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).
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.