neil Thomas. “The Case for a British Darmstadt.” Tempo 69/274 (October 2015): 50-57.

Stirling, Christabel. “Sound Art / Street Life: Tracing the social and political effects of sound installations in London.” Journal of Sonic Studies 11 (2016):

Turner, Kristen M. “Class, Race, and Uplift in the Opera House: Theodore Drury and His Company Cross the Color Line.” Journal of Musicological Research 34/3 (2015): 320-351.

Walden, Daniel K.S. “Charting Boethius: Music and the Diagrammtic Tree in the Cambridge University Library’s de Institutione Arthimetica, MS II.3.12.” Early Music History 34 (October 2015): 207-28.

Watson, Laura. “Epitaph for a Musician: Rhoda Coghill as Pianist, Composer and Poet.” Journal of the Society for Musicology in Ireland Vol. 11 (2015-16): 3-23.



The Beatles are Here!: 5- Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers and Other Fans Remember. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014.

Beyond Britten: The Composer and the Community. Edited by Peter Wiegold and Ghislaine Kenyon. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2016.

Felix Aprahamian: Diaries and Selected Writings on Music. Edited by Lewis Foreman and Susan Foreman. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2015.

Fuhrmann, Christina. Foreign Opera at the London Playhouses, from Mozart to Bellini. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Gelly, Dave. An Unholy Row: Jazz in Britain and its Audience, 1945-1960. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Grainger the Modernist. Edited by Robinson, Suzanne and Kay Dreyfus. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015.

Hunter, David. The Lives of George Frideric Handel. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2015.

Huston, Jennifer L. US: Changing the World through Rock ‘n’ Roll. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 2015.

Johnston, Roy with Declan Plummer. The Musical Life of Nineteenth-Century Belfast. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2015.

Lazareviće, Slobodan and Radmila Paunovic Stajn. The Mythological in the Operas of Benjamin Britten. Lewiston, NY and Ceredigion Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 2014.

Musicians of Bath and Beyond: Edward Loder (1809-1865) and his Family. Edited by Nicholas Temperley. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2016.

Palmer, Andrew. Encounters with British Composers. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2015.

Ritchie, Fiona and Douglas M. Orr. Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

The Sea in the British Musical Imagination. Edited by Eric Saylor and Christopher M. Scheer. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer Ltd., 2015.

Smith, Jeremy L. Verse and Voice in Byrd’s Song Collections of 1588 and 1589. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2016.

Tougas, Jose. The Beatles: Defining Rock ‘n’ Roll. North Mankato, MN: Capstone Press, 2015.


Sterndale Bennett at 200

By Nicholas Temperley

This year we commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of William Sterndale Bennett (1816–1875).  He was one of three early Victorian performer-composers who managed to overcome the British establishment’s preference for music of foreign origin, and even to enjoy a commanding position and reputation in their time.  The others were Michael William Balfe (1808–1879) and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876).

There is surprisingly little overlap between the musical domains occupied by these three men.  Balfe managed to achieve success in the financially hazardous field of opera, not only in Britain but on the Continent as well, first as a singer and then as a composer; public taste would not let him stray far from Italian models and the Anglo-Irish ballad.  Wesley, after youthful exploration of several different fields, settled for the comparatively safe and insular world of the Church of England, where his bold challenges to convention both in organ playing and composition were made possible by the security of his appointments.

Bennett chose instrumental music as his main field of activity, with concentration on the piano.  In the time of his youth the instrument was nearing the summit of its growth and development, and was a focus of innovation, excitement, and enormous popularity, both in the concert hall and in the home.  Competition was fierce for the primary positions of fame in the role of pianist-composer, dominated by Liszt, Chopin, and Thalberg.  But Bennett, for whatever reason, refused to follow the lead of these men, seeing himself as a defender of the classical tradition against mounting threats of commercialism, vulgarity, and virtuosity.

Orphaned in early life, he was raised at Cambridge, where for a while he and his grandfather were both singing in the King’s College Chapel choir.  Soon recognized as a child prodigy, William was admitted before his tenth birthday to the recently founded Royal Academy of Music (RAM).  His most important teacher there was Cipriani Potter (1792–1871).  A pioneer in teaching the principles of musical form, Potter treated Mozart as the best model for composition students, a view that Bennett maintained throughout his career.  His first piano concerto (1832) attracted the attention of Mendelssohn, who promptly invited Bennett to visit him in Germany.  With this encouragement Bennett produced in the next decade an astonishing group of symphonies, piano concertos, and overtures on classical models.  They include his overture The Naiades (1837), which became his most popular orchestral work.  At the same time he developed for domestic use a more intimately original style in a series of piano pieces and songs.  He began to be influenced by the manner of Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” though never at the cost of his own, often more intense, musical personality.

