The Principal's Blog

William Sterndale Bennett

Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal - Posted on 11.04.2016

On Wednesday 13th April we shall be remembering William Sterndale Bennett – an early Principal of the Academy and much more besides – on the 200th anniversary of his birth in Sheffield.

Sterndale Bennett (or just Bennett, for he did not himself use Sterndale in his surname) was a remarkably versatile musician. He was a child prodigy and first applied to study at the Academy aged only six, well below the official matriculation age. But he clearly wasn’t downhearted for long after being asked to come back in a few years, and he soon became a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge. The Academy’s audition panel finally relented when he was ten – still younger than the rules allowed – and his fellow students came to know the young boy affectionately as ‘Bunny’. The virtuosic pianist and prolific composer went on to become Principal at the Academy and a Director of the Philharmonic Society, as well as teaching at Cambridge University. In 1853 he also became the Academy’s ‘Inspector of Musical Discipline’, although we’re still trying to work out the duties of that particular role!

We celebrated some of Sterndale Bennett’s achievements at the Academy last term, with a chamber music series in which we heard some of his ensemble works alongside music by his close friends Mendelssohn and Schumann – as a young man he spent some time in Leipzig at the invitation of Mendelssohn. One of our busy Honorary Research Fellows, Dr Olivia Sham, explored his piano music and notions of virtuosity in a seminar which included performances on the nineteenth-century instruments in the Museum. Together with Job ter Haar, Olivia also explored Sterndale Bennett’s interactions with Mendelssohn and the cellist Alfredo Piatti. Many of us particularly enjoyed a lively presentation about his role in the Academy’s history in which Olivia was joined by Janet Snowman (Curator of Art and Iconography) and his great-great-grandson, Barry Sterndale-Bennett.

Sterndale Bennett was also an important early evangelist for Bach’s music at the Academy, as Teri Noel Towe wrote in the programme for the seventh year of our Kohn Foundation Bach Cantatas series in 2015:

The Academy’s strong commitment to Bach increased further through the advocacy of William Sterndale Bennett, even before his installation as Principal in 1866. A disciple of Mendelssohn and Moscheles, each of whom was responsible for significant English premieres of Bach’s music, Bennett was renowned as an interpreter of Bach’s keyboard works. On 27th October 1849 he hosted the inaugural meeting of the Bach Society, ‘for the furtherance and promotion of a general acquaintance with the numerous Vocal and Instrumental works of this great and comparatively unknown Master’. The Society gave its first performance on 29th July 1850 in  commemoration of the centenary of Bach’s death. Its ambitions grew rapidly, and within five years of the Society’s inception, Bennett directed the first performance
in England of the St Matthew Passion at the Hanover Square Rooms on 6th April 1854.

Sterndale Bennett died in February 1875 in St John’s Wood, not far beyond the other side of Regent’s Park from the Academy’s current home.

I think of him regularly in the Principal’s study at the Academy, when I look at the wonderful watercolour and pencil portrait of the seventeen-year-old by James Warren Childe. Do listen to Radio 3’s Composer of the Week all this week to find out more about this fascinating man and his underrated music.

William Sterndale Bennett portrait