The relation of England to the higher art of music has been peculiar. In the sixteenth century and earlier it was one of the most musical countries in Europe; but from the appearance of Händel, about 1720, German music and German composers absorbed public attention to the exclusion of the natives no one of whom, it may be added, evinced creative powers of any high order. England was a liberal patron of all the leading German masters, from Haydn, who wrote twelve symphonies for the London Philharmonic, to Beethoven, whose ninth symphony was written for the same society; Mendelssohn, whose ” Elijah,” was written for the Birmingham festival, and Wagner, who received handsome compensation for conducting a series of concerts in London. A little past the middle of the present century, however, more creative activity began to show itself .among English composers, until at the present time there are excellent English composers in all the leading departments of musical production. The more celebrated names follow.
One of the most graceful and talented of English composers was Sir William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875), who came of a musical stock, and was duly trained as a choir boy in King’s Chapel, and at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1836 he went to Leipsic, in order to profit by the Gewandhaus concerts there and the friendship of Mendelssohn. Here he produced a number of orchestral compositions which were so highly esteemed that in 1853 the directorship of the Gewandhaus concerts was offered him. After a short sojourn at Leipsic he returned to London, where he ever after lived, highly honored as composer, pianist, teacher and man. In ‘856 he became the conductor of the London Philharmonic concerts, and in ‘866 principal of the Royal. Academy of Music. He was knighted in 187′, having previously been honored by degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. He was professor of music in Cambridge University from ‘856 until his death. As a composer Bennett was influenced by Mendelssohn, but he had much delicacy of fancy and a certain originality of his own. His compositions embrace four concertos for piano and orchestra, several concert overtures for orchestra, one symphony, much chamber music, a cantata, ” The May Queen ” (1858), ” The Woman of Samaria ” (1867), and a number of occasional odes, anthems and part songs.
The successor of Sterndale Bennett as principal of he Royal Academy of Music was Sir George A. Macfarren (1813-1887), who although totally blind for many years before his death, produced a greater number of important compositions than any other English composer of the century. He was educated in London, and in 1834 became one of the professors in the Royal Academy of Music. His first opera was produced in 1838, Devil’s Opera,” ” Don Quixote ” (1836), ” Jessy Lea ” (1863) and ” Helvellyn ” (1864). He wrote a number of cantatas for chorus and orchestra, oratorios, “St. John the Baptist” (1873), “The Resurrection” (1876), ” Joseph” (1877), and other works of less importance. There are also many anthems, several overtures and other pieces for chamber. Personally he was kind-hearted, intelligent, helpful and public spirited.
The amount of work that he accomplished under the greatest of disadvantages is wonderful, as well as its generally superior quality. As a lecturer and teacher he was the foremost musical Englishman of his time. His compositions are strong and respectable, but not especially inspired.
The successor of Sir Geo. Macfarren in the principal. ship of the Royal Academy of Music was Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847 ), the youngest eminent English composer, but also the most successful and promising. He was educated as a violinist, and resided at Edinburgh as a teacher of the pianoforte and violin until his compositions attracted the attention of his countrymen and induced his being called to London. The most important compositions of Dr. Mackenzie up to the present time are the operas ” Colomba ” (1883), ” The Troubadour ” (1886) and the oratorio “The Rose of Sharon ” (1884). There are several cantatas, ” Jason,” ” The Bride,” ” The Story of Sayid ” (1886) and a considerable number of orchestral pieces, of which two Scotch rhapsodies and the overture to ” Twelfth Night ” are the best known. He has also produced a violin concerto (played by Mr. Sarasate), and much chamber music and songs. On the whole, Dr. Mackenzie seems the most gifted English composer who has yet appeared.