Thursday, 3 April 2008
Sterndale Bennett at the RCM
Last month, Peter Horton, musicologist and Deputy Librarian at the Royal College of Music, organised a Sterndale Bennett Study Day with the pianist Hiroaki Takenouchi, Constant and Kit Lambert Junior Fellow at the RCM. Here is his report for From Beyond the Stave:
Despite being hailed by Mendelssohn and Schumann as one of the most promising composers of his time, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75) never achieved the greatness they believed he was capable of. Were their claims inflated, or were there other reasons for his failure? Combining talks and performances, the recent Sterndale Bennett Study Day at the Royal College of Music explored the life and music of this fascinating musician and attempted to place his work in its historical context.
But how did Mendelssohn and Schumann come to be promoting the career of a forgotten English musician? The answer can be traced back to a fateful day in June 1833 when the seventeen year-old composer and pianist played his first piano concerto at the Royal Academy of Music end-of-year concert. The audience included Mendelssohn who promptly invited him to Leipzig, not as a pupil but as a friend. It was not until 1836 that Bennett was able to take up his offer, but the eight months he spent in Germany (October 1836 to June 1837) had a profound influence on his career. Supported by a small legacy, he immersed himself in the city’s invigorating musical environment, so far removed from that of the commercially-orientated concerts that dominated London’s musical life. No less significantly, he recorded his impressions in a diary that provides a fascinating insight into his life in the city – his first sight of a Christmas tree, his thoughts on the music and musicians he heard, the evenings spent drinking beer or champagne with Schumann, German lessons, his 21st birthday, his debut at the Gewandhaus concerts. But there are also regular hints of homesickness and from this time onwards he was caught between two stools – the artistic satisfaction and encouragement that he found in Germany, or the ties of nationality, family and friends that bound him to his homeland. Here, in a nutshell, we find one reason for Bennett’s failure to develop the immense achievement of his youth.
The key to understanding Mendelssohn and Schumann’s excitement over Bennett’s prospects is to be found in the substantial body of music he had composed before the age of 21 – four piano concertos, four symphonies, four concert overtures and several substantial works for solo piano – and, after an aptly-titled ‘A family perspective’ by Barry Sterndale-Bennett (his great, great grandson), this was explored by Peter Horton. A lunchtime recital of piano music by Bennett and Schumann served as a reminder of the former’s links to Leipzig – Schumann’s Etudes Symphoniques were dedicated to Bennett, while Bennett’s Piano Sonata in F minor was written as a wedding present for Mendelssohn. Bennett’s German connections surfaced again in Basil Keen’s study of his role in the foundation of the Bach Society in 1849 and in Bettina Mühlenbeck’s examination of the cultural significance of his two sets of bi-lingual songs. Stephen Varcoe and RCM students later offered a practical demonstration of how these works, together with songs by Mendelssohn, Schumann and their English contemporaries, fitted into the contemporary musical landscape. In his inimitable way David Owen Norris explored Bennett’s writing for the piano, and later, in the concluding concert, gave a thrilling performance of the Three Romances. Other works heard in the evening were a further selection of songs from Stephen Varcoe, the Cello Sonata – one of Bennett’s few works to date from the early 1850s – and the Sextet for piano and strings. The pianist in the last was Hiroaki Takenouchi who, together with Peter Horton, organised the Study Day, and his inspired playing brought proceedings to a very satisfying close.
No one who attended could have been left untouched by this intriguing, contradictory, figure, about whom so many questions remain to be answered. How, for example, does one connect the academic Bennett of the Lectures on Musical Life with the young man who so enjoyed champagne with Schumann? Or reconcile the superb pianist with the reluctant player, always on the lookout for an excuse not to perform? But perhaps the most sobering thought to emerge from a fascinating day was the fact that the majority of the music heard had been written before he reached the age of 22. But thoughts about what went wrong are another story!
Peter Horton and Bettina Mühlenbeck are currently working on an edition of Sterndale Bennett's Leipzig Diaries.