Linda Shaver-Gleason, Ph.D. Musicologist, Writer, Program Annotator, Teacher

Talks and Presentations

Academic Paper Presentations

"'It sounds like Mendelssohn, it must be Sterndale Bennett': Acknowledging German Influence in English Historiography"

The above quote, attributed to Mendelssohn's friend Ignaz Moscheles, typifies the contemporary reception of English composer William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875), within England as well as abroad. Bennett was one of the most successful English composers of the mid-nineteenth century, earning international recognition when England was considered "the land without music." Nevertheless, many listeners found that his compositions sounded similar to those of Mendelssohn, an association that provoked conflicting opinions. Although the resemblance endeared Bennett to some writers, others dismissed Bennett as a mere imitator. After Bennett's death, a group of historians strenuously defended his legacy by asserting his originality as proof of the improving state of English music. But as the idea of an English Musical Renaissance coalesced at the end of the century, the consensus of historians relegated Bennett to the Dark Age of English music, weaving Bennett's resemblance to Mendelssohn into a tale of prolonged German domination of English tastes.

In observance of Bennett's bicentennial, this paper surveys his reception in music history books up through 1910, using the persistent comparisons to Felix Mendelssohn as a lens through which to examine English anxieties over German influence in the reception of native composers. I identify three stages of Bennett reception, beginning with his contemporaries such as Joseph Schl¨ter, who considered Bennett a Mendelssohn imitator. Later historians—including Henry Heathcote Statham and William Smyth Rockstro—strenuously defended Bennett's distinctive style. Finally, early 20th-century histories by John A. Fuller Maitland and Ernest Walker use Bennett's music as examples of overwhelming foreign influence. Although writers advancing the EMR promoted older English composers such as William Byrd, composers of the mid-nineteenth century did not benefit from the same treatment, being presented instead as failures leading up to the successes of Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, and Edward Elgar. The shifting position of Bennett within the pantheon of English composers reveals challenges English historians faced when forming a new national canon.