Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bennett, William Sterndale
BENNETT, Sir WILLIAM STERNDALE (1816–1875), musical composer, was born at 8 Norfolk Row, Sheffield, on 13 April 1816. On his father's side he came of a race of musicians. His grandfather, John Bennett, was born at Ashford in 1750, but early in life settled at Cambridge, where he was for many years lay clerk in the college choirs of King's, St. John's, and Trinity, and his father, Robert Bennett, a pupil of Dr. Clarke, was for some years before his death organist at the parish church of Sheffield, and was the composer of a few son^s, none of which, however, are remarkable for much individuality. In 1812 Robert Bennett married Elizabeth, the daughter of James Donn, curator of the Botanic Gardens at Cambridge: William Sterndale was the youngest child of this marriage. His mother died on 7 May 1818, at the early age of 27, and his father (who had in the meantime married Again) only survived her eighteen months, flying on 3 Nov. 1819. Robert Bennett's second wife does not seem to have taken Much interest in his orphan children, for on 19 Dec. 1819 the little William Sterndale was sent with his sisters to his grandfather at Cambridge, after which she did not trouble herself any further about them. On 19 March 1820 Bennett and his sisters were baptised at the church of St. Edward, Cambridge. On 17 Feb. 1824 Bennett entered the choir of King's College, his musical education continuing at the same time under his grandfather's guidance. Two years later the Rev. F. Hamilton, superintendent of the newly formed Royal Academy of Music, when on a visit at Cambridge, happened to hear Bennett play, and was so struck by the promise he displayed, that the boy was removed from King's College choir and placed at the Academy, where he entered on 7 March 1826. Here his principal study at first was the violin, his masters being Oury and Spagnoletti; but his special talent for the piano soon asserted itself, and he was placed under W. H. Holmes for that instrument, and under Lucas for composition and harmony. Somewhat later he studied under Cipriani Potter and Crotch, the former of whom particularly influenced his style by imparting to the future English composer some of the peculiar qualities which he himself had derived from his own master, Mozart. For the first few years of his stay at the Academy there is no doubt that Bennett was not remarkable for assiduity; the boy was still stronger in him than the musician. On Sept. 1828 he played a concerto of Dussek's at an Academy concert at the Hanover Square Rooms, and in the same year he composed his first score—a fairy chorus. Until his voice broke he sometimes sang in the choir at St. Paul's Cathedral, and on one occasion took the part of Cherubino in a performance of Mozart's 'Nozze di Figaro' at the King's Theatre (11 Dec. 1830) given by the pupils of the Academy. This attempt, the only one on record of a boy's singing the part, does not seem to have been very successful. A contemporary newspaper pronounced that 'Cherubino, personated by a little boy, was in every way a blot in the piece. Had the memory of the audience not supplied the deficiency, the dramatic effect of the opera must have been utterly demolished.' In 1831 Bennett began to study with Crotch, and though the latter's lessons had not the reputation of being particularly instructive, his pupil henceforward made extraordinary progress. Personally, he retained all the boyish charm of manner which throughout his life never entirely deserted him, and the rapid manner in which his artistic powers matured did not prevent him from joining in the childish amusements of his fellow students. His family still preserve some sketch for compositions of this period, little fragments which already betray the hand of a master, but which are written on the back of those sheets of figures of theatrical characters which are still to be bought in old-fashioned shops for 'a penny plain, or two-pence coloured.' The dates at which the compositions of the next few years were finished show plainly this extraordinarily speedy development of his powers as a musician. His first symphony was completed on 6 April 1832, his first concerto in October, his second symphony on 9 Dec, and the overture to the ' Tempest ' on 31 Dec. of the same year. In 1833 the overture in D minor was finished on 12 Oct., the second concerto on 4 Nov. In the following year the overture to the ' Merry Wives of Windsor ' was written in May, and the third concerto finished on 31 Oct. In 1835 he produced the overture to 'Parisina' (2 Nov.), besides finishing a symphony in G minor (18 Oct.), and the sestet (1 Dec.) Of the above works, one was destined to have an important influence upon his future life. The first concerto (subsequently published as Opus 1) was produced at a pupils' concert at the Royal Academy on 26 June 1833, Bennett himself playing the pianoforte part. The