William Sterndale Bennett

Portrait of William Sterndale Bennett

William Sterndale Bennett was an English composer, pianist, conductor and teacher. He was born on 13th April 1816 in Sheffield, England and died on 1st February 1875 in St John’s Wood, London, England aged 58.

Major Works

String Quartet (1831)
Symphony No. 1 (1832)
Symphony No. 4 (1833-1834) 
Symphony No. 5 (1835-36) 
Piano Concerto (1838)

Biography Timeline

William Sterndale Bennett was born on 13th April 1816, in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. His father was Robert Bennett the organist of Sheffield parish church and a conductor, composer and piano teacher. His mother was Elizabeth, nee Don. He was named after the poet William Sterndale.

1818: His mother dies aged 27 and his father remarries.

1819: His father dies and the orphaned children are brought up by their paternal grandfather, John Bennett in Cambridge. John was a professional bass player and a member of the choir at several Cambridge colleges.

1824: He joins the choir at Kings College Chapel, Cambridge in February.

1826: He is accepted, aged ten, by the Royal Academy of Music. The authorities are so impressed with his talent that they waive all his fees. He first studies the violin, which his grandfather wishes him to master, under Paolo Spagnoletti, although after five years there he makes the piano his principal instrument.

1830: He sings in the college production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” in the role of the page boy Cherubino. The critics are not impressed with his performance.

1832: He completes his First Symphony.

1833: He plays his First Piano Concerto by Royal Command of King William the Fourth and Queen Adelaide at Windsor Castle during April. Felix Mendelssohn is at the first London performance in June and is so impressed he invites him to attend the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Dusseldorf, Germany.

1834: He is appointed organist of St Ann’s Church in Wandsworth, London. He writes the “Parsina” overture named after a work by Lord Byron.

1835:  In May he makes his first appearance at the Philharmonic Society of London in the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto. He supports himself by teaching students privately and in several London schools.

1836: In May he travels to Düsseldorf to attend the Lower Rhenish Music Festival for the first performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “St Paul”. He begins work on his overture “The Naiads” when back in London where he finishes as a boarder at the Royal Academy of music. He then returns to Germany in October and plays concerts in Leipzig on several visits up until June 1837, including the premiere of his Third Piano Concerto at the Leipzig Gewandhaus conducted by Mendelssohn himself.

1837: He meets Robert Schumann whilst in Germany and they go on long country walks together and drink in the local taverns. In August Schumann dedicates his “Symphonic Studies” to Bennett who replies with his own “Fantasie”. Schumann also pens an article in the “Neue Zeitschrift fur Musik” magazine in praise of Bennett. 

1838: He takes up at teaching post at the Royal Academy of Music. In October he is back in Germany where he plays his Fourth Piano Concerto and the “Wood Nymph’s” overture.

1842: He takes his next trip to Germany where he plays his “Caprice for Piano and Orchestra” in Leipzig and then visits other cities including Kassel, Dresden and Berlin. He returns to the Royal Academy of Music in London in March to continue his teaching duties. He is appointed one of the directors of the Philharmonic Society in London and conducts the London premiere of Mendelssohn’s Third “Scottish” Symphony.

1843: He begins a series concerts of chamber music as he had been impressed by their popularity in Germany.

1844: He marries Mary Anne Wood, the daughter of a naval commander and they go on to have two boys and a girl together in later years. Mendelssohn conducts the last six concerts of the Bach Society’s season which includes his own work as well as those by Bennett.

1847: He is devastated by the death of Felix Mendelssohn.

1848: He attends the opening of Queen’s College London as one of the founding directors and teaches there, as well as at the Royal Academy and also keeping on his private pupils. He writes the thirty “Preludes and Lessons” for students to study and these are published publicly in 1853.

1849: He is one of the founder members of the London Bach Society and its first President. After a dispute with the conducter Michael Costa about the type of music played, he resigns from the Philharmonic Society. 

1851: He is appointed a Metropolitan Local Commissioner and superintendent for the music at the opening ceremony of the Great Exhibition in London.

1853: In June he makes his last public appearance as a soloist in his Fourth Piano Concerto with the Orchestral Union. He turns down an invitation to become the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra as he feels his duties lie in England with his students.

1854: On 6th April he conducts the first performance in England of the “St Matthew Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach at the Hanover Square Rooms, for the Bach Society.

1856: On 14th April he conducts Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.5 “Emperor” with Clara Schumann as the soloist in her first appearance in England. Bennett is made Professor of Music at Cambridge University but still continues teaching at the Royal Academy of Music and Queen’s College.

1858: He writes the pastoral cantata “The May Queen” for the grand opening of Leeds Town Hall.

1862: He writes “Ode” with words by Alfred Lord Tennyson for the opening of the 1862 International Exhibition held in London. At the end of the year his wife Mary dies.

1864: The Royal Academy of Music is saved from bankruptcy due to grants from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, who grants a further sum in 1865.

1865: He visits Leipzig once again for a performance of his symphony.

1866: He becomes the Principal of the Royal Academy of Music after the retirement of Charles Lucas. He is the third choice.

1867: He writes the sacred cantata “The Woman of Samaria” for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival. He receives an honorary degree from the university of CambridgeThe Philharmonic Society award him the Beethoven gold medal.

1868: On 8th June the new College of Organists award him an Honorary Fellowship. 

1870: He receives an Honorary degree from the University of Oxford.

1871: He is Knighted by Queen Victoria.

1872: He is given a testimonial concert at St James’s Hall, London to a large audience.

Sir William Sterndale Bennett died on the 1st February 1875 of a “disease of the brain” at his home in St John’s Wood, London. He was buried in the north choir aisle of Westminster Abbey near the graves of Henry Purcell and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. 

Further Information

List of Compositions by Sterndale Bennett.