1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bennett, Sir William Sterndale

17305501911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 3 — Bennett, Sir William Sterndale

BENNETT, SIR WILLIAM STERNDALE (1816–1875), English musical composer, the son of Robert Bennett, an organist, was born at Sheffield on the 13th of April 1816. 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. He entered the choir of King’s College chapel in 1824. In 1826 he entered the Royal Academy of Music, and remained a pupil of that institution for the next ten years, studying pianoforte under W. H. Holmes and Cipriani Potter, and composition under Lucas and Dr Crotch. It was during this time that he wrote several of his most appreciated works, in which may be traced influences of the contemporary movement of music in Germany, which country he frequently visited during the years 1836–1842. At one of the Rhenish musical festivals in Düsseldorf he made the personal acquaintance of Mendelssohn, and soon afterwards renewed it at Leipzig, where the talented young Englishman was welcomed by the leading musicians of the rising generation. At one of the celebrated Gewandhaus concerts he played his third pianoforte concerto, which was received enthusiastically. An enthusiastic account of the event was written by Robert Schumann, who pronounced Bennett to be the most “musikalisch” of all Englishmen, and “an angel of a musician” (copying Gregory’s pun on Angli and Angeli). But it was Mendelssohn’s influence that dominated Bennett’s mode of utterance. A good example of this may be studied in Bennett’s Capriccio in D minor. His great success on the continent established his position on his return to England. In 1834 he was elected organist of St Anne’s chapel (now church), Wandsworth. In this year he composed his Overture to Parisina, and his Concerto in C minor, modelled on Mozart. An unpublished concerto in F minor, and the overture to the Naiads, impressed the firm of Broadwood so favourably in 1836 that they offered the composer a year in Leipzig, where the Naiads overture was performed at a Gewandhaus concert on the 13th of February 1837. Bennett visited Leipzig a second time in 1840–1841, when he composed his Caprice in E for pianoforte and orchestra and his overture The Wood Nymphs. He settled in London, devoting himself chiefly to practical teaching. In 1844 he married Mary Anne, daughter of Captain James Wood, R.N. He was made musical professor at Cambridge in 1856, the year in which he was engaged as permanent conductor of the Philharmonic Society. This latter post he held until 1866, when he became principal of the Royal Academy of Music. Owing to his professional duties his latter years were not fertile, and what he then wrote was scarcely equal to the productions of his youth. The principal charm of Bennett’s compositions (not to mention his absolute mastery of the musical form) consists in the tenderness of their conception, rising occasionally to sweetest lyrical intensity. Except 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 may mention, for pianoforte solo, and with accompaniment of the orchestra, his three sketches, The Lake, The Millstream and The Fountain, and his 3rd 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. For the jubilee of the Philharmonic Society he wrote the overture Paradise and the Peri in 1862. He also wrote a sacred cantata, The Woman of Samaria, first performed at the Birmingham Musical Festival in 1867. In 1870 the university of Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L. A year later he was knighted, and in 1872 he received a public testimonial before a large audience at St James’s Hall, the money subscribed being devoted to the foundation of a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Shortly before his death he produced a sonata called the Maid of Orleans, an elaborate piece of programme music based on Schiller’s tragedy. He died at his house in St John’s Wood, London, on the 15th of February 1875.

See the Life, by his son (1908).