A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Bennett, William Sterndale
BENNETT, Sir William Sterndale, Mus. Doc., M.A., D.C.L., the only English musical composer since Purcell who has attained a distinct style and individuality of his own, and whose works can be reckoned among the models or 'classics' of the art, was born at Sheffield April 13, 1816. Like almost all composers of eminence he inherited the musical temperament; his grandfather, John Bennett, having been lay clerk at King's, St. John's, and Trinity Colleges, and his father, Robert Bennett, an organist at Sheffield, and a composer of songs; and doubtless he thus received some of that early familiarity with things musical in the daily life of his home which has had so much influence in determining the bent and the career of many eminent composers. The death of his father when he was but three years old cut him off from this influence of home tuition or habituation in music, but his education in the art seems to have been well cared for by his grandfather, to whose home at Cambridge he was then transferred. At the age of eight he entered the choir of King's College Chapel, but his exceptional musical ability became so evident, that two years after he was removed from Cambridge and placed as a student in the Royal Academy of Music, with which institution his name was to be closely connected throughout his later life. He received instruction from Mr. Lucas and Dr. Crotch in composition, and from Mr. W. H. Holmes in pianoforte-playing, from whom he subsequently passed to the veteran, Cipriani Potter; and it may be assumed that to the influence of this teacher, well known to have been the enthusiastic votary of Mozart, we may trace in part that admiration for the pure style and clear form of the art of Mozart, which Bennett retained to the end of his life, in the midst of all the vicissitudes of modern musical fashion, and the influence of which is so distinctly traceable in his own music. Among the unpublished compositions of his Academy student days are some productions of great merit; but the first on which his reputation as composer depends (and which stands as Opus 1 in the list of his compositions), is the Concerto in D minor, written in 1832, and performed by the composer, then in his seventeenth year, at the prize concert of the Academy in 1833, on which occasion Mendelssohn was present, and encouraged the young composer by his warmly expressed sympathy and admiration, while the committee of the Academy gave a practical proof of their appreciation by publishing the work at their own expense. His next published work, the 'Capriccio in D minor,' op. 2 (dedicated to Cipriani Potter), clearly shows in its opening theme the influence of his admiration for Mendelssohn, then the central figure of the musical world, though there are touches of complete originality suggesting the pianoforte style which the composer subsequently made bis own. The Overture to 'Parisina,' a most impassioned work, was composed in 1834, as also the Concerto in C minor, played at a concert of the Society of British Musicians in the same year; a work in the highest and purest style of the Mozart model, and evincing in some portions a constructive power worthy of the composer's great predecessor. In 1836 the impression produced by his unpublished F minor Concerto and the beautiful 'Naiades' overture, led to an offer from the firm of Broadwood to defray the expenses of his residence in Leipsic for a year, in order that he might have the opportunity of extending his circle of musical sympathy and experience, as well as of profiting by the neighbourhood and influence of Mendelssohn. That he did profit in his art by this visit is scarcely to be doubted, but it may be said that he gave to Leipsic at least as much as he carried away; and by the compositions produced there, as well as by the evidence afforded of his genius as a musician and pianoforte-player, he established for himself a reputation in that city of music higher than has perhaps been generally conceded to him in his native country, and won the friendship and enthusiastic eulogies of Robert Schumann. It is to this visit probably that is to be traced the idea still current in England that Bennett was a pupil and a mere imitator of Mendelssohn; an idea which can only be entertained by those who are either ignorant of his works or totally destitute of any perception of musical style, but which has been parrotted by incapable or prejudiced critics till it has come to be regarded by many as an admitted fact. After his return to England, Bennett composed in 1840 his other F minor Concerto, the published one, which is among the best known of his works, and one of the finest of modern compositions of its class. During a second visit to Leipzig in 1840–1 he composed his 'Caprice in E' for pianoforte and Orchestra, and his Overture 'The Wood Nymphs,' both among the most finished and artistic of his compositions. From 1843 to 1856 he was brought periodically before the English public by his chamber