William Sterndale Bennett 1816-1875

William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875)  200th Anniversary of his Birth

Painted by Millais in 1873

Portrait painted by Millais in 1873

2016 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of a composer, pianist, conductor and music educator who, among other posts, was a Cambridge Professor and Principal of the Royal Academy of Music.  The value and influence of his work in 19th century Victorian England is beyond doubt. However what is often dismissed in short sentences is the role William Sterndale Bennett played in the 19th century British Bach revival.

William Sterndale Bennett was born in Sheffield on 13 April 1816, during the Regency period (1811-1820) in English history. Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister and while George III was still officially monarch he was deemed unfit for his role, so a Regency was set up in favour of his son, the profligate and gargantuan Prince of Wales, later George IV.

However, WSB spent his early years in Cambridge away from the sophistication of Regency fashion, taste and style and was brought up by his grandfather who was a Lay Clerk in no less than three prominent collegiate choirs. The young William was accepted into the Choir of King’s College Chapel and two years later entered the Royal Academy of Music in London at the tender age of ten, such was his musical ability. It was a portent of things to come from a young composer, whose creative powers developed to such an extent they were not only confined to composition, but manifested in performance, musical direction, innovation and educational development.

The Prince Consort

The Prince Consort

In the footsteps of the German-born Prince Albert, the Prince Consort to Queen Victoria,  Bennett therefore was a very fine example of the 19th century flair and drive possessed by so many then. This included his great friend and indeed a mentor, the composer, conductor, painter and traveller Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847) who invited Bennett to Leipzig, an invitation that led to an extended stay with hugely influential consequences here in Britain. 

Bennett’s role in the British Bach revival of the 19th century, sometimes referred to by writers today as a ‘reawakening‘ of interest, is significant and his English performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1854 was a vital catalyst in the discovery of Bach and his music here then, and our continuing study and performance of the composer’s music since – he took a risk.  Click on the link for more background and information.

William Sterndale Bennett and the English St. Matthew pdf


Visit www.ram.ac.uk/whats-on  for information about the chamber music festival this spring to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of their former student and Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, William Sterndale Bennett

The website of pianist and composer David Owen Norris has a section devoted to Sterndale Bennett. Click on WSB200.  http://www.davidowennorris.com/

Bennett has a substantial folio of compositions, from Symphonies to chamber music, song to choral music and overtures. The BBC Radio 3 weekly series “This week’s Composer” was devoted to William Sterndale Bennett for the week 11-15 April 2016 that included the actual 200th anniversary date – 13 April.  www.bbc.co.uk/radio3

Special Note: The Bach Society founded in 1849 of which Sterndale Bennett was both Founder and President was later wound up in the early 1870s. A completely new Society, the London Bach Society, was founded by Dr Paul Steinitz on 7 November 1946. © Margaret Steinitz


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