William Sterndale Bennett

WILLIAM STERNDALE BENNETT, one of the most gifted and individual of Enghsh composers, was born at Sheffield, April 13, 1816. His musical genius displayed itself early, and in his tenth year he was placed in the Royal Academy of Music, of which in his later years he became principal. He received his early instruction in composition from Lucas and Dr. Crotch, and studied the piano with Cipriani Potter, who had been a pupil of Mozart. The first composition which gained him distinction was the Concerto in D minor, written in 1832, which was followed by the Capriccio in D minor. During the next three years he produced the overture to ” Parisina,” the F minor Concerto, and the “Naiades” overture, the success of which was so great that a prominent musical house in London offered to send him to Leipsic for a year. He went there, and soon won his way to the friendship of Schumann and Mendelssohn. With the latter he was on very intimate terms, which has led to the erroneous statement that he was his pupil. In 1840 he made a second visit to Leipsic, where he composed his Caprice in E, and ” The Wood Nymphs ” overture. In 1842 he returned to England, and for several years was busily engaged with chamber concerts. In 1 849 he founded the Bach Society, arranged the “Matthew Passion ” music of that composer, as well as the “Christmas Oratorio,” and brought out the former work in 1854. The previous , year he was offered the distinguished honor of the conductorship of the Gewandhaus concerts at Leipsic, but did not accept. In 1856 he was appointed conductor of the Philharmonic Society, and filled the position for ten years, resigning it to take the head of the Royal Academy of Music. In the same year he was elected musical professor at Cambridge, where he received the degree of Doctor of Music and other honors. In 1858 his beautiful cantata, “The May Queen,” was produced at the Leeds Festival, and in 1862 the “Paradise and the Peri” overture, written for the Philharmonic’ Society. In 1867 his oratorio, or, as he modestly terms it, “sacred cantata,” “The Woman of Samaria,” was produced with great success at the Birmingham Festival. In 1870 he was honored with a degree by the University of Oxford, and a year later received the empty distinction of knighthood. His last public appearance was at a festival in Brighton in 1874, where he conducted his “Woman of Samaria.” He died Feb. 1, 1875, and was buried in Westminster Abbey with distinguished honors. His musical ability was as widely recognized in Germany as in England, — indeed his profound musical scholarship and mastery of problems in composition were more appreciated there. Mr. Statham, in an admirable sketch, pronounces him a born pianist, and says that his wonderful knowledge of the capabilities of the piano, and his love for it, developed into favoritism in some of his concerted music. A friend of the composer, recalling some reminiscences of him in ” Fraser,” says that his music is full of beauty and expression, displays a remarkable fancy, a keen love of Nature, and at times true religious devotion, but that it does not contain a single note of passion. His only sacred- music is the short oratorio, “The Woman of Samaria,” and four anthems: “Now, my God, let, I beseech Thee,” “Remember now thy Creator,” “0 that I knew,” and “The Fool hath said in his Heart” It has been well said of him; In his whole career he never condescended to write a single note for popular effect, nor can a bar of his music be quoted which in style and aim does not belong to what is highest in musical art.”

The Woman of Samaria

“The Woman of Samaria,” a short, one-part oratorio, styled by its composer a “sacred cantata, was first produced at the Birmingham Festival, Aug. 27, 1867; though one of his biographers affirms that as early as 1843 he was shown a chorus for six voices, treated antiphonally, which Bennett himself informed him was to be introduced in an oratorio he was then contemplating, and that this chorus, if not identical with ” Therefore they shall come,” in “The Woman of Samaria,” is at least the foundation of it.

The work is written for four solo voices, chorus, and orchestra. The soprano takes the part of the Woman of Samaria, the other parts being impersonal. The music for the contralto is mainly declamatory. The tenor has a single aria, while the bass, with one exception, has the part of Narrator, the words of our Saviour being attributed to him and invariably introduced in the third personal form,— which is a striking proof of the devotional spirit of the composer, as in all other instances, after the announcement by the Narrator, the Woman sings her own words. The chorus, as in the passion-music of Bach, has the reflective numbers and moralizes on the various situations as they occur, except in one number, ” Now we believe,” where it declaims the words as a part of the narrative itself. The text for chorus is selected from appropriate parts of the Scriptures which are in keeping with the events forming the groundwork of its reflections,

The story is taken from the fourth chapter of’ the Gospel according to Saint John, and follows literally the narrative of the journey of the Saviour into Samaria, – his rest at Jacob’s well, his meeting with the woman who came thither to draw water, and the conversation which followed ; the only interruptions being the reflections, not only by the chorus, but also by the contralto and tenor, these episodes being taken mostly from the Prophecies and Psalms.

