WSB 200

William Sterndale Bennett

WSB by Gregg

David Owen Norris writes:

William Sterndale Bennett is a musician the twenty-first century can recognize. Born on April 13th 1816, he sprang from the heart of the English choral tradition – he was a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge – and was snapped up by the new, determinedly modern, Royal Academy of Music. He became a virtuoso pianist, and looked to Europe for new experiences, new worlds to conquer. He took Leipzig by storm, playing his own Piano Concertos. The two foremost composers of the time – Mendelssohn & Schumann – became his boon companions. All this he documented, with the persistence of the serial blogger, in his diaries and letters.

Establishing himself back in England, he turned to other activities in a restless portfolio career that was regularly misunderstood throughout the twentieth century, when people expected to settle down in some already-invented niche, like a hermit-crab. Bennett, like Liszt, found that the life of the touring virtuoso was not enough on its own, and like Liszt, turned to conducting. He was the mainstay of the Philharmonic Society for many seasons. Like Mendelssohn, his musical and personal hero, he revived the music of Bach: he was founding president of the Bach Society in 1849. He was closely involved with the Great Exhibition of 1851, the London 2012 of its century.

Bennett was happy to bring his wide experience to the world of education. He was Professor of Music at Cambridge, where Charles Villiers Stanford was so indebted to his encouragement that he wrote a heart-felt personal memoir to mark Bennett’s centenary in 1916. By this time, Stanford was one of the most successful composition teachers of all time, so his appreciation has a proper weight.

Bennett also took an interest in the burgeoning movement for female education. In 1848 he became a founding director, Professor of Harmony, and teacher of the pianoforte at Queen’s College, a girls’ school in Harley Street, and he was on the Council of Bedford College, a women’s college founded in Bedford Square in London in 1849.

When the Royal Academy of Music fell on hard times, it was Bennett who rescued it, taking on the role of Principal and, for a while, Chairman as well. It was at the Academy that he taught both Tobias Matthay – the celebrated Matthay Touch can be recognized in many reviews of Bennett’s own playing – and Arthur Sullivan, who in his later years continued to recommend his old master’s piano works to the touring virtuosi he met, long after most musicians found them old-fashioned.

WSB at 35

Sterndale Bennett was not apparently troubled by his failure to keep up with the times, and at this date, neither need we be. His late piano sonata from 1872, three years before his death at the age of 58, was inspired by Schiller’s play The Maid of Orléans, and it’s as attractive to audiences today as the Chamber Trio of 1839 or the Sonata Duo (piano & cello) of 1852. Bennett, like Rossini, was one of those composers who did not write music compulsively all his life. Yet audience reactions to that late piano sonata show that he retained his creative powers, just as he maintained his piano playing even through his busiest years, performing his concertos, and putting together a regular series of piano recitals and chamber music concerts at the Hanover Square Rooms, London’s foremost concert hall.


Bennett’s immensely varied activities put him at the centre of innumerable networks. The dedications of his pieces, for instance, link the great pianist J.B. Cramer with Schumann. The portrait by Millais puts Bennett in the company of Darwin, Gladstone & Tennyson. And other aspects of his life remind us of how nineteenth-century Britain was connected with the wide world: his father-in-law commanded the ship that deposited Napoleon upon the Isle of Elba, and also the ship that took the first Governor-General to South Australia.

Today, Bennett is almost forgotten. Yet he could be a model of social engagement for musicians, and a key to a whole world of musical relationships. Even more important, his best music retains its power. The bicentenary of his birth offers an opportunity to put him back on the map.

In a radio lecture on Queen Victoria’s Musical Knights, who ranged from Sir Henry Bishop, the composer of Home, sweet home, to Sir Arthur Sullivan, John Betjeman put Sir Sterndale Bennett, as he was known, in undisputed first place.

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