The young William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875) was expected by many, including Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann, to take his place as one of Europe’s most accomplished composers. Today he is almost unknown, a consequence of the sacrifices he made for the careers and talents of others.
WILLIAM Sterndale Bennett composed ‘The May Queen’ in 1858, sitting in the bay window of an Eastbourne inn.* When the inn was later demolished, Bennett bought the window and erected it in his summerhouse as a place of inspiration. He always felt more comfortable when surrounded by the familiar.
Born in Sheffield, Bennett was a chorister at King’s in Cambridge before enrolling at the Royal Academy of Music in 1826, aged ten. He performed his own First Piano Concerto for King William IV and Queen Adelaide at Windsor in 1832, and four years later Mendelssohn invited him to Leipzig. There he befriended Robert Schumann, and bemused German onlookers by playing cricket.*
Leipzig loved Bennett, and he loved Leipzig; but duty brought him home. He taught at the Academy and at Cambridge; and as Director of the Philharmonic Society from 1842, and as Principal of his beloved Academy from 1866, rescued both from financial ruin.* The price would be his place as one of Europe’s leading composers.
* Published 1858. Find this and other music by Sir William Sterndale Bennett in our Music Library.
* Read the entry in Bennett’s diary for June 10th, 1837, in our post ‘My English Joy’. It was apparently the first recorded game of cricket in Germany; the first cricket club there was founded in 1858, by British and American expatriates in Berlin.
* Bennett temporarily gave up his salary at the Academy, as did several other professors. His time as Director of the Philharmonic Society was marred by repeated confrontations with his conductor, Sir Michael Costa, a man Bennett’s opposite in almost every way.