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ClassicsOnline Home » BENNETT: Piano Sextet, Op. 8 / Sonata Duo, Op. 32
Duo, Op. 32
Wunderkind to the most venerated musical figure in England, Sir William
Sterndale Bennett remains synonymous with English music in the romantic age.
"I think hirn the most promising young musician I know", Mendelssohn
declared in 1836. A few months later in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik Schumann
wrote that if there were many more artists like Bennett, the future of music
would be secure. The first edition of Grove's Dictionary in 1878
called Bennett the only English composer since Purcell who achieved
individuality and produced works that could be considered classics, and The
New Grove Dictionary of 1980 still characterizes him as "the most
distinguished English composer of the Romantic school".
to a musical family in Sheffield on 13th April 1816 and named after William
Sterndale, a poet and family friend, William along with his two sisters was
orphaned in 1819 and sent to live with paternal grandparents. John Bennett was musically
inclined and immediately recognized his grandson's talent, enrolling him at the
age of eight as a chorister at King's College, Cambridge. There the boy was
soon pronounced a prodigy and sent to the newly founded Academy of Music (later
the Royal Academy of Music) in London before his tenth birthday. Endowed with
an exceptionally beautiful voice, he was chosen to sing at St. Paul's
first the violin was Bennett's principal study, but by the summer of 1831 the
piano had become his primary interest. Before long he gained a fine reputation
for the excitement and brilliance of his playing. He studied composition with
William Crotch, and on his own he composed astring quartet modelled on Mozart.
When Cipriani Potter succeeded Crotch in 1832, Bennett's progress accelerated.
By November of that year the young student had completed his Piano Concerto
in D minor, Opus 1, and played it at a public concert in Cambridge. The
concerto showed astonishing mastery, and the Royal Academy published it at its
own expense. At Windsor Castle Bennett played the concerto for the king and
queen, and he performed it again in London in the spring of 1833. Mendelssohn
was present at that concert and invited Bennett to visit Germany, not as a
pupil but as a friend.
years were to pass before the visit to Germany. Meanwhile, keeping up a
correspondence with Mendelssohn, Bennett continued at the Academy and composed
five symphonies, two more piano concertos and the overture Parisina. He
performed his second Piano Concerto in E flat major at a Philharmonic
Society concert in 1835. Its pianistic style leaves no doubt why Bennett came
to be regarded as one of the finest pianists in Europe.
May 1836 Bennett made his first trip to Germany, where he saw Mendelssohn at
the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf. The following October he began an
eight-month visit to the continent. Mendelssohn introduced him to Leipzig's
prestigious musical circles, and soon Bennett and Schumann became fast friends.
In the above-quoted article from the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schumann
praised his new friend extravagantly and was in fact taken to task for assuming
the rôle of a prophet. The twenty-year-old Bennett was then at the height of
his powers, and after another three years his flame would never again burn so
brightly. In January 1837 his third Piano Concerto in C minar met
with universal acclaim at the Gewandhaus, and his reputation was established
abraad. In the winter of 1838-39 he journeyed again to Leipzig and played his masterpiece,
the fourth Concerto in F minor.
the meantime Bennett had begun his teaching career at the Royal Academy of
Music, and he resumed his duties in London after the second triumph in Leipzig.
It was then that, as one abserver put it, the "stultifying influence"
of academic life caused the anset of his decline as a composer. He supplemented
his income by editing classical piano sonatas for publication and had little
time left for performing or camposition. Returning to London after a fourth and
final visit to the cantinent in 1842, he assumed the directorship of the
Philharmonic Society and organized an annual series of chamber concerts.
in 1844 and the necessity of supporting a family led him to take on increased
academic burdens. In 1849 he founded the Bach Society. For reasons that may
never be fully understood he declined the conductorship of the Gewandhaus
Orchestra in Leipzig in 1853. As the undisputed leader of the English academic
musical world from 1856 onward, he continued to gather honours and
responsibilities: as conductor of the Philharmonic between 1856 and 1866,
professor of music at Cambridge from 1856 and principal of the Royal Academy of
Music from 1866. He was granted a knighthood in 1871. He continued teaching,
composing and performing occasionally until his death in London on 1st February
all Bennett's compositions the piano concertos reign supreme. They are
acknowledged as among the finest embodiments of the classical spirit between
the concertos of Beethoven and those of Brahms. The works for solo piano reveal
Bennett as a "pianist's musician", who realized the instrument's
natural potential, created fabrics of nuanced tone colour, and intended his
personal harmonic language less for the public than for the connoisseur. His
failure to rise to greatness as a composer can be blamed on an overburdened
academic and professional life, but the music itself provides further insights.
On the surface his music resembles Mendelssohn's, but on closer inspection the
solo piano works in particular reveal their true kinship with Mozart. Bennett
adhered to the London Piano School of Clementi and Cramer, which followed the
"old masters" and decried the perceived frivolity and shallowness
ofthe contemporary Viennese and Parisian styles. Refined, sensitive and inward
by nature, he steadfastly resisted commercialism and vulgarity, which in his
view included the virtuosic flashiness of Thalberg and Liszt and even the
romantic utterances of Chopin and Schumann. His resistance to the spirit of the
times was deliberate, and his music became eclipsed by the richer romanticism
of his contemporaries.
