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ClassicsOnline Home » BENNETT: Suite de Pieces, Op. 24 / Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 13
William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)
Piano Works Vol. 2
"I think him the most promising young
musician I know, ...and I am convinced that if he does not become a very great
musician, it is not God's will, but his own." Mendelssohn's curiously
prophetic words were written in 1836. A few months later in the Neue Zeitschrift
für Musik Schumann declared 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".
Despite these favourable opinions of a
century and a half, Bennett's music has virtually disappeared from the
repertoire. Mendelssohn's words echo in our thoughts, and we look to the
composer's life and career for answers.
Bennett was born to a musical family in Sheffield on 13 April 1816. He was named after William Sterndale,
a poet who had provided verses for six songs written the year before by Robert
Bennett, the composer's father. Orphaned in 1819, young William and his two
sisters went to live with their paternal grandparents. John Bennett, who was
also musical, enrolled his grandson at the age of eight as a chorister at
King's College, Cambridge. The boy was soon pronounced a prodigy and sent to
the newly founded Academy of Music (from 1830 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 Cathedral.
At first the violin was his principal
study, but by the summer of 1831 the piano had become Bennett's 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 a string quartet modeled on Mozart. When Cipriani Potter
succeeded Crotch in 1832, Bennett's progress accelerated. By November of that
year the young student had completed a piano concerto in D minor, his op. 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 it 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.
Three 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. During this time he developed the delicate
and placidly beautiful manner that distinguishes his shorter solo piano pieces.
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.
In May 1836 he 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 role 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 minor met with universal ac claim at the Gewandhaus,
and his reputation was established abroad. In the winter of 1883-39 he
journeyed again to Leipzig and played his masterpiece, the fourth concerto in F
In 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 observer
put it, the "stultifying influence" of academic life caused the onset
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
composition. Returning to London after a fourth and final visit to the
continent in 1842, he assumed the directorship of the Philharmonic Society and
organized an annual series of concerts dedicated to the presentation of chamber
music with piano and of serious works for piano solo. Marriage 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 conductor ship 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 from 1856-66, 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 1 February 1875.
Of 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". He
realized the instrument's natural potential, he used the keyboard's percussive
quality to create fabric of nuanced tone colour, and his personal harmonic
language was intended less for the public than for the connoisseur. Ferdinand
Hiller found Bennett's playing technically perfect, extraordinarily nuanced,
yet filled with soul and fire. Except for a few didactic pieces, the writing
lies beyond the abilities of all but the truly accomplished pianist.
Clearly Bennett's failure to rise to greatness
as a composer can be blamed on an overburdened academic and professional life,
but the music itself provides fur1her insights. On the surface his piano music
resembles Mendelssohn's, but on closer inspection it reveals its true kinship
with Mozar1. Bennett adhered to the "pure" school of Clementi and
Cramer, which came to be known as the London Piano School. Clementi followed
the "old masters" and decried what he perceived as the frivolity and
shallowness of the contemporary Viennese and Parisian styles. It was a view
with which Bennett agreed. Refined, sensitive and inward by nature, Bennett
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. In short, his music was eclipsed by the richer
romanticism of his contemporaries. His resistance to the spirit of the times
was deliberate, and therein lies a possible interpretation of Mendelssohn's
remark that Bennett's potential for greatness lay entirely within himself.
The Sonata in F Minor, op. 13, composed in
1837, is an excellent illustration of the opposing trends detailed above.
Grandly proportioned, it conveys an ardent romantic longing, but one
constrained by Bennett's allegiance to his classical models. The melodic
material is more than attractive and bears a touching romantic coloration, but
the music falls short of Beethoven¡¦s heroism, Chopin's poetry or Schumann's
passion. Expansive and songlike with flashes of drama and elfin fantasy, the
sonata nevertheless maintains a sense of elegance and restraint over the
romantic passion bubbling beneath the surface.
The Suite de pièces, op. 24, dates
from 1842 and is said to represent Bennett's piano music at its best. The six,
mostly fast, pieces again embody the classical-romantic dichotomy. The first
two project an air of Mendelssohnian fantasy. Restraint versus emotional
freedom is most evident in the third. The fourth displays a placid lyricism,
and the fifth restores the animated mood of the initial pieces. The last, quite
uncharacteristically, shows Bennett closer to Schumann.
Returning one last time to the question of
promise unfulfilled, the psychological factor must now be considered. 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.
It is true that 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, Bennett's contributions to English music
cannot be dismissed lightly. The early music, abloom with promise, remains a
legacy to be rediscovered, perpetuated and cherished. Finally, Bennett's endeavors
in the academic and public arenas set the course of British musical life in the
romantic age and laid the ground work for the true renaissance that was to
burst forth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ilona 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.
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