1902 Encyclopedia > Sir William Sterndale Bennett

Sir William Sterndale Bennett
English composer

SIR WILLIAM STERNDALE BENNETT was considered, for more than the last 20 years of his life, the head of the musical profession in England by the unanimous verdict of both English and foreign musicians. At his death he received the highest honour England can confer upon her sons—a grave in Westminster Abbey. He was born in 1816 at Sheffield, where his father was organist. Having lost his father at an early age, he was brought up at Cambridge by his grandfather, from whom he received his first musical education. In 1826 he entered the Royal Academy of Music, and remained a pupil of that institution for the next ten years, studying pianoforte and composition under Cipriani Potter, Dr Crotch, W. H Holmes, and C. Lucas. It was during this time that he wrote several of his most appreciated works, not uninfluenced it seems by the contemporary movement of musical art in Germany, which country he frequently visited during the years 1836-42. At one of the Rhenish musical festivals in Diisseldorf he made the personal acquaintance of Mendelssohn, and soon afterwards renewed it at Leipsic, where the talented young Englishman was welcomed by the leading musicians of the rising generation. He played at one of the celebrated Gewand-haus concerts his third pianoforte concerto, which was received by the public in a manner flattering both to the pianist and the composer. We still possess an enthusiastic account of the event from the pen of Robert Schumann, whose genial expansive nature was always open to new impressions. He never tired of Bennett's praise, whom he pronounced to be "the most musical of all English-men," and whom, in a private letter, he goes so far as to call " an angel of a musician." But even Schumann could not wholly conceal from himself the influence which Mendelssohn's compositions exercised on Bennett's mode of utterance, an influence which precluded the possibility of an original development to a degree almost unequalled in the history of music, excepting perhaps the case of the Danish composer Niels W. Gade, who like Bennett was attracted to Leipsic by the fame of Mendelssohn, and who like him offered his own artistic individuality at the shrine of the German composer's genius. According to a tradition, the late Professor Hauptmann, after listening to a composition by Gade, is said to have pronounced the sarcastic sentence, " This sounds so much like Mendelssohn, that one might almost suppose it to be written by Sterndale Bennett." It would lead us too far on the present occasion to point out how, by this subserviency of the leading English musician to a foreign composer, the national development of English art was impeded in a deplorable manner. His great success on the Continent established Bennett's posi-tion in England. He settled in London, devoting himself chiefly to practical teaching. For a short time he acted as conductor of the Philharmonic Society, in which capacity, however, he earned little success. He was made musical professor at Cambridge in 1856, and in 1868 principal of the Royal Academy of Music. In 1871 he received the honour of knighthood. He died in 1875. Owing most likely to his professional duties his latter years were not fertile, and what he then wrote was not superior, scarcely equal, to the productions of his youth. The principal charm of Bennett's compositions (not to mention his abso-lute mastery of the musical form) consists in the tender-ness of their conception, rising occasionally to sweetest lyrical intensity, but also bordering now and then on that ex-cessive sentimentalism from which his master Mendelssohn kept not always aloof. It must, however, be acknowledged that Bennett's was a thoroughly refined nature, incapable of grand dramatic pathos, but also free from all inartistic pandering to the taste of the vulgar. Barring the opera, Bennett tried his hand at almost all the different forms of vocal and instrumental writing. As his best works in various branches of art, we mention, for pianoforte solo, and with accompaniment of the orchestra, his three sketches, The Lake, the Millstream, and the Fountain, and his 3d pianoforte concerto ; for the orchestra, his Symphony in G minor, and his overture The Naiads; and for voices, his cantata The May Queen, written for the Leeds festival in 1858. He also wrote a sacred cantata, The Woman of Samaria, first performed at the Birmingham Musical Festival in 1867. Shortly before his death he produced a sonata called the Maid of Orleans, an elaborate piece of programme-music, descriptive of the deeds and sufferings and the final triumph of the French heroine according to Schiller's tragedy.

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