work was received with every mark of favour, the directors of the Academy undertaking to publish it at their own expense ; but of more importance to the young composer was the fact that it attracted the attention of Mendelssohn, who was amongst the audience. The German musician, himself only seven years older than Bennett, seems to have been at once attracted by the work of one who possessed so many of his own idiosyncrasies. The curious manner in which, superficially at least, their compositions present similar characteristics, though not so marked at this period as it was when the two composers were drawn into closer connection, has given rise to a current idea that Bennett became the pupil of Mendelssohn. This was never the case, for Bennett received no instruction beyond what he obtained at the Academy. The influence of Mendelsohn upon Bennett — an influence which was much less than is generally supposed — was only the result of the close intimacy between them which had its origin at the Academy concert during the summer of 1833, and reached its height during Bennett's stay at Leipzig in 1836-7. In 1834 Bennett was elected organist at Wandsworth Church, a post he did not retain very long. Though still devoting himself chiefly to the pianoforte and composition, he had not entirely neglected the study of other instruments, for on 24, 26, and 28 June and 1 July his name occurs amongst the viola players in the orchestra or the Handel Festival held in Westminster Abbey. The month of August he spent at his grandfather's at Cambridge, but in October he was back at the Academy, and on the 17th of the next month he played his second concerto at a concert of the Society of British Musicians, on which occasion Miss Birch sang his scena, 'In radiant loveliness.' On 8 Dec. the same society produced his overture to the 'Merry Wives of Windsor.' In 1835 he gave a concert at Cambridge on 26 Feb., and on 11 May made his first appearance at the Philharmonic Society's concerts, on which occasion he played his second con- certo. In October he finished a third symphony, and in November the Society of British Musicians produced his fine overture 'Parisina,' a work which he subsequently re-scored twice. In January 1830 he was at Cambridge once more, where he occupied his holidays by writing the third (dramatic) concerto. This work was begun on 8 Jan. and finished on the 22nd of the same month, but was not produced until the following April, when Bennett played it at a Philharmonic concert. In May, accompanied by Mendelssohn's friend, Klingemann, and by J. W. Davison, the critic, Bennett started for Düsseldorf, where the Lower Rhine Festival was held that year. The occasion was a memorable one, for Mendelssohn's first oratorio, 'St. Paul,' was to be produced, besides which the programme included the two overtures to 'Leonore,' one of the Chandos anthems, 'Davidde Penitente,' and the Ninth Symphony. The performances took place on 22, 23, and 24 May, under Mendelssohn's personal direction. Occupied as he must have been, he nevertheless found time to renew his acquaintance with Bennett, whom he strongly pressed to visit Leipzig, and as the English musicians were about to return home, he advised them not to do so without taking a trip up the Rhine. Fortunately for posterity, the advice was followed, for on. this excursion Bennett conceived the idea of his most lovely work, the overture 'The Naiads,' the first sketch of which was actually written in Germany, though the work was not finished until the following September at Cambridge, where he went on his return to England. On 23 Sept. he left the Academy,, and soon afterwards wrote to Mendelssohn about coming to Leipzig. Financial difticul- ties being fortunately overcome by the kind- ness of Messrs. Broadwood, he started for Germany in October, and arrived at Ham- burg on the 25th. Two days later he was at, Berlin, and at two o'clock in the afternoon of the 29th arrived at Leipzig, where Mendelssohn received him with open arms, gave him the score of the ' Melusine ' overture, and introduced him, at the Baierischer Hof, to the chief musicians of the town. Leipzig was just then the home of a little knot of musicians who were destined to make their mark in the music of the century ; chief amongst them were Mendelssohn himself and Rohert Schumann, with both of whom Bennett was thrown into daily intercourse. The little diary which he kept at Leipzig, unfortunately a record of the barest description, shows that it was to Schumann he owed an introduction to Kistner, the publisher, who at once took some of his compositions. As this took place on 22 Nov., the intimacy between the two musicians must have sprung up very early after Bennett's arrival at Leipzig. Schumann's friendship for the English composer was unbounded, and the criticisms he published on his early compositions were singularly appreciative and discriminating. Though personally Bennett warmly reciprocated