Parisina, Op. 3 (1835)

By Christopher Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert The Romantic Soul: Lord Byron in Music, performed on Feb 9, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“If only there were many artists working in the same spirit as Sterndale Bennett, no one would need fear any longer for the future of our art.” Posterity may not share Robert Schumann’s assessment of the music of the young English composer William Sterndale Bennett (1816-75), as it appreciates his prescient early discovery of Chopin (“Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”) or of the youthful Brahms, but Schumann’s sustained acclaim for his friend’s works points to an extraordinary talent whose gifts were unfortunately never fully realized. Mendelssohn, who became another prominent supporter, wrote in a letter: “I think [Bennett] the most promising young musician I know, not only in [England] but in Germany as well, and I am convinced if he does not become a very great musician, it is not God’s will, but his own.”

Schumann’s praise for Bennett, which musicologist Nicholas Temperley views as “extravagant” but “hardly exaggerated,” captures the composer’s enduring virtues: “If there is anything to say about the character of his compositions, it would be that anyone hearing them must be struck by their eloquent fraternal resemblance to Mendelssohn’s. The same structural beauties, the same poetic depth and clarity, the same ideal purity, the same benevolence towards the outside world—and yet they are different.” Indeed, it became common to think of Bennett, for some time his country’s preeminent composer, as the English Mendelssohn. He shares with both Schumann and Mendelssohn an aesthetic opposed to fashionable trends and self-indulgent virtuosity while embracing lyricism and a reverence for the past. Mendelssohn first heard Bennett play his First Piano Concerto in London in 1833 and he urged the seventeen-year-old Englishman to come to Germany to pursue his musical education. Bennett spent a good amount of time there over the next few years, much of it, apparently, with Schumann drinking Bavarian beer (“horrid stuff,” Bennett thought). Although he long out-lived both Mendelssohn and Schumann, Bennett did not compose much after the age of thirty, as performing, teaching, and administrative duties occupied his time. His will, not God’s, it would seem.

Bennett wrote his first symphony at the age of 16 and over the next few years composed other ones, as well as concertos, that owe a clear debt to Mozart. His solo keyboard works and overtures, on the other hand, bow to Mendelssohn, whose Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hebrides overtures he found particularly inspiring. In the mid-1830s Bennett produced three concert overtures, perhaps the first ever written by an English composer: The Wood-Nymphs, The Naiads, and the work we hear today, Parisina, which draws its title from Byron’s poem (1816).

A student at the Royal Academy of Music, the eighteen-year-old Bennett completed the first version of Parisina on 20 March 1835 and performed the work a number of times in London before taking it with him to Germany the following year. A reduction for piano for four hands was soon published, although the full score was only released after Bennett’s death four decades later. Mendelssohn felt the overture was too short, and so Bennett revised it before a performance with the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig.

The original title of the piece was “Overture in F# Minor” and it is not clear at what point Byron’s poem entered his thinking. Based on the manuscript evidence the title seems to have been an afterthought and there are no obvious connections between the poem and the music. Many other composers, including Donizetti and Mascagni, were also drawn to Byron’s tale of Parisina falling in love with her husband’s illegitimate son.