Britain isn’t much known for its classical music during the nineteenth century, for one reason or another. I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case, but aside from Sir Arthur Sullivan’s work, you don’t much hear the work of British composers between Handel and the arrival of Sir Edward Elgar. I don’t know to what degree William Sterndale Bennett’s work is representative, but if it is a good illustration of where British music was in the mid-1800s, then perhaps Britain’s music culture was too conservative to really blossom into what is considered “greatness”. There’s a commonly held perception, I think, that real greatness can most be found in those artists who move art forward, which seems to me to often result in artists being left behind when their work tends to look more back than forward. Such is the case with Bennett.
Of course, there were likely other forces at work. The development of the “classical canon” during the 19th century certainly reflects national attitudes of the time, and the Germanic dominance of classical music history can’t really be taken as a separate phenomenon, divorced from the politics of the day.
But no matter; what’s up for consideration is Bennett’s music. As I listen to this symphony (G-minor, op. 43, written in 1864), I hear echoes of Mozart and early Beethoven, and Bennett wrote this work seventy years after the former’s death and nearly forty after the latter’s. Bennett’s style apparently never developed beyond his early devotion to Classicism, and in looking up some things, quotes of Bennett’s seem to bear this out. One need only look at what he had to say about Richard Wagner to see it:
I have no intention of treating him disrespectfully; that I entirely misunderstand him and his musical opinions may be my fault and not his. At any rate he possesses an influence at this moment over musical life, which it would be impossible to overlook.
Basically he’s saying, “I dunno, maybe he’s good, but I sure don’t get it.” There isn’t a hint of any idea in this symphony more advanced than anything you might hear in Schubert. This music was considered old-fashioned in its day, so of course it would languish in obscurity. Bennett’s work is apparently enjoying what little resurgence it can (especially with 2016 being his bicentennary), but I suspect that William Sterndale Bennett will always fall into that category of composers who aren’t good enough to be frequently heard, but who are too good to be heard as rarely as they are. Anyway, it’s interesting to me to consider that as the 19th century marched on toward its final decades, as Romanticism was pushing music – incuding the venerable symphony – to larger and larger scales, here was this Britishman still happily writing full, four-movement symphonies that were only about 25 minutes long.
Here is William Sterndale Bennett’s Symphony in G-minor, op. 43.
Next week? I’m not sure. I gotta get to that wonderful Czech one of these weeks, though....