concerts, at which his individual and exceptional style and ability as a pianoforte-player were fully recognised. It may here be mentioned that in 1844 he married Mary Anne, daughter of Captain James Wood, R. N. In 1849 he founded the Bach Society for the study and practice of Bach's music, his enthusiasm for which was very likely in the first instance kindled by Mendelssohn, who did so much to open the eyes of his contemporaries to the grandeur of Bach's genius. One result of this was a performance of the Matthew Passion—the first in England—on April 6, 1854. In 1853 the director of the Gewandhaus Concerts offered him the conductorship of those concerts. In 1856 Bennett was engaged as permanent conductor of the Philharmonic Society, a post which he held till 1866, when he resigned it, and became Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. In 1856 he was elected, by a great majority, to fill the chair of Musical Professor at the University of Cambridge, where he also made special efforts to promote the knowledge and study of Bach's music, and shortly after his election received from the University the degree of Doctor of Music. (In 1867 the University further conferred on him the degree of M.A., and at the same time a salary of £100 a year was attached to his Professorship.) The year 1858 saw the production of his cantata the 'May Queen,' at the Leeds Musical Festival, a work full of beauty in the chorus writing, the solos, and the instrumentation, though heavily weighted by an absurd and ill-written libretto. No such drawback is attached to his other important choral work, 'The Woman of Samaria,' first produced with great success at the Birmingham Festival of 1867, and which, though it does not contain the elements of popularity for general audiences, has elicited the high admiration of all who can appreciate the more delicate and recondite forms of musical expression. For the Jubilee of the Philharmonic Society, in 1862, he wrote one of his most beautiful works, the 'Paradise and the Peri' overture, in which the 'programme' style of music (i. e. music illustrative of certain verbally stated ideas) is treated with a delicate and poetic suggestiveness which charms alike the educated and the uneducated listener. In 1870 he received the honorary degree of D.C.L. from the University of Oxford. In 1871 Bennett received the distinction of knighthood, an honour which could add nothing to such an artist's reputation as his. In 1872 a public testimonial was presented to him at St. James's Hall in presence of a large and enthusiastic audience, and a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music was founded out of the subscriptions.
Bennett died after a short illness, almost 'in harness,' as it might be said, on Feb. 1, 1875. So quiet and unobtrusive had been his later life, that the spectacle of the crowd of distinguished persons who assembled at Westminster Abbey on the 6th to pay their last tribute of respect at his funeral, conveyed to many, even among those who had been in the habit of meeting him in society, the first intimation of the true intellectual rank of their departed countryman.
In estimating the position in his art of Sterndale Bennett (by this double name he has always been best known among writers and discoursers on music), it must be admitted that his genius had not that irresistible sweep and sway which compels the admiration even of the crowd, and utters things which sink deep into the souls of men. He can hardly be reckoned among the great musical poets of the world, and it would be both unwise and uncritical to claim that place for him. But what he wanted in power is almost made up, in regard to the artistic enjoyment to be derived from his works, in individuality and in finish. He is in a special degree a musician's composer. His excellences, in addition to the real and genuine feeling for beauty and expression which pervades his music, belong to that interesting and delicate type of art which illustrates in a special degree the fitness of means to an end, the relation between the feeling expressed and the manner and medium of expressing it; a class of artistic production which always has a peculiar interest for artists and for those who study critically the details of the art illustrated. His compositions do not so much carry us away in an enthusiasm of feeling, as they compel our deliberate and considerate admiration by their finish and balance of form, while touching our fancy by their grace and suggestiveness. But these qualities are not those which compel the suffrages of a general audience, to whom in fact many of the more subtle graces of Bennett's style are not obvious, demanding as they do some knowledge of the resources of the art, as well as critical and discriminating attention, for their full appreciation. On the other hand, the enjoyment which his works do convey, the language which they speak, to those who rightly apprehend it, is of a very rare and subtle description, and one to which there is no precise parallel in the art of any other composer.
