Saturday, 5 May 2012

William Sterndale Bennett: a portrait by George Alexander Macfarren

Born in Sheffield, April 13, 1810, where his father, Robert Bennett, was organist. He is conspicuous in the musical history of the present period, as having, by his unswerving fidelity to the loftiest principles of his art, and still more by his natural and highly refined ability to embody these in his works, been effectively instrumental in raising the standard of music in this country, and in gaining consideration for the earnest pretensions of English music abroad. We may suppose that the occupation of his father tended to the immediate development of his organization; but, becoming an orphan at three years old, he derived nothing from his parent's musical pursuits, save the inestimable advantage of this early impression. At his father's death, he was removed to the care of his grandfather at Cambridge, where in 1824 he entered the choir of King's College Chapel. Already he gave proof of an uncommon aptitude for music; so strong, that two years afterwards he was taken from this institution to be placed in the Royal Academy of Music in London. Passing through the classes of Mr Lucas and Dr. Crotch for composition, and of Mr W. H. Holmes for the pianoforte, he became the pupil of Mr Potter in both these departments, whose entire merit it is to have fully developed the remarkable talent they had prepared for his care,—fully developed, because it was while yet under his direction, that Bennett produced some of the works which most honour his name, no less admirable for maturity of style than freshness of invention; and while yet under his direction, he attained the excellence as a pianist which won him the esteem he still maintains. Among his academical productions which have not appeared in print, an overture to the Tempest and two symphonies must be named as possessing great interest. Prior even to these he wrote his Concerto in D minor, in 1832, the rare merit of which attracted general attention to the young composer. He played it at the prize concert of the academy at midsummer, 1833, when Mendelssohn was present, who, quick to appreciate the indications in the music and its performance of approaching excellence, gave Bennett such warm encouragement as true genius only can extend.
The academy committee paid the cost of publishing this first concerto for the author's advantage, and thus conferred an equal benefit on their institution in the credit the scholar reflected on the school. The Concerto in E flat, a production of the ensuing autumn, shows no longer the immediate effect upon the composer's mind of the classic masterpieces which, with him as with every genuine artist, were the seeds of his originality ; but the decided style manifest in this work shows the now indirect influence of the great models, from a perfect knowledge of which alone can result a mastery of the principles of construction which have been unfolded through successive generations, and a freedom in the employment of resources, which, being accumulated from all, are common to all that have the power to appropriate them.
His overture to the Merry Wives of Windsor, still unpublished, is a work of charming freshness,  which preceded the composition in 1834 of that to Parisina ; the depth of feeling, the flow of ideas, and their skilful arrangement that distinguished this last named, associate it with the highest productions of its class.
The Concerto in C minor, another fruit of this fertile year, has all the characteristics of classicality; the stately breadth of the first movement, the dreamy mystery of the andante, and the fire of the finale, are throughout entirely individual to the author; but the merit of the whole is common to this and to the best extant works of its kind. At one of the early concerts of the then promising society of British musicians in this same year, Bennett played his second concerto, and he thus gained such general acknowledgment, that the Philharmonic directors engaged him to repeat the performance at the first concert of their following season, when his success was most triumphant. The next year was occupied with productions of less importance, though, perhaps, of more extensive popularity; but in 1836 an unprinted concerto in F minor, and the fanciful and graceful overture, The Naiades (the work of his which is most played in public), brought him again before the highest musical tribunals. It was now at the suggestion of Mr Attwood that the munificent firm of Broadwood, who  have done more for the advancement of music through the encouragement of musicians in this country, than any other individual or institution has effected, offered to defray Bennett's expenses for a year's residence in Leipzig, where, by constant intercourse with Mendelssohn, by constant opportunity of enlarging his experience, and by constant occasion for exercising his powers, he might improve himself and extend his reputation. He accordingly quitted the academy of which he was still an inmate, and went to establish his and his country's character in the city which then, from a combination of circumstances, possessed more advantages for a musician than at this time any place in the world affords.
Returning in the autumn of 1837, he left a name of which, perhaps, the highest acknowledgment is the attempt on the part of some shallow critics to traduce it. Repeated successes as a pianist, and the production of some of his best chamber works, fill up his history till 1840. He then wrote another concerto in F minor (that which is published), and so created such a rival to its predecessor in C minor, as few writers could have produced. He now spent another twelvemonth in Leipzig, confirming the impression of his former visit. Here he wrote his Caprice in E for pianoforte and orchestra, and his overture The Wood Nymphs which fully sustain the high character of his best productions.
In 1843 be gave his first series of chamber concerts, which were continued annually till 1856, and brought his merit as a player periodically under public notice. In 1844, he competed for the musical professorship in the University of Edinburgh against several candidates, of whom Mr Hugh Pierson  was elected. In 1849, Bennett founded the Bach Society, for the study and performance of the music of the master after whom it is named, and is still the chairman and conductor of this institution. Nothing that may be cited within the present limits marks the career of this musician until 1856, when he was engaged as permanent conductor of the concerts of the Philharmonic Society. In this same year he was elected by an overwhelming majority to the musical chair in the University of Cambridge, to which locality his early associations, and his fulfilment of the highest hopes that can have been entertained of him, strongly endear him: subsequently to that, he was created doctor of music by this seminary of learning.
As an executant, Bennett is characterized by beautiful mechanism, exquisite grace, and that singing style, which is the strongest link of sympathy between a player and his audience. As a composer, it is fashionable with some to accuse him of imitating Mendelssohn, by which they prove their utter ignorance of his music. He has fancy, he has feeling, he has fire, and, most of all, he has a peculiar grace which distinguishes no less his phraseology than the turning of his ornamental passages, and all these are manifested in a manner as individual to himself, as is that of any artist possessing the traits which constitute a style. This individuality is as obvious in his ‘Fountain’, in his ‘Genevieve’, in his rondo ‘Piacevole’, in his song, ‘To Chloe in sickness’, as in any of his larger works; it consists, first, in his original train of thought ; second, in his command of resources, which enables him to mould his ideas at will. They who appreciate him the highest blame him the most, that during the last  fifteen years be has almost entirely ceased to compose ; and candour must admit the scanty productions of this long period want the merit, when they even have the pretensions, of those admirable earlier works, of which he and his country have just reason to be proud. The lesser interest of these later productions may, perhaps, be ascribed to his having lost the spontaneous vigour of youthful impulse, without replacing it with the fluency which results from habit and the intensity that is given by concentration; and his deficiency in both these is extenuatingly referred to his excessive occupation in teaching.

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