In the course of his visits to Leipzig that followed, Bennett found that he was treated as a leading member of the famous circle of musicians there, earning extravagant praise from both Mendelssohn (“I am convinced if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God’s will, but his own”) and Schumann (“Were there many artists like Sterndale Bennett, all fears for the future progress of our art would be silenced”).  Greatly encouraged, he produced more ambitious piano works, including a sonata dedicated to Mendelssohn and a fantasia dedicated to Schumann.  He gained an enviably high reputation in Germany, which led to the publication there of most of his compositions—an unusual privilege for a British composer at the time—and, eventually, to the offer of the conductorship of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts for the 1853–4 season.  He could surely have found a way of rearranging his obligations in England so that he could accept this signal honor.  The fact that he turned it down is an indication of the self-doubt that seems to have troubled him through much of his life.

Back in England, Bennett found he had to concentrate on making a living, especially after his marriage in 1844, soon to be followed by the birth of three children.  Many of his equally needy contemporaries, such as Edward Loder, had to publish popular ballads, or facile piano pieces based on currently fashionable songs, for ready money.  As a matter of principle Bennett refused to descend to this level.  He also seems to have disapproved of the theatre.  He earned what he could from more high-minded performing or composing opportunities.

But most of his income had to come from teaching.  He had taught at the RAM since 1837, and took private pupils as well, but he failed to secure any other position until 1855, when he was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Society, and professor of music at Cambridge the following year.  These appointments gave belated recognition to his standing in the profession, but added little to his income.  After his Suite de Pièces (1842) his output of compositions for the next fifteen years was disappointingly meager.  He failed to complete commissions for several large works, including an opera and an oratorio, and only occasionally published a modest piano piece or set of songs, and a single sonata for cello and piano in 1852.  His life seems to have become a ceaseless round of playing and teaching.  With only mild exaggeration, Geoffrey Bush fifty years ago asked “Why did Bennett give up being a composer at the age of twenty-eight?”

Some writers have simply put down his low output to overwork.  But Bennett did find time for a substantial amount of valuable scholarly work.  He founded the Bach Society in 1849, and was responsible for the first English edition and public performance of the St. Matthew Passion.  With Otto Goldschmidt he edited The Chorale Book for England (published in 1863), consisting of German chorales with English texts.  He also produced an edition of classical piano sonatas and gave two series of historical lectures at the London Institution.

What was needed to revive his career as a composer was a strong external stimulus.  This came in later years in the form of several commissions.  A cantata, The May-Queen, was written for the Leeds Festival of 1858.  Two choral odes were ordered in 1862—one for the International Exhibition, with words by Tennyson, the other for the installation of the Duke of Devonshire as chancellor of Cambridge University, with words by Kingsley.  He provided a Symphony in G minor, for both the Gewandhaus and the Philharmonic Society, in 1863–4, and an oratorio, The Woman of Samaria, for the Birmingham Festival of 1867.  The overture to Ajax followed in 1872.  One of his last works was more spontaneous, and certainly surprising: a programmatic piano sonata, Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1873).


William Sterndale Bennett aged about 50

William Sterndale Bennett aged about 50. Image courtesy of the Sterndale Bennett family.


It is generally agreed that these late works, though they show a composer in full command of his medium and contain occasional touches of brilliance, mostly lack the inspiration and originality of Bennett’s youthful period.  As I have speculated elsewhere, the early loss of both parents may have left him with a profound need for reassurance and encouragement, which England could not provide for a native composer in his time.  As a young man he responded to the admiration of his English and German colleagues, above all Mendelssohn and Schumann.  But this did not lead to appropriate recognition in England until many years later.  When the opportunity arrived to claim his earned place as a leader in German music, he was not quite bold enough to grasp it.

Bennett and his English contemporaries have not been treated well by music historians, who long ago placed them in a Dark Age preceding the “English Musical Renaissance” and dismissed Bennett as an imitator of Mendelssohn.  Although that judgment has been challenged for some time, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to give it a more comprehensive review, and in this year above all, to get to know Bennett’s music well enough to appreciate its individual virtues.  An amazingly large proportion of it is now freely available in high-quality recordings through YouTube and other sources.  Rosemary Williamson’s comprehensive thematic catalogue of his works was published by Oxford University Press in 1996.  Several essays of a re-evaluating character have been issued by Larry Todd, Peter Horton, and others.  This year’s NABMSA conference will include a session on Bennett, with papers by Therese Ellsworth on his reputation in America and by Linda Shaver-Gleason on the reasons for his dismissal as a Mendelssohn imitator.   A special issue of Nineteenth-Century Music Review, edited by Jeremy Dibble, will also commemorate the bicentenary; it includes an essay by me on Bennett’s stylistic originality.  And Dr Horton is preparing a full-length book study.

Perhaps at last Sterndale Bennett will get his due.