If we try to define the nature of Bennett's genius more in detail, we should describe him in the first place as being almost, one might say, a born pianist. His complete sympathy with this instrument, his perfect comprehension of its peculiar power and limitations, are evident in almost everything he wrote for it; and his pianoforte compositions form, numerically, by far the larger section of his writings. His love for the instrument, indeed, might be said to have developed into favouritism in some instances, for in the Sestett for piano and stringed instruments the lion's share of the labours and honours of the performance is so completely given to the former that the work becomes almost a pianoforte concerto with accompaniments for strings only. In his pianoforte concertos, written as such, however, the composer gives its full share of importance to the band part, which is treated always with great beauty and piquancy, and an equally unerring perception of the special aesthetic qualities of the various instruments. In his treatment of the pianoforte, Bennett depends little upon cantabile passages, which are only by convention a part of the function of the piano, and in his writings are mostly episodical; his sources of effect lie more in the use of glittering staccato passages and arpeggio figures, which latter peculiarly characteristic pianoforte effect he used, however, in a manner of his own, often alternating single with double notes in extended passages, as in this—
from the short 'Capriccio in A minor,' a very typical specimen on a small scale of his style of workmanship; at other times doubling them in close passages for both hands, as in the following from the finale of the 'Maid of Orleans' Sonata—
or in the following highly characteristic passage from the same movement—
Passages of this class, which abound in these compositions, and the adequate and precise execution of which is by no means easy, illustrate the peculiarly hard bright glitter of effect which characterises Bennett's bravura passages for the piano, and which brings out in such high relief the qualities which are special to the instrument. Speaking more generally, his pianoforte works are characterised by an entire disdain of the more commonplace sources of effect; they are never noisy or showy, and there is not a careless note in them; the strict and fixed attention of both player and listener is demanded in order to realise the intention of music addressed mainly to the intellect and the critical faculty, never to the mere sense of hearing. As a whole, Bennett's pianoforte music is remarkably difficult in proportion to the number of notes used, from that delicate exactitude of writing which demands that every note should have its full value, as well as from the peculiar way in which his passages often lie for the hand, and which demands the greatest evenness of finger-power. Hence his works are not popular in the present day with amateurs, who prefer what will enable them to produce more thrilling effects with less trouble; but their value as studies and models for a pure style is hardly to be surpassed. Compared with the writings of Beethoven, or even of lesser composers who, following in his steps, have transferred the symphonic style to the piano, such works as those of Bennett have of course a very limited range, nor have they the glow and intensity which Chopin, for example, was able to infuse into what is equally a pure pianoforte style; but as specimens of absolutely finished productions entirely within the special range of the piano, they will always have the highest artistic interest and value; an appreciation of then- real merit being almost a test of true critical perception.
Looking at the works of Bennett more generally, it may be observed that they show remarkable evidence of his apparently intuitive insight into problems and theories in regard to musical construction which have only been definitely recognised and tabulated by theorists since he began to write. When the school of composers who tumble notes into our ears in heaps, any way, have had their day, and it is again recognised that musical composition is a most subtle and recondite art, and not a mere method of jumbling sounds together to signify this or that arbitrarily chosen idea, it is probable that Bennett will receive much higher credit than has yet been accorded to him as an advanced thinker in music. The theory which connects every sound in the scale of a key with that key, making them all essential to its tonality, and the harmonic relations which are thereby shown to be logically consistent though little practised hitherto, received continual practical illustration in the works of Bennett, whose peculiar intellectually constructed harmonies and progressions are among the causes alike of his interest for musicians and his disfavour with the less instructed amateur population, whom they not unnaturally puzzle. A great English musical critic has pointed out, in a note on the 'Wood Nymphs' Overture (in the Philharmonic programme of March 22, 1871), the passage where 'the so-called chord of the diminished 7th from F sharp, with intervening silences, is heard on the unaccented second and fourth beats of the bar, and then an unaccompanied D, thrice sounded, asserts itself as the root of the chord,' thus presenting, adds Mr. Macfarren, 'a harmonic fact in an aspect as unquestionable as, at the time of writing, it was new.' But Bennett's music is full of such suggestions of the more extended modern view of the statics of harmony, the rather noteworthy as it does not appear that he made it the subject of any definite or deliberate theorising, or was indebted for his suggestions of this kind to anything more than his own intuitive insight into the more subtle harmonic relations. It is the frequent use of what may be termed perhaps (borrowing an expression from colour) the 'secondary' rather than the 'primary' relations of harmony—the constant appeal to the logic rather than the mere sensuous hearing of the ear—which gives to his music that rather cold intellectual cast which is repelling to the average listener. In such a passage as this—
the ear of the uninitiated listener is almost startled by the closing E, like the sharp blow of a hammer, at the foot of an arpeggio passage which seems to presage a modulation to C through the dominant ninth on G. Equally significant passages might be quoted, such as this from the 'Rondeau à la polonaise'
and many others that might be adduced, in which evidence is given that the composer had before his mind conceptions of harmonic relation new or unusual at the time, but which have since been accepted and formulated into theory.
