William Sterndale Bennett: Symphony in Gm, op. 43

performed by the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra under Douglas Bostock (in what is apparently a world premiere recording), or in a slightly garbly recording below from The Ulster Orchestra under Kenneth Alwyn

(Please let’s be clear here. There are two symphonies on YouTube from Bennett, and it seems they’re both incorrectly, or at least unclearly, labeled. This video is an earlier Gm symphony, and a user gives a reference: “It’s Bennett’s earlier G minor symphony catalogued as WO 31, from 1832-33.  See A. Peter Brown, The Symphonic Repertoire, Vol. III Part B, pp. 58-59.” The above video, labeled symphony no. 5, from the early 1830s, is in fact the same one on the Czech Chamber Philharmonic album, where it is labeled simply as ‘Symphony in Gm, op. 43’. The labeling of both symphonies on Wikipedia are labeled as each other. Regardless of what it’s called, this is the (later) work we’re discussing.)

Sir William Sterndale Bennett was born 13 April, 1816 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, the only son of Robert Bennett, an organist, and his wife Elizabeth, née Donn. Robert Bennett was more than just organist at the local church, though. He also conducted, composed, and taught. He named his only son after his friend and poet William Sterndale.

By the age of three, both of the young Bennett’s parents had died, and he went to live with his paternal grandfather, a professional bass, in Cambridge, singing in a few local choirs, and gave his grandson his first musical education. By ten, young Bennett had been accepted to the Royal College of Music, founded only a few years earlier, and the examiners were apparently so impressed with the young lad that they waived all his fees. There he studied under Cipriani Potter, among others, and even though he did not actually study singing, he played Cherubino in a staging of The Marriage of Figaro, which Wikipedia calls “among the few failures of his career at the RAM.”

Felix Mendelssohn was in attendance at a performance of Bennett’s own (first) piano concerto, with the composer as soloist, and invited the Englishman to a music festival in Düsseldorf. Wiki tells us that:

Bennett asked, “May I come to be your pupil?” Mendelssohn replied, “No, no. You must come to be my friend”.

The above comes from J.R. Sterndale Bennett’s The Life of William Sterndale Bennett. Wikipedia gives a statement from Mendelssohn, one of the most respected musicians of the time, speaking of Bennett thusly:

I think him the most promising young musician I know, not only in your country but also here, and I am convinced if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God’s will, but his own.

That’s quite impressive, and says something of what we might expect Bennett’s sound to be like. He apparently became quite close with both Mendelssohn and Schumann, performing at least another of his own concertos as soloist under the former’s baton. He seems to have had a very successful music career, as a pianist, composer, maybe not as singer, but just about everything else. It is, then, with some hesitation that I offer his Gm symphony from 1864. Be not confused, there are two G minor symphonies, the earlier from the 1830s and unpublished (I think) during Bennett’s lifetime. See the above notes under the video if you haven’t already.

So let’s take his friendship with Mendelssohn and Schumann as a jumping off point and see what kind of symphony their English associate could possibly write. Remember, now, we’re no longer in the first few decades of the 19th century. Whether Cipriani Potter would have heard Beethoven’s ninth symphony by the composition of yesterday’s work or not I cannot say. However, it was a time, you’ll recall, where most people were the opposite of confident about writing symphonies, but the tradition had already started to come out from under LvB’s shadow.

The first movement is by far the longest of the work. Do you hear Schumann in the opening? I do. Or Mendelssohn? There’s something about the undercurrent of the work, a driving force in the music that seems to pull the listener in as the piece unfolds.

I find this entire first half of the movement, unfortunately, to be the most inspired part of this entire five-movement work. We hear that opening figure a few more times throughout this first movement, and it doesn’t wow a listener as much as it gives one pause. I was never blown away by anything particularly amazing in it, but came to appreciate its subtleties and refined qualities. It’s a rather handsome, reserved, but warm first movement.

As I said, the symphony is in five movements. While the work shows up on albums as four tracks, the final track of the recording I own is listed as:

Symphony in G Minor, Op. 43: IV. Romanza: Larghetto cantabile – V. Intermezzo: Tempo di minuetto – Grave – Rondo Finale: Presto

… and all of that adds up to just over five minutes, so it’s nothing monstrous.

After being drawn into a more introspective, or personal, or restrained symphony, we are, of course, interested to see what else Bennett can provide, what contrasts, what musical argument unfolds in the subsequent, shorter movements.

The first ends quietly, and the second, Introduzione al Minuetto: Maestoso, is pleasant and soft. An introduction to a minuet? It itself seems to be a minuet of some kind, with just a touch more spring in its step than a slow movement would give us, but that seems to be its function. It’s pastoral, a warm country breeze in a sunny landscape, with a chill here and there as clouds block the sun momentarily. It’s carefree, simple. Listen for a brass exultation, beautifully written, something suddenly majestic and regal, in the central part of this movement, the most inspired moment of this ‘introduction’.

We then find ourselves at the central movement of this five-movement work, the minuet itself, only slightly longer than its introduction, and of much the same mood. It’s a bit quainter here and there, more serenade-like in passages, but despite the able writing, I find myself thinking about being bored. I held out some hope that we’d have something exciting here, but it seems it’s labeled minuet for a reason. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, but it doesn’t veer too far from everything we’ve already heard, and this 27-minute symphony starts to feel longer.

But that’s okay. We’re finally at the fourth/fifth movements. The romanza begins with the most excitement we’ve heard since the beautiful first movement. It’s spirited, exciting, finally giving us some drama, and even a slight tinge of humor, maybe.

Honestly, by this point, I’m thinking that iTunes has the wrong track information for this work. Is this a Romanza, or larghetto, or Intermezzo, or Tempo di minuetto again, finally followed by the rondo finale? What is actually going on? So I did some research.

Thankfully “Uncle Dave Lewis” reviewed this album in question for AllMusic, so I didn’t have to go comparing track titles. In his review, he says:

Bennett employs an unusual five-movement scheme that contains nine sections overall, but this results, perhaps inadvertently, in a symphony that sounds like it all plays at about the same tempo. Concision is not Bennett’s strong point, either, as the Minuetto — Moderato con grazia — Trio Pomposo — Minuetto movement just seems to amble on for an eternity.

I agree on just about all counts: “sounds like it all plays at about the same tempo,” “amble on for an eternity,” etc. That first movement made promises that the rest of the symphony wasn’t able to deliver. Here I’m thinking by the second movement that we’re in store for a quieter, more introspective symphony, something like Brahms’s second, but it ends up working more like finishing a wonderful piece of roast beef in the first movement, and being left with a huge plate of mashed potatoes, more or less all the same in texture, flavor, color… good mashed potatoes, sure, but really nothing else.

This is certainly not a criticism of Bennett’s composition. He wrote much else besides this single symphony, and some of it is (it seems) rather highly regarded. That’s great. And I”m hesitant to be critical of this work, because there are moments of really exquisite writing, like the brass chorale in the second movement, the entire first movement, and the final splash of excitement in the last of many confusing subsections of the final two movements. Right.

 

So that’s that for this week. Four symphonies in four days, and still tons more to come. This series was a long way in coming, and is likely the one I’ve spent the most time preparing, aside from one that will come up this fall, for which I’m actually (buying and) reading books in preparation. Good times. In any case, stay tuned for lots more very good English music, and thanks for reading.

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