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Past Images of the Month - April 2016

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Steel engraving by Albrecht Schultheiss. Leipzig & Dresden, [c.1860].

Steel engraving by Albrecht Schultheiss. Leipzig & Dresden, [c.1860].

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BENNETT, William Sterndale (b.Sheffield, 13 April 1816; d.London, 1 February 1875)


Sterndale Bennett, whose bicentenary falls this month, is described in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians as 'the most distinguished English composer of the Romantic school'.  Born in Sheffield, where his father was organist of the Parish Church and active as piano teacher and conductor of local music societies, he was orphaned at the age of three and sent with his two sisters to live with their grandfather in Cambridge.  Here he had a thorough grounding in church music.  John Bennett was a bass lay clerk in the choir of King's, Trinity and St John's colleges.  His son Robert (Bennett's father) had been a chorister at King's, where William was himself appointed at the age of seven.  Two years later, already described as a 'prodigy', William entered the Royal Academy of Music in London, studying violin, piano and later composition.  He played a Dussek piano concerto at the Academy in 1828 and sang Cherubino in a student production of Figaro in 1830.  In 1832 he completed his first symphony and first piano concerto, the latter premiered in Cambridge on 28 November and repeated in London the following March.  It was chosen as the main work in the Academy's summer concert in June 1833 and there heard by Mendelssohn, who requested an introduction at the end of the programme and invited the 17-year old to visit him in Leipzig - "not as my pupil but as my friend". 

During the three years that elapsed before Bennett was able to accept this invitation he continued to correspond with Mendelssohn, and to develop a growing reputation at home as pianist and composer.  While still an Academy student he played two of his concertos at the Philharmonic Society.  After a brief visit to Düsseldorf in May 1836, to hear the composer conduct the first performance of St Paul, he finally travelled to Leipzig in October of the same year and was immediately drawn into Mendelssohn's 'Gewandhaus circle', where he established another warm friendship with Schumann.  Appearances as pianist and conductor at the Gewandhaus and extravagant tributes from Schumann and Mendelssohn left no doubt of his perceived importance in Germany and two more extended visits followed in 1838 and 1841.

However the beginning of a teaching career at home and a quest for salaried positions (he became engaged to Mary Anne Wood, one of his RAM pupils, in 1841) affected his productivity as a composer and the remainder of his career is perhaps most important for the wide influence which he exerted on British musical life.  He ran an important annual series of Classical Chamber Concerts for 14 years, founded the Bach Society (forerunner of the Bach Choir) in 1849 and on 6 April 1854 conducted the first English performance of the St Matthew Passion.  In 1855 he accepted the conductorship of the Philharmonic Society (succeeding Wagner - two years earlier he had been offered that of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Concerts) and the following year was elected professor of music at Cambridge.  In 1866 he returned to the RAM as Principal, where a scholarship still exists in his honour.  He was knighted in 1871 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.  

The last seventeen years of Bennett's life saw something of a return to composition, most notable for the successful choral works The May-Queen (1858) and The Woman of Samaria (1867).  These outlived him, as did much of his attractive piano music, until the early years of the twentieth century.  His music then fell into almost total oblivion until a revival of interest was spearheaded by the musicologists Nicholas Temperley and Geoffrey Bush from the 1960s and has gained new impetus in recent years.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Piano Concerto in D minor, Op.1. 1832.  Label on the front board of the bound autograph score. Programme for Master W. S. Bennett's Miscellaneous Concert, Town Hall, Cambridge, 28 November, 1832. Opening page from the autograph manuscript of the First Piano Concerto.  The sixty-five bar tutti was added to the manuscript after the remainder of the work was complete.  This would seem to account for the absence of title and tempo marking on this page.

Watercolour of Bennett in Royal Academy of Music uniform, 1832.  Copy of the original by James Warren Childe.

Incipit of the overture Parisina, composed while a student at the RAM in March 1835, and written as an album leaf during Bennett's third visit to Leipzig, 1841-2. Overture Marie du Bois, 1843.  First page of the autograph score.  The title is a tribute to Bennett's fiancée Mary Anne Wood, whom he married in 1844.  The work had several performances between 1844 and 1850 but remained unpublished until Bennett re-used as overture to his popular cantata The May-Queen in 1858. Sonata Duo for cello and piano, Op.32. 1852.  First page of the autograph manuscript.

Autograph letter from Schumann to Bennett, Düsseldorf, 2 January 1851.

Sterndale Bennett's Pianoforte Works.  London, [1875-6].  A collected edition published soon after the composer's death but planned in conjunction with his former pupil and RAM colleague Arthur O'Leary. Twelve Songs.  Novello, Ewer & Co.: London & New York, [c.1880].  A reissue of an edition of the songs, Op.23 & 35, published in the year of Bennett's death by Lamborn Cock & Co.

Pianoforte Compositions by Sir W. Sterndale Bennett.  New edition by Arthur O'Leary, London, [c.1880-1910].  An edition in separate issues, eventually running to more 70 numbers. Sir William Sterndale Bennett's Pianoforte Works.  Edited by Walter Macfarren, London, [c.1895].  A comprehensive series running from c.1880 and edited by another former RAM colleague. Oeuvres Choisis pour Piano par W. Sterndale Bennett.  London, [1887-1899].  The series continued under the title 'W. Sterndale Bennett's Pianoforte Works' up to 1906.

We are greatly indebted to Barry Sterndale Bennett, a direct descendant, for supplying the images shown above (with the exception of the Cambridge programme and the posthumous editions) and for his kind permission in allowing us to reproduce them.