Bennett's larger works for orchestra, and his secular and sacred Cantatas already mentioned, are characterised, like his piano music, by great finish and perfection of form and detail, and by a peculiarly refined perception of the relation of special instruments and special combinations to the end in view. His one published Symphony, that in G minor, may be thought slight and fragile in effect in comparison with the now prevalent 'stormy' school of writing; but those who are alive to the fact that power of sound is not power of conception, who look to thought and feeling rather than to mere effect in music, will find no deficiency of passion and impulse in parts of this beautiful work, while the grace and refinement both of composition and instrumentation are universally admitted. His cantata, the 'May Queen,' displays the most refined and artistic writing, both in regard to the effectiveness and spontaneous character of the choruses, the melodic beauty of the solos, the strongly-marked individuality imparted to the music of the different personages, and the charming and piquant effects of the orchestral accompaniments. Indeed, the work has very much the character of an operetta off the stage, and one cannot but regret that a composer who showed in this work so much power of dramatic characterisation in music should not have enriched the English lyric stage (poor enough!) with an opera. 'The Woman of Samaria* is less spontaneous in character, and in its style and treatment does not appeal to the popular mind; but it will always be delightful to musicians, and to those who hear considerately and critically. It is in general construction very much modelled on the style of Bach, whose peculiar power Bennett has successfully emulated in the introductory movement, with the Chorale sung simultaneously with, but in a different tempo from, the independent orchestral movement. Bennett's separate songs (two sets published during his life, and one in course of publication when he died) are small compositions of almost Greek elegance and finish, both in the melodious and expressive character of the voice part, and the delicate suggestiveness of the accompaniments. They illustrate in the most perfect degree the character which belongs more or less to all his art; that of high finish of form and grace of expression, not without deep feeling at times, but marked in general rather by a calm and placid beauty, and appealing to the fancy, the sentiment, and the intellect, rather than to the more passionate emotions.
The most puzzling fact in connection with the artistic career of Sterndale Bennett is the comparative fewness of his compositions, at a time when his mind and genius were still young, notwithstanding the power of his earlier works, and the promise which those who then knew him saw of a still higher development. In all probability the explanation of this is to be found partly in the desire to secure a more comfortable subsistence from the regular exercise of professional business, and partly in what those who knew him best described as the 'shy and reticent' character of his genius, which led him to distrust his capability of accomplishing great works, and of taking his stand in the world on the strength of his genius alone. 'He was not, in his later years at least,' says one who knew him, 'quick to publish his works; he always had individuality without a rapid execution, and took more time a great deal to finish than to sketch.' Whatever be the true explanation, it is matter for deep regret for all lovers of what is best and purest in musical art, that one so well fitted to add to its stores should have condemned himself, for many of the best years of his life, mainly to the exercise of a teacher's vocation. Of the brilliant gifts as a player, and the tours de force of memory, by which the composer astonished and delighted the Leipzig circle in his younger days, there are accounts extant which remind us of what used to be told of Mozart. When he sold his 'Capriccio in E' to a Leipzig publishing firm, they were surprised at receiving only the MS. of the orchestral score, and on their inquiring for the pianoforte part, it turned out that this had never been written down, though the composer had played the work both in London and Leipzig, and had apparently entirely forgotten the omission in handing over the MS. to the publishers.
By those who knew Sterndale Bennett he is described as having been a man of most kindly nature, and exceedingly modest and unassuming in manner and character. The feeling of loyal and affectionate attachment which he created among the pupils of the Royal Academy of Music, by some of whom his death was lamented almost like that of a kind parent, is a strong testimony to the amiability of his character—an amiability which was exercised without the slightest derogation from his strict principles as an instructor. A significant instance is related of his determination to keep up a strict adherence to the purest style of music in the Academy. On entering the building one morning he fancied he detected from one of the practising rooms the sounds of the overture to 'Zampa,' and opened door after door till he found the culprits, two young ladies, who in answer to his grave enquiry 'how they came to be playing such music?' explained that they were only practising sight-reading of piano duets to which the Professor replied by carrying away the offending volume, returning presently from the library with a duet of Mozart's which he placed before them in lieu of it. What he preached to his pupils he practised himself. In his whole career he never condescended to write a single note for popular effect, nor can a bar of his music be quoted which in style and aim does not belong to what is highest in musical art. Neither this quality nor his amiability of character preserved him, however, from attacks and detraction of the most ungenerous kind during his lifetime, from those who had their own motives in endeavouring to obscure his fame, and who found an unworthy assistance to their aims from so-called 'critics' in public journals, one of which for a long time conspicuously disgraced its musical columns by repeated sneers and inuendoes against a musician who was an ornament to the art and an honour to his country—a process which, as might be expected, only redounded to the discredit of those who stooped to it.