Schumann's friendship, he seems never to have been altogether reconciled to much of the German composer's music. In later years loyalty to his friend caused Bennett to be one of the first to introduce Schumann's compositions to English audiences, yet they never exercised such an influence upon his ow^n style as did those of Mendelssohn, to ^whose genius his own nature was so much more akin. At Leipzig Bennett lodged with « Dr. Hasper, to whose house he moved on 2 Nov. On the 10th of the same month he recorded in his diary that he began a symphony, but nothing more is known as to this work. He made his first appearance at the Gewandhaus concerts on 19 Jan. 1837, when he played his own third concerto with the utmost success. On the 25th of the same month 'The Naiads' was produced at the Society of British Musicians. On the 29th his grandfather, to whom he owed more perhaps than will ever be known, died at Cambridge. On 13 Feb. ' The Naiads ' was played at the Gewandhaus, Bennett himself conducting, and on 6 March the overture to 'Parisina'—which he had re-scored for the purpose—was performed at the same concerts. The following three months were devoted to various pianoforte compositions, and to rescoring ' The Naiads ' for the Philharmonic, where it was played on 29 May. On 11 June Bennett left Leipzig, and returned to England by way of Mainz and Rotterdam. August was spent at Cambridge, and on the reopening of the Academy in October, Bennett was appointed to a class there, the beginning of that long routine of teaching in which he was involved for the rest of his. life. In 1838 he was elected a member of the Garrick Club and of the Royal Society of Musicians, and an associate of the Philharmonic Society. August and September of this year were spent at Grantchester, near Cambridge, and here the (published) fourth concerto was written, the lovely barcarolle in which may have been inspired beside the sedgy windings of the Granta. In October he returned to Leipzig, where he stayed until March, having in the meantime written the ' Wood Nymphs ' overture, which was produced at the Gewandhaus on 24 Jan., where he had also played the new fourth concerto on 17 Jan. In August he turned his attention to writing an opera, an agpreement for which was actually signed, but the difliculty which so many musicians have experienced, that of finding a suitable libretto, prevented the plan from being ever carried into execution. In the summer of the following year he was much occupied with writing an oratorio ; this was probably a work he had intended to call ' Zion,' but which was never finished. One of the choruses from it was subsequently inserted in 'The Woman of Samaria.' Towards the end of 1841 Bennett became engaged to Miss Wood, who had been an Academy pupil in 1838. She was the daughter of Commander James Wood, R.N. In January 1842 Bennett once more visited Germany. At Cassel he made the acquaintance of Spohr and Hauptmann, at Leipzig he found Pierson, who had just settled there, and at Dresden he met Reissiger and Schneider. On this visit there was much intercourse with both Mendelssohn and Schumann, the former of whom travelled from Berlin with him to Leipzig. On his return to London he at once fell into the round of teaching and concerts which so seriously interfered with the time he had to devote to composition. His few holidays were spent at Southampton, where his future wife's family lived, and here his marriage took place on 9 April 1844. The end of the preceding and the beginning of that year had een occupied by ms candidature for the chair of music at Edinburgh University, a post he did not succeed in obtaining. Soon after his marriage he was busy writing an overture to be called (in allusion to his wife's maiden name) 'Marie de Bois;' this was afterwards used as the overture to 'The May Queen.' In March 1845 Bennett moved to 15 Russell Place, Fitzroy Square, where he lived until 1859, when he bought 50 Inverness Terrace. There are very few events in the next few years of his life which are worth chronicling. Until the composition of 'The May Queen' in 1868 he wrote no work of importance, and his life was almost entirely uneventful. A performance of the 'Parisina' overture at the Philharmonic in 1848 led to an unfortunate rupture with Sir Michael (then Mr.) Costa and the society, and the breach with the latter was not healed until 1855, when Bennett was appointed permanent conductor in succession to Richard Wagner. The year 1849 was rendered memorable by the foundation of the Bach Society, in which Bennett took a prominent share. Five years later, at the Hanover Square Rooms (6 April 1854), he conducted the first performance of the Matthew Passion music in England. During these years he was much at Southampton, and also gave concerts in many of the large towns of the kingdom. In July 1853 the directors of the Gewandhaus concerts invited him to conduct during the next season, but