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8.223304 - BENNETT: Piano Sextet, Op. 8 / Sonata Duo, Op. 32

William Sterndale Bennett (1816 -1875) Sextet, Op

William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)

Sextet, Op. 8

Sonata Duo, Op. 32


From Wunderkind to the most venerated musical figure in England, Sir William Sterndale Bennett remains synonymous with English music in the romantic age. "I think hirn the most promising young musician I know", Mendelssohn declared in 1836. A few months later in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik Schumann wrote that if there were many more artists like Bennett, the future of music would be secure. The first edition of Grove's Dictionary in 1878 called Bennett the only English composer since Purcell who achieved individuality and produced works that could be considered classics, and The New Grove Dictionary of 1980 still characterizes him as "the most distinguished English composer of the Romantic school".


Born to a musical family in Sheffield on 13th April 1816 and named after William Sterndale, a poet and family friend, William along with his two sisters was orphaned in 1819 and sent to live with paternal grandparents. John Bennett was musically inclined and immediately recognized his grandson's talent, enrolling him at the age of eight as a chorister at King's College, Cambridge. There the boy was soon pronounced a prodigy and sent to the newly founded Academy of Music (later the Royal Academy of Music) in London before his tenth birthday. Endowed with an exceptionally beautiful voice, he was chosen to sing at St. Paul's Cathedral.


At first the violin was Bennett's principal study, but by the summer of 1831 the piano had become his primary interest. Before long he gained a fine reputation for the excitement and brilliance of his playing. He studied composition with William Crotch, and on his own he composed astring quartet modelled on Mozart. When Cipriani Potter succeeded Crotch in 1832, Bennett's progress accelerated. By November of that year the young student had completed his Piano Concerto in D minor, Opus 1, and played it at a public concert in Cambridge. The concerto showed astonishing mastery, and the Royal Academy published it at its own expense. At Windsor Castle Bennett played the concerto for the king and queen, and he performed it again in London in the spring of 1833. Mendelssohn was present at that concert and invited Bennett to visit Germany, not as a pupil but as a friend.


Three years were to pass before the visit to Germany. Meanwhile, keeping up a correspondence with Mendelssohn, Bennett continued at the Academy and composed five symphonies, two more piano concertos and the overture Parisina. He performed his second Piano Concerto in E flat major at a Philharmonic Society concert in 1835. Its pianistic style leaves no doubt why Bennett came to be regarded as one of the finest pianists in Europe.


In May 1836 Bennett made his first trip to Germany, where he saw Mendelssohn at the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf. The following October he began an eight-month visit to the continent. Mendelssohn introduced him to Leipzig's prestigious musical circles, and soon Bennett and Schumann became fast friends. In the above-quoted article from the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann praised his new friend extravagantly and was in fact taken to task for assuming the rôle of a prophet. The twenty-year-old Bennett was then at the height of his powers, and after another three years his flame would never again burn so brightly. In January 1837 his third Piano Concerto in C minar met with universal acclaim at the Gewandhaus, and his reputation was established abraad. In the winter of 1838-39 he journeyed again to Leipzig and played his masterpiece, the fourth Concerto in F minor.


In the meantime Bennett had begun his teaching career at the Royal Academy of Music, and he resumed his duties in London after the second triumph in Leipzig. It was then that, as one abserver put it, the "stultifying influence" of academic life caused the anset of his decline as a composer. He supplemented his income by editing classical piano sonatas for publication and had little time left for performing or camposition. Returning to London after a fourth and final visit to the cantinent in 1842, he assumed the directorship of the Philharmonic Society and organized an annual series of chamber concerts.


Marriage in 1844 and the necessity of supporting a family led him to take on increased academic burdens. In 1849 he founded the Bach Society. For reasons that may never be fully understood he declined the conductorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig in 1853. As the undisputed leader of the English academic musical world from 1856 onward, he continued to gather honours and responsibilities: as conductor of the Philharmonic between 1856 and 1866, professor of music at Cambridge from 1856 and principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1866. He was granted a knighthood in 1871. He continued teaching, composing and performing occasionally until his death in London on 1st February 1875.


Of all Bennett's compositions the piano concertos reign supreme. They are acknowledged as among the finest embodiments of the classical spirit between the concertos of Beethoven and those of Brahms. The works for solo piano reveal Bennett as a "pianist's musician", who realized the instrument's natural potential, created fabrics of nuanced tone colour, and intended his personal harmonic language less for the public than for the connoisseur. His failure to rise to greatness as a composer can be blamed on an overburdened academic and professional life, but the music itself provides further insights. On the surface his music resembles Mendelssohn's, but on closer inspection the solo piano works in particular reveal their true kinship with Mozart. Bennett adhered to the London Piano School of Clementi and Cramer, which followed the "old masters" and decried the perceived frivolity and shallowness ofthe contemporary Viennese and Parisian styles. Refined, sensitive and inward by nature, he steadfastly resisted commercialism and vulgarity, which in his view included the virtuosic flashiness of Thalberg and Liszt and even the romantic utterances of Chopin and Schumann. His resistance to the spirit of the times was deliberate, and his music became eclipsed by the richer romanticism of his contemporaries.