The oratorio opens with a brief instrumental introduction and chorale (” Ye Christian People, now rejoice “) for sopranos alone, the melody of which first appeared in the ” Geistliche Lieder,” issued at Wittenberg in 1535. The words are a translation of the old hymn, ” Nun freut euch, lieben Christen G’mein,” to which the tune was formerly sung in Germany. The treatment of this chorale, by combining it with the instrumental movement in opposing rhythms, shows the powerful influence which the composer’s close study of Bach had upon him. Its effect in introducing the scenes which follow reminds one of the grace before the feast. It dies away in slow and gentle numbers, and then follows the opening recitative of the oratorio proper (” Then cometh Jesus to a City of Samaria”), sung by the contralto, and leading up to an arioso chorus (” Blessed be the Lord God of Israel “), the words taken from the Gospel of Saint Luke. The next number is a very graceful and artistic combination, opening with recitative for contralto, bass, and so prano, leading to an adagio solo for bass (” If thou knewest the Gift of God “), and ending with a closely harmonious chorus in the same rhythm (” For with Thee is the Well of Life “), the words from the Psalms. The dialogue between Jesus and the Woman is then resumed, leading to a solo by the latter (” Art Then greater than our Father Jacob? “). The question is sung and repeated in declamatory tones constantly increasing in power and expressive of defiance. Bennett was a bitter opponent of Wagner; but in the unvocal and declamatory character of this solo, and in the dramatic force he has given to it, to the sacrifice of melody, he certainly ventured some distance in the Wagnerian direction. The next number, the reply of Jesus (” Whosoever drinketh “) sung, as usual, by the bass voice, is in striking contrast with the question. Instead of full orchestra, it has the accompaniment of the strings and first and second horns only, reminding one of Bach’s method of accompanying the part assigned to Jesus in his St. Matthew Passion. This number is followed by a spirited fortissimo chorus (” Therefore with joy shall ye draw Water”), sung to the full strength of voice and orchestra. After the dialogue in which Jesus acquaints the Woman with the incidents of her past life, the contralto voice has an exquisite solo (“O Lord, Thou hast searched me out “), full of tenderness and expression, in which the opening phrase is repeated in the finale and gains intensity by a change of harmony. The dialogue, in which the divine character of Jesus becomes apparent to the Woman, is resumed, and leads to a beautifully constructed chorus in six parts (“Therefore they shall come and sing”), followed by an impressive and deeply devotional quartet for the principals, unaccompanied (” God is a Spirit “), to which an additional interest is lent from the fact that it was sung in Westminster Abbey upon the occasion of the composer’s funeral. A few bars of recitative lead to a chorus in close, solid harmony (“Who is the Image of the Invisible God “), with organ accompaniment only, which in turn, after a few more bars of recitative for contralto and soprano, is followed by the chorus (” Come, O Israel ” ), sung pianissimo and accompanied by entire orchestra. The next number, as the oratorio is now performed, is one which has been introduced. It is a soprano aria, ” I will love Thee, O Lord,” which was found among the composer’s manuscripts after his death. The preface to the revised edition of the oratorio has the following reference to this number: ‘

” In justification of so bold a step as the introduction of a new number, it is interesting to point out that the composer felt the Woman of Samaria ought to sing a song of conversion in the portion of the ` cantata in which the new air is placed. It is clear from the original preface that he thought of her as an impulsive woman who would naturally- be carried from worldliness into the opposite extreme of religious devotion.”

The introduction of the air also gives more importance to the soprano part and relieves the succession of choral movements in the close of the work. The remaining numbers are the beautiful chorale, ” Abide with me, fast falls the Eventide ; ” the chorus, “Now we believe,” one of the most finished in the whole work ; a short tenor solo (” His Salvation is nigh them that fear Him “), – the only one in the oratorio for that voice ; the chorus, ” I will call upon the Lord; ” and the final imposing fugue, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.” The last number is a fitting close to a work which is not only highly descriptive of its subject throughout, but also full of feeling and devotional reverence.