The following is a list of Sterndale Bennett's published works:—
Op. 1. First Concerto, in D minor.
" 2. Capriccio for Pianoforte, in D minor.
" 3. Overture. ' Parisina.'
" 4. Second Concerto, in E flat.
" 8. Sestet for Pianoforte and Strings.
" 9. Third Concerto, in C minor.
" 10. Three Musical Sketches—'Lake,' 'Millstream,' and 'Fountain.'
" 11. Six Studies, in Capriccio form.
" 12. Three Impromptus.
" 13. Pianoforte Sonata, dedicated to Mendelssohn.
" 14. Three Romances for Pianoforte.
" 15. Overture, 'The Naiads.'
" 16. Fantasia for Pianoforte, dedicated to Schumann.
" 17. 'Three Diversions.' Pianoforte for four hands.
" 18. Allegro Grazioso.
" 19. Fourth Concerto, in F minor.
" 20. Overture, 'The Woodnymph.'
" 22. Caprice, In E major, Piano and Orchestra.
" 23. Six Songs (First Set).
" 24. Suite de Pieces, for Piano.
" 25. Rondo piacevole for Pianoforte.
" 26. Chamber Trio.
" 27. Scherzo, for Pianoforte.
" 28. Introductione e Pastorale, Rondino; Capriccio, in A minor—for Piano.
" 29. Two Studies—L'Amabile e L'Appassionata.
" 30. Four Sacred Duets, for Two Trebles.
" 31. Tema e Variationi, for Piano.
" 32. Sonata-duo. Pianoforte and Violoncello.
" 33. Preludes and Lessons—60 pieces in all the keys, composed for Queen's College, London.
" 34. Rondeau—'Pas triste pas gal.'
" 35. Six Songs (Second Set).
" 36. 'Flowers of the Months,' of which January and February were completed and published, 1876.
" 37. Rondeau à la Polonaise, for Piano.
" 38. Toccata, for ditto.
" 39. 'The May Queen'—a Pastoral.
" 40. Ode for the Opening of the International Exhibition, 1862. Words by Mr. Tennyson.
" 41. Cambridge Installation Ode. 1862. Words by Rev. C. Kingsley.
" 42. Fantasie-Overture, 'Paradise and the Peri.' 1862.
" 43. Symphony in G minor.
" 44. Oratorio, 'Woman of Samaria.'
" 45. Music to Sophocles' 'Ajax.'
" 46. Pianoforte Sonata, 'The Maid of Orleans.'
The Major, Minor, and Chromatic Scales, with Remarks on Practice, Fingering, etc.
Sonatina in C.
Two Songs—'The better land'; In radiant loveliness.'
The Chorale Book, 1862; and Supplement to ditto, 1864; edited in conjunction with Mr. Otto Goldschmidt. The supplement contains two original tunes by W. S. B.
Anthems—'Now, my God, let, I beseech Thee'; 'Remember now thy Creator'; 'O that I knew'; 'The fool hath said in his heart.'
Four-part Songs—'Sweet stream that winds': 'Of all the Arts beneath the Heaven'; 'Come live with me.'
Four Songs in course of publication when he died.
[ H. H. S. ]
- A curious and charming exception is the now well-known 'Serenade' from the 'Trio' for pianoforte and strings, in which the piano has the singing melody with a pizzicato accompaniment for the violin; the composer, with his characteristic ear for subtleties of timbre, having evidently conceived the idea of giving a cantabile effect to the percussion sounds of the piano by opposing to it the still shorter and sharper sounds of the pizzicato.