Returning to Mendelssohn's remark, which begins, "I think him the most promising young musician I know", and concludes, "... and I am convinced that if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God's will, but his own", we are led to consider the possible psychological angles of promise unfulfilled. On a basic emotional level Bennett, once the child prodigy and fêted virtuoso, needed the continuing admiration of his public and colleagues, a stimulus that was denied to him particularly at home in England. Gradually his self-confidence abandoned him, and regrettably his creative powers diminished. Between 1858 and 1873 he experienced something of a creative resurgence, but his admittedly accomplished late works lack the fresh inspiration of his youth. Still, his contributions to English music cannot be dismissed lightly. The early music, abloom with promise, remains a legacy to be rediscovered and perpetuated. In the academic and public arenas Bennett's inestimable contributions set the course of British musical life in the romantic age and laid the groundwork for the true renaissance that was to burst forth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Bennett's interest in chamber music cannot be denied in light of the annual series of Classical Chamber Concerts he sponsored between 1842 and 1856, designed to present serious piano music and chamber music with piano. Nevertheless his own chamber music compositions are few, consisting only of the early String Quartet in G Minor (1831); the Sextet in F Sharp Minor, Opus 8; the Chamber Trio in A Major, Opus 26, for piano, violin and cello (1840); and the Sonata Duo in A Major, Opus 32, for cello and piano.


Bennett worked on the sextet between July and December 1835, and it was first played at the Royal Academy of Music on 19th December 1838. Scored for piano, two violins, viola, cello and contrabass (or second cello), it is his largest chamber composition and considerably more ambitious than the slighter, more delicate trio which followed. Considering that it was composed between the third and fourth piano concertos, it is not surprising that the weight of the sextet is centred on the rather brilliant piano part, while the strings are given a primarily supportive rôle. The opening theme, consisting mostly of descending intervals, projects a melancholy tone, and the string accompaniment establishes the music's strongly Mendelssohnian character. In conformity with the prevailing custom, the second subject, first heard on the piano, is abbreviated and consists of a repeated two-bar phrase of decidedly romantic character. The scope of this sonata-allegro movement affords plenty of opportunity for imaginative development and virtuosic display, pursued to full advantage. The main body of the scherzo consists of a rhythmic idea and a broadly lyrical, rising motif, and in contrast the trio provides a gentler sentiment. The slow movement is again broadly lyrical, and the harmonic writing reveals Spohr's influence. The finale is alternately brilliant and tuneful with folklike appeal, providing a spirited conclusion.


The Sonata Duo for cello and piano was first played in London on 16th March 1852. Like so much music of the period, it shows a strong indebtedness to Mendelssohn. The first movement, consisting of a substantial slow introduction, a brilliant Allegro giusto e leggierissimo and an extended slow coda, obviates a separate slow movement. The second of the sonata's three movements is therefore a Minuetto caracteristique with a generously arpeggiated piano part, and the finale is a fluent rondo that lives up to the designation Allegretto piacevole.


© 1994 David Nelson


Ilona Prunyi


Ilona Prunyi was born in Debrecen in 1941 and studied at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, distinguishing herself in the Liszt-Bartók Competition while still a student. Her career as a concert performer was interrupted by a period of ill-health, and for personal reasons she spent ten years as a teacher at the Academy before making her début in 1974. Since then she has appeared frequently in solo and chamber music recitals and as a soloist with the principal Hungarian orchestras. Ilona Prunyi received the Hungarian Artist's Association Award in 1992 and an award for excellence from the Hungarian Ministry of Culture in 1993.


András Kiss


András Kiss was born in Budapest in 1943 and started violin lessons at the age of six. He studied at the Bartók Conservatory, and from 1960 at the Liszt Academy, and subsequently at the Leningrad Conservatory. A prize-winner in the Leipzig International Bach Competition in 1968, András Kiss was appointed in the same year to the staff of the Liszt Academy, where he continues to teach. As a performer he appears regularly in Hungary and has toured extensively in Europe and America. He is now the first violinist of the New Budapest Quartet.


Ferenc Balogh


Ferenc Balogh was born in 1947 in the Romanian town of Szekelyudvarhely and had his musical training at the Koloszvar Music College, where he completed his studies in 1968. He won second prize in the Paris Debussy Competition in 1970 and since 1985 has been a member of the New Budapest String Quartet.


László Barsony


László Barsony was born in the Hungarian town of Pécs in 1946 and studied viola at the Liszt Academy, winning first prize at the 1968 Casals International Competition. He has been a member of the New Budapest String Quartet since 1978 and of the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy since 1979.


Károly Botvay


The cellist Károly Botvay studied at the Budapest Academy, where his teachers included Zoltán Kodaly. In 1960 he joined the Komlós Quartet, later the Bartók Quartet, touring with the ensemble for seventeen years and also pursuing a solo career as a soloist. Since his first concert tour of England in 1978 he has established a reputation there as a soloist. In the same year he became cellist of the Aldeburgh String Trio and in 1979 joined the Végh Quartet, with which he has appeared throughout Europe. In 1985 he joined the New Budapest String Quartet. He is a member of the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy.


Péter Kubina


The Hungarian double-bass player Péter Kubina was born in Veszprem in 1963 and completed his studies at the Liszt Academy in 1986. He has been a member of the State Concert Orchestra since 1984 and since 1985 a member of the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy.


György Kertész


Born in 1963, György Kertész studied music in Budapest, graduating at the Liszt Academy. In 1986 he won the Budapest David Popper Cello Competition and enjoys an active career, particularly as achamber music player, with a number of recordings to his credit in Hungary and abroad.


Kálmán Dráfi


Kálmán Dráfi was born in 1955 and started to play the piano at the age of four. Six years later he entered the Béla Bartók Conservatory in Budapest and at the age of fourteen became a student at the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy in the same city. He spent two years as a pupil of Bella Davidova at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and in 1976 won the major award in the Liszt-Bartók Piano Competition. Since 1977 he has been a member of the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy.

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