About this Recording
8.223512 - BENNETT: Maid of Orleans (The) / 4 Pieces, Op. 48 / Musical Sketches, Op. 10

William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)
Piano Works Vol. 1


“I think him the most promising young musician I know”, Mendelssohn wrote in 1836, “…and I am convinced that if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God’s will, but his own”. Writing a few months later in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann declared 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. Even today The New Grove Dictionary of 1980 characterises him as “the most distinguished English composer of the Romantic school”.

These accolades, representing the opinions of a century and a half, in no way correspond to the disappearance of Bennett’s music from the repertoire. Did Mendelssohn show prophetic insight when he wrote that it would be “not God’s will, but his own” that could deny Bennett the stature of greatness? What are the reasons why such promise was unfulfilled? A look at the composer’s life and career may provide some answers.

Bennett was born to a musical family in Sheffield on 13 April 1816 and was named after William Sterndale, a family friend and poet who had provided verses for six songs written the year before by Robert Bennett, the composer’s father. When young William and his two sisters were orphaned in 1819, they were sent to live with their paternal grandparents. The grandfather, John Bennett, was also musical, and he enrolled William at the age of eight as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. The boy was soon pronounced a prodigy and sent to the newly founded Academy of Music (from 1830 the Royal Academy of Music) in London before he was ten years old. There he received board and a free education. Because of his exceptionally beautiful voice, he was chosen to sing at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

At first his principal study was the violin, but by the summer of 1831 the piano had become his primary interest. His playing excited with its brilliance, and he soon gained a fine reputation. He studied composition with William Crotch, and on his own he composed a string quartet with Mozart as his model. When Cipriani Potter succeeded Crotch in 1832, Bennett’s progress accelerated. By November of that same year the young student had completed a piano concerto in D minor, his Op. 1, and played it at a public concert in Cambridge. The concerto was acknowledged for its astonishing mastery, and the Royal Academy published it at its own expense. Bennett was asked to play it at Windsor Castle 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, seven years his junior, to visit Germany, not as a pupil but as a friend. Thus began a long and true friendship.

Three years passed before the visit to Germany. In the meantime, Bennett corresponded with Mendelssohn and continued at the academy, writing five symphonies, two more piano concertos and the Overture Parisina. During this period he developed the delicate and placidly beautiful manner that distinguishes his shorter solo piano pieces, such as the Three Musical Sketches, Op. 10. He also served as organist at St. Anne’s Chapel, Wandsworth, and he played his Second Piano Concerto in E-flat major at a Philharmonic Society concert. Written to his own capabilities, it indicates clearly why he came to be regarded as one of the finest pianists in Europe. His first trip to Germany, where he attended the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf and saw Mendelssohn in May of 1836, was followed by an eight-month visit to the continent beginning in October of that year. Mendelssohn introduced him to Leipzig’s musical circles, and soon Bennett and Schumann became fast friends. Bennett dedicated his Fantasia, Op.16, to Schumann, who returned the compliment by dedicating his Etudes symphonies, Op. 13, to Bennett. In the above-mentioned article from the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik Schumann was extravagant in his praise of his new friend and was in fact censured for taking on the role of a prophet.

In fairness it must be said that between the ages of 17 and 23 Bennett was at the height of his powers, and his flame would never again burn so brightly. In January 1837 he performed his Third Concerto in C minor at the Gewandhaus to universal acclaim. His reputation was established not only in London but also abroad.

Returning to London, Bennett began a long teaching career at the Royal Academy of Music. In the winter of 1838-39 he journeyed again to Leipzig and played his new concerto in F minor, his masterpiece. Back in London, he resumed his teaching duties, edited classical piano sonatas for publication and had little time for either performing or composition. Unquestionably the beginning of his teaching career marked the onset of his decline as a composer or, as one observer put it, the “stultifying influence” of academic life on a sensitive creative artist. Early in 1842 Bennett made his last visit to the continent, meeting Spohr at Kassel and continuing on to Leipzig and Berlin, where he saw Mendelssohn. From 1842 to 1848 he was director of the Philharmonic Society, and also from 1842 until 1856 he organised an annual series of “Classical Chamber Concerts”, dedicated to the presentation of chamber music with piano and of serious works for piano solo. The Rondo piacevole, Op. 25, the Scherzo in E minor, Op. 27, and the four Op. 28 pieces (Introduzione e pastorale, Rondino, Capriccio) all belong to this period. His marriage in 1844 added the necessity of supporting a family and led him to take on increased academic burdens. He founded the Bach Society in 1849. In 1853 he was offered the conductorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, which he most regrettably declined for reasons that may never fully be understood. From 1856 onwards he was the acknowledged leader of the academic musical world. Honours and responsibilities were heaped upon him: the conductorship of the Philharmonic from 1856-66, a professorship of music at Cambridge in 1856, the post of principal at the Royal Academy of Music in 1866 and knighthood in 1871. He continued teaching, performing occasionally and teaching until his death in London on 1 February, 1875.

It can safely be said that among Bennett’s compositions the piano concertos have the greatest significance. They are acknowledged as among the finest embodiments of the classical spirit between the concertos of Beethoven and Brahms. The works for solo piano reveal him as a “pianist’s musician”, who brought out the instrument’s natural potential. He used the keyboard’s percussive quality to create fabric of nuanced tone colour, and his personal harmonic writing was conceived less for the public than for the connoisseur. Except for a few didactic pieces, the music lies beyond the abilities of all but the truly accomplished pianist. A glance at Bennett’s works list shows that he composed piano music throughout his life. The earliest solo piece, Caprice in D minor, probably dates from 1834, and the last, a program sonata entitled The Maid of Orleans, belongs to 1873.

Eclipsed today by the richer romanticism of his contemporaries, Bennett’s piano music bears a superficial resemblance to Mendelssohn but on closer inspection reveals its true kinship with Mozart. From his youth Bennett adhered to the “pure” school of Clementi and Cramer, which came to be known as the London Piano School. Clementi had made London a world centre for piano manufacturing, composition and playing. He followed the “old masters” and decried the frivolity and shallowness that for him contaminated Viennese and Parisian keyboard music of the time. It was a view with which Bennett agreed. Ferdinand Hiller found Bennett’s playing perfect in technique, extraordinarily delicate of nuance, yet filled with soul and fire. Refined, sensitive and inward by nature, Bennett 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. In short, his resistance to the spirit of the times was a conscious decision, and that may well illuminate Mendelssohn’s remark that Bennett’s potential for greatness lay entirely with himself. Perhaps in 1836 Mendelssohn could not have foreseen two other reasons for Bennett’s decline: that he would become involved with academic life and that on a basic emotional level he needed the admiration of his public and colleagues. In the absence of that stimulus, particularly at home in England, his self-confidence abandoned him and his creative powers dried up. From 1858 to 1873 Bennett experienced something of a creative resurgence, producing among other works a sixth symphony, which is an admirable tribute to Mozart, but his admittedly accomplished late works lack the inspired freshness of his youthful music.

William Sterndale Bennett’s contributions to English music are not to be underestimated. The music of his youth is being rediscovered today and appreciated for its intrinsic worth. Even though he failed while still a young man to fulfil a glorious promise as a composer, his work in the academic and public arenas did much to shape the course of British musical life in the romantic age and laid the groundwork for a true renaissance that would follow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

David Nelson

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