to Mendelssohn's remark, which begins, "I think him the most promising
young musician I know", and concludes, "... and I am convinced that
if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God's will, but his
own", we are led to consider the possible psychological angles of promise
unfulfilled. On a basic emotional level Bennett, once the child prodigy and
fêted virtuoso, needed the continuing admiration of his public and colleagues,
a stimulus that was denied to him particularly at home in England. Gradually
his self-confidence abandoned him, and regrettably his creative powers
diminished. Between 1858 and 1873 he experienced something of a creative
resurgence, but his admittedly accomplished late works lack the fresh
inspiration of his youth. Still, his contributions to English music cannot be
dismissed lightly. The early music, abloom with promise, remains a legacy to be
rediscovered and perpetuated. In the academic and public arenas Bennett's
inestimable contributions set the course of British musical life in the
romantic age and laid the groundwork for the true renaissance that was to burst
forth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
interest in chamber music cannot be denied in light of the annual series of
Classical Chamber Concerts he sponsored between 1842 and 1856, designed to
present serious piano music and chamber music with piano. Nevertheless his own
chamber music compositions are few, consisting only of the early String
Quartet in G Minor (1831); the Sextet in F Sharp Minor, Opus 8; the Chamber
Trio in A Major, Opus 26, for piano, violin and cello (1840); and the Sonata
Duo in A Major, Opus 32, for cello and piano.
Bennett worked on the sextet between July
and December 1835, and it was first played at the Royal Academy of Music on
19th December 1838. Scored for piano, two violins, viola, cello and contrabass
(or second cello), it is his largest chamber composition and considerably more
ambitious than the slighter, more delicate trio which followed. Considering
that it was composed between the third and fourth piano concertos, it is not
surprising that the weight of the sextet is centred on the rather brilliant
piano part, while the strings are given a primarily supportive rôle. The
opening theme, consisting mostly of descending intervals, projects a melancholy
tone, and the string accompaniment establishes the music's strongly
Mendelssohnian character. In conformity with the prevailing custom, the second
subject, first heard on the piano, is abbreviated and consists of a repeated
two-bar phrase of decidedly romantic character. The scope of this
sonata-allegro movement affords plenty of opportunity for imaginative
development and virtuosic display, pursued to full advantage. The main body of
the scherzo consists of a rhythmic idea and a broadly lyrical, rising motif,
and in contrast the trio provides a gentler sentiment. The slow movement is
again broadly lyrical, and the harmonic writing reveals Spohr's influence. The
finale is alternately brilliant and tuneful with folklike appeal, providing a
Sonata Duo for cello and piano was first played in London on 16th March
1852. Like so much music of the period, it shows a strong indebtedness to
Mendelssohn. The first movement, consisting of a substantial slow introduction,
a brilliant Allegro giusto e leggierissimo and an extended slow
coda, obviates a separate slow movement. The second of the sonata's three
movements is therefore a Minuetto caracteristique with a generously
arpeggiated piano part, and the finale is a fluent rondo that lives up to the
designation Allegretto piacevole.
1994 David Nelson
Prunyi was born in Debrecen in 1941 and studied at the Liszt Academy in
Budapest, distinguishing herself in the Liszt-Bartók Competition while still a
student. Her career as a concert performer was interrupted by a period of
ill-health, and for personal reasons she spent ten years as a teacher at the
Academy before making her début in 1974. Since then she has appeared frequently
in solo and chamber music recitals and as a soloist with the principal
Hungarian orchestras. Ilona Prunyi received the Hungarian Artist's Association
Award in 1992 and an award for excellence from the Hungarian Ministry of
Culture in 1993.
Kiss was born in Budapest in 1943 and started violin lessons at the age of six.
He studied at the Bartók Conservatory, and from 1960 at the Liszt Academy, and
subsequently at the Leningrad Conservatory. A prize-winner in the Leipzig
International Bach Competition in 1968, András Kiss was appointed in the same
year to the staff of the Liszt Academy, where he continues to teach. As a
performer he appears regularly in Hungary and has toured extensively in Europe
and America. He is now the first violinist of the New Budapest Quartet.
Balogh was born in 1947 in the Romanian town of Szekelyudvarhely and had his musical
training at the Koloszvar Music College, where he completed his studies in
1968. He won second prize in the Paris Debussy Competition in 1970 and since
1985 has been a member of the New Budapest String Quartet.
Barsony was born in the Hungarian town of Pécs in 1946 and studied viola at the
Liszt Academy, winning first prize at the 1968 Casals International
Competition. He has been a member of the New Budapest String Quartet since 1978
and of the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy since 1979.
cellist Károly Botvay studied at the Budapest Academy, where his teachers
included Zoltán Kodaly. In 1960 he joined the Komlós Quartet, later the Bartók
Quartet, touring with the ensemble for seventeen years and also pursuing a solo
career as a soloist. Since his first concert tour of England in 1978 he has
established a reputation there as a soloist. In the same year he became cellist
of the Aldeburgh String Trio and in 1979 joined the Végh Quartet, with which he
has appeared throughout Europe. In 1985 he joined the New Budapest String
Quartet. He is a member of the teaching staff of the Liszt Academy.
Hungarian double-bass player Péter Kubina was born in Veszprem in 1963 and
completed his studies at the Liszt Academy in 1986. He has been a member of the
State Concert Orchestra since 1984 and since 1985 a member of the teaching
staff of the Liszt Academy.
in 1963, György Kertész studied music in Budapest, graduating at the Liszt
Academy. In 1986 he won the Budapest David Popper Cello Competition and enjoys
an active career, particularly as achamber music player, with a number of
recordings to his credit in Hungary and abroad.
Dráfi was born in 1955 and started to play the piano at the age of four. Six
years later he entered the Béla Bartók Conservatory in Budapest and at the age
of fourteen became a student at the Ferenc Liszt Music Academy in the same
city. He spent two years as a pupil of Bella Davidova at the Tchaikovsky
Conservatory in Moscow and in 1976 won the major award in the Liszt-Bartók
Piano Competition. Since 1977 he has been a member of the teaching staff of the
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