No Slavish Mozart Imitator

There was a plaque on the wall of 7 Howard Street (when it stretched further than it now does now) telling us that William Sterndale Bennett was born there on the 13th of April 1816.

The house was demolished to make way for the Novotel Hotel; although someone had the nonce to realise they were razing the birthplace of one Sheffield’s most famous sons to the ground. So, somewhere in the Novotel vicinity, is another plaque.

Parochialism aside, there is a case to made for Bennett being a much finer composer than he is generally perceived to be and it borders on scandalous that his works are so rarely heard – a situation that is the fate of most British composers!

Nevertheless, even in that pantheon he remains more or less an also-ran.

The fact that he never built on his early successes as a composer, his development going onto hold in the 1840s, certainly didn’t help his cause even if it was not necessarily his fault.

The son of Robert Bennett, organist at Sheffield Parish Church (now Sheffield Cathedral), his mother died in 1818 and his father who named him after his friend, the poet William Sterndale, the year after.

Orphaned at the age of three, he was brought up in Cambridge by his paternal grandfather. At the age of ten, in awe of his musical talents, examiners waived all fees for tuition and board when accepting him into the Royal Academy of Music where he spent the next ten years.

His First Piano Concerto (his opus one), written as student, tells you why Mendelssohn was so impressed and excited when he heard him play it in 1833 and promptly invited the then 17-year-old Bennett to visit him in Germany.

Bennett made three extended visits to Leipzig between 1836 and 1842. Both Mendelssohn and Schumann, whom he met on his first visit, thought highly of him and encouraged his exceptional talents on each visit when he continued to compose and perform.

It was to prove his most fruitful period of creativity because things began to go pear-shaped in the mid-1840s. Whereas he had been extremely successful in Germany, he now found himself on the barren terra firma of England and embroiled in much political in fighting.

Composing became sporadic as teaching became Bennett’s primary source of income, which in due course found him taking over the directorship of Royal Academy of Music in 1866 when it was on the verge of closure and spectacularly turning round its fortunes.

It was doubtless chiefly this that led to him being knighted in 1871 and Bennett died four years later at the age 58. He was buried Westminster Abbey, significantly or not, close to the tomb of Henry Purcell.

Mozart was clearly his musical god, but Bennett was not a slavish imitator. He used the influence with originality and imagination, which was what attracted him to Mendelssohn and Schumann.

In his lifetime he came to be regarded as a musical conservative. Whether this was because he chose to be, or down to the environment he found himself in in England we will never know.


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