English engagements prevented him from accepting this honour. Trips to Derbyshire, Rotterdam, and Brussels (where he wrote an anthem, 'Remember now thy Creator') were almost the only events to break the monotonous round of employment in the years 1853, 1854, and 1855, but in 1856 the chairof music at Cambridge being vacant, Bennett was elected (4 March) to the professorship by a majority of 149 votes. The degree of Mus. Doc. was conferred on him on 30 June, and he was made a life member of St. John's College on 26 Sept. following. He received the degree of M.A. in 1867. The Cambridge appointment, although it opened to Bennett a new field for work, unfortunately did not give him any more time for composition. Though the duties of a university professor of music are not onerous, Bennett was too conscientious to let the office become a mere sinecure in his hands. The regulations as to the bestowal of degrees for music were so lax as to be practically useless, and accordingly the new professor proposed to institute an examination. He also turned his attention to the practical cultivation of music inthe university, and in November conducted a concert of the University Musical Society.As was to be expected, he infused his own admiration for Bach into some of the younger and more enthusiastic amateurs of the day, and it is partly owing to his initiative that the university has gradually made such progress in musical matters. The year 1858 was rendered memorable by the production of one of Bennett's most charming works. He had received a commission from Leeds to write a work for the approaching festival. In April he applied to H. F. Chorley, the musical critic of the 'Athenæum,' for a libretto, and the latter produced the absurd and badly written 'May Queen.' In spite of the disadvantage at which he was placed by the libretto, Bennett in six weeks set it to the beautiful music which is, perhaps, more popular than anything else that he wrote—music which breathes in every line the spirit of pure English melody, as fresh and joyous as the month of May which it celebrates. 'The May Queen' was written in July 1858, when Bennett was staying at the Gilbert Arms, Eastbourne, and was produced at the Leeds Festival in the following September, the principal solo parts being sung by Miss Clara Novello and Messrs. Sims Reeves and Weiss. For the opening of the Exhibition of 1862 he set an ode of Tennyson's. In the same month (May 1862) he wrote the music to Kingsley's 'Ode on the Installation of the Duke of Devonshire as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.' This music was composed in the short space of five days; it was finished on 30 May, and performed at Cambridge on 10 June. The composition of the two odes was followed by that of the overture 'Paradise and the Peri,' one of his most spontaneous inspirations. Towards the close of the year 1862, Bennett suffered an irreparable loss in the death of his wife, which took place at Eastbourne on 17 Oct., after a painful illness. It is said by those who knew him well that he never recovered from the effects of Mrs. Bennett's death, and that henceforward a painful change in him became apparent to his friends. For more than a year he seems to have abandoned composition, and it was not until the summer of 1864 that he produced any new work of importance, when he wrote the symphony in G minor which is so well known to musicians. The minuet in this beautiful work had already appeared in the Cambridge Installation ode, and the finale was entirely conceived during a railway journey between Cambridge and London, It was produced at a Philharmonic concert on 27 June, and at the beginning of the following year was performed under the composer's superintendence at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The composition of the symphony was followed by another long pause, during which he was elected principal of the Academy of Music (22 June 1866), and received the Beethoven gold medal from the Philharmonic Society (7 July 1867). In the summer of the latter year he wrote his oratorio 'The Woman of Samaria,' which was produced at the Birmingham Festival on 27 Aug. Most of this work was written at Eastbourne, but one of the choruses in it was transferred from the incomplete 'Zion' which he had begun in 1840. On its production at Birmingham 'The Woman of Samaria' did not include two of its best numbers, the chorus 'Therefore with Joy,' and the quartett 'God is a Spirit.' These were written at Eastbourne between 8 and 18 Feb., and first performed on the 21st of the same month, when the oratorio was produced in London. With the exception of the music to the 'Ajax' of Sophocles, written in 1872, this was the last important work which Bennett produced. The arduous nature of his duties at the Academy, demanding daily attendance for the whole day during term time, consumed all his energy; the consequence was that composition was almost entirely abandoned.
