A short profile I wrote for last year’s (2016) bi-centenary of William Sterndale Bennett's birth, which was not used at the time.
William Sterndale Bennett was an important all-round musician: he was the missing link between Purcell and the English Musical Renaissance which burst into life with Parry and Stanford in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and continues to this day. In recent years his achievement as a composer has been re-evaluated, and it has been discovered that he was much more significant than musical historians had allowed. Sterndale Bennett was influenced by Mozart rather than Liszt and Chopin: his music invariably retained a classical poise. However, he was the most prominent romantic English composer of his day. It is this restraint, coupled with a lively and poetic imagination, well-constructed melodies and satisfying formal structures that listeners can appreciate and enjoy today.
Sterndale Bennett’s music was long regarded as derivative. He has been described as the ‘English Mendelssohn’, which meant he became obscured behind the German’s genius. Moreover, his musical style did not develop to any great extent during his composing career. There was a lull in his output after 1842 when he was much in demand as a teacher, conductor and musicologist. George Bernard Shaw notes that Sterndale Bennett was ‘extinguished as a composer by having to teach five-finger exercises to fashionable young ladies…’ Not altogether accurate, but we get the point. In his later years, Sterndale Bennett began to recapture something of his youthful passion for composition, resulting in the oratorio The Women of Samara, op.44 (1867) and a wonderful Second Symphony in G minor, op.43 (1863-4).
William Sterndale Bennett was born in Sheffield on 13 April 1816. Aged only eight years old, he was admitted as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. He began to attend the Royal Academy of Music, just before his tenth birthday. His teachers included William Crotch, William Henry Holmes and Cipriani Potter. Whilst at the RAM he composed his Piano Concerto in D minor, op.1, which, in 1833 brought him to the attention of Felix Mendelssohn. In 1836 Sterndale Bennett travelled to Dusseldorf and Leipzig where he became friends with Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. He continued with his travels until 1842.
On return to English musical life, Sterndale Bennett began to make a career from teaching and recital work. From 1856-1866 he was the Principal Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Other appointments included Professor of Music at Cambridge University and from 1866 he was Principal at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music.
One his most important achievements was the founding of the Bach Society in 1849. Sterndale Bennett introduced the St Matthew Passion to the United Kingdom. He edited music by Bach and Handel for publication.
In 1871 Sterndale Bennett was knighted for services to music.
Much of Sterndale Bennett’s music has fallen by the wayside. Once-standard works included the pastoral cantata The May Queen, op.39 which was first heard at the 1858 Leeds Festival. The oratorio The Women of Samaria, op.44 was premiered at the Birmingham Festival in 1867 and retained its popularity into the twentieth century. In 2016 Sterndale Bennett is chiefly recalled for his five piano concertos (there is a sixth, yet unrecorded) and selected orchestral works, including some overtures and the fine Symphony in G minor. The small number of piano and chamber works that have been recorded allow listeners to hear a different side of his achievement. A few hymns, anthems and songs just manage to cling on in the repertoire.
William Sterndale Bennett died in London on 1 February 1875. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
A quarter of William Sterndale Bennet’s published compositions have been recorded. The listener is able to make a worthwhile estimate at this composer’s achievement.
Some works to listen to:
Overture: Naiades, op.15 (1836) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Overture: The Wood Nymphs, op.20 (1838) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor, op.19 (1838) (Hyperion CDA67595)
Symphony in G minor, op.43 (1863-4) (Lyrita SRCD.206)
Sextet piano, two violins, viola, cello and contrabass (or second cello), op.8 (1835) (Marco Polo, 8.223304) N.B. This recording has been deleted, but can be downloaded digitally)
If the listener can only hear a single work, I would recommend the Piano Concerto No.4 in F minor, op.43. It has been said that with his piano concertos, William Sterndale Bennett provided the musical link between those of Beethoven and Brahms.