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Forgotten Works of 'Victorian Britain: The 19th Century Has Traditionally Been Considered a Low Point in Britain in Terms of Musical Creativity but as Jeremy Dibble Points out, with a Little Bit of Detective Work, There Can Be Huge Rewards in Store

Magazine article Gramophone

Forgotten Works of 'Victorian Britain: The 19th Century Has Traditionally Been Considered a Low Point in Britain in Terms of Musical Creativity but as Jeremy Dibble Points out, with a Little Bit of Detective Work, There Can Be Huge Rewards in Store

Article excerpt

This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of one of Britain's most neglected yet supremely talented composers. Born in Sheffield in 1816, William Sterndale Bennett possessed sparkling gifts as a composer and a pianist which were recognised by Mendelssohn during a visit to London in 1833. Mendelssohn invited him to Leipzig (not as a pupil but as a friend), which led to accolades from the German public, including a young and up-and-coming Schumann who anticipated a bright future for the young Englishman. Yet, after further visits to Leipzig and successful performances of his orchestral works, Sterndale Bennett did not fulfil the creative fecundity hoped for by his contemporaries. His works are a reminder, however, that English music in the first part of the 19th century was by no means without value or inspiration (in this regard, we should ignore Oscar Schmitz's much-quoted, empty slogan 'Das Land ohne Musik' and the somewhat loose criticism of Ernest Walker's 1907 A History of Music in England).

It is true, perhaps, that Britain lacked the conditions and positive attitudes towards musical culture that were enjoyed more readily in Germany, France and Italy, but London's economic wealth and vitality were major attractions by which continental musicians could make a decent living, as either residents or visitors. Britain, then, was a musically cosmopolitan milieu from which numerous talents emerged, whether in the concert hall, the cathedral or opera. Our acquaintance with their works is scant, yet the more one hears, the more one is surprised by their accomplishments and inventiveness and by the sheer range of works that were composed (reflected in the fact that the selections opposite include multiple-work entries). This was no 'dark age', and Stanford, who knew Sterndale Bennett at Cambridge in the 1870s, surely had a point when he credited him (along with SS Wesley) as an architect of Britain's renewed artistic momentum.

Sterndale Bennett

Piano Concerto No 5 in F minor

Malcolm Binns pf

Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Braithwaite

Lyrita (11/90)

Sterndale Bennett's concertos are indebted to the London piano school--in this case, especially in its long symphonic orchestral ritornello and presentation of both first and second subjects. The graceful 'Romanza pastorale' ('A Stroll through the Meadows') is a tranquil jewel that amply encapsulates the composer's delicate balance of Classical and Romantic sensibilities.

Macfarren

Chevy Chace

English Northern Philharmonia/David Lloyd-Jones

Hyperion Helios (1/92)

George Macfarren's rhythmically dynamic Chevy Chace, a work written initially as a prelude to an eponymous melodrama in 1836, received its first performance as an overture in 1837, conducted by JW Davison. It was also conducted by Mendelssohn at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, where it was enthusiastically received. In 1855 it was heard at the Philharmonic Society in London, directed by Wagner, who in Mein Leben rejoiced in its 'peculiarly wild, passionate character'.

Various composers

'British Opera Overtures'

Victorian Opera Orchestra/Richard Bonynge

Somm

This recording serves as a reminder of the operatic creativity Britain witnessed during the first part of the 19th century. Of particular note are the overtures to John Barnett's The Mountain Sylph (1834), Michael William Balfe's The Siege of Rochelle (1835), Edward Loder's The Night Dancers (1846) and Julius Benedict's The Lily of Killarney (1862), all of which, with their memorable themes, enjoyed considerable success and played to packed opera houses.

Potter

Symphony No 10 in G minor

Milton Keynes Chbr Orch/Hilary Davan Wetton

Unicorn-Kanchana (3/90)

Cipriani Potter (one of Sterndale Bennett's teachers at the Royal Academy of Music) wrote his Tenth Symphony for the Philharmonic Society in 1832. …

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