The university of Cambridge conferred on him the degree of M.A. honoris causa in October 1867, and in 1870 (22 June) he received the D.C.L. degree at Oxford. On 24 March 1871 he was knighted at Windsor on the recommendation of Mr. Gladstone, and in August of the same year he attended the Beethoven festival at Bonn. In March 1872 he received a public testimonial in St. James's Hall, and at the same time a scholarship at the Academy was founded in his honour by subscription. The summer holidays of the last few years of his life were spent at his favourite Eastbourne. On 29 Sept. 1873 he moved from the house in Porchester Terrace, where he had lived since 1870, to 66 St. John's Wood Road. Here hewas taken ill on 24 Jan. 1875, and died at a quarter past twelve on Monday, 1 Feb., aged 59. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, near Purcell, Blow, Croft, and Arnold, on 6 Feb.
At the time of his death Bennett occupied the foremost position amount the English musicians of his day. During the last few years of his life honours were showered upon him, and the ten years that have elapsed since his death have neither modified nor increased the esteem in which his works are held. His sense of form was so strong, and his refined nature so abhorred any mere seeking after effect, that his music sometimes gives the impression of being produced under restraint. He seldom, if ever, gave rein to his unbridled fancy; everything is justly proportioned, clearly defined, and kept within the limits which the conscientiousness of his self-criticism would not let him overstep. It is this which makes him, as has been said, so peculiarly a musician's composer: the broad effects and bold contrasts which an uneducated public admires are absent; it takes an educated audience to appreciate to the full the exquisitely refined and delicate nature of his genius. He never wrote a bar of music that was commonplace, but entertaining the loftiest conception of what his art should be, the whole of his quiet and uneventful life was spent in acting up to his ideal. In his later years his duties at the Academy, where he would sometimes teach for ten hours a day, interfered so seriously with the time he could give to composition, that he almost entirely abandoned it. As a pianist his excellence was supreme. A writer in the 'Musical Examiner' (14 Jan. 1843) mentions in the following terms his youthful performances: 'Little Bennett, with his black hair and his mild blue eyes, and his expressive face, beaming with genius ... with his soul in his fingers ... who can render the thoughts of poets with the utterance of a poet ... who can convey, through the medium of the pianoforte, every modification of passion, every shade of feeling ... and all without an effort that belongs not strictly to art in its most legitimate meaning;' and the same characteristics of poetry and perfect purity of touch and execution distinguished his playing all through his life. Personally, Bennett was remarkable for his warm-heartedness and kindness, combined with a singularly sensitive delicacy of feeling, and a retiring disposition which made him shun all publicity and display. By both friends and pupils he was regarded with the affection and respect which his amiable and gentle character called forth, and probably no man in his position had fewer enemies. There is a portrait of him by Millais, which was painted in 1872, and has been engraved. An engraving by Kreisel of a portrait by Pecht was published at Leipzig in 1839.
[Annual Register for 1875; Harmonicon for 11 Dec. 1830; Musical Times, 1 March 1875; Registers of Westminster Abbey; Times, 2 Feb. 1875; Musical Examiner, 14 Jan. 1843; Grove's Dictionary of Musicians, vol. i.; Proceedings of Musical Association (3 April 1872); Cazalet's History of the Royal Academy of Music (1854); information from Mr. J. Sterndale Bennett (to whom the writer is especially indebted), Sir George Grove, Mr. W. S. Rockstro, Mr. G. F.Cobb, Mr. John Farmer, and Mr. A. D. Coleridge.]