Sir Julius Benedict – Symphony in G minor Op.101 (1872-3)
(b. Stuttgart 27 November 1804 – d. London 5th June 1885)
Moderato – Allegro appassionato p.1
Andante con moto p.61
Scherzo: Vivace assai p.91
Finale: Allegro con fuoco p.133
The locational progress of Julius Benedict’s life recalls that of his great countryman Handel: both men originated in Germany, spent time in Italy and ended up in England where they made outstanding contributions to the country’s musical life. Benedict was born in Stuttgart, where his precocious talents as a pianist were fostered by J.C.L. Abeille. In 1819 he was sent to Weimar to study with Hummel, and from there to Dresden to be mentored by Weber, no less. Accompanying Weber to Berlin for a production of Der Freischütz in June 1821 he had the first of many meetings with Mendelssohn, whose prodigious talents were extolled in the book he would write on the composer. Two years later Benedict accompanied Weber to Vienna for the first performance of Euryanthe and was present at Weber’s famous meeting with Beethoven on 5th October 1823. Weber entrusted subsequent performances of Euryanthe to Benedict’s care, and in the summer of 1824 introduced the young man – not yet 21 – to the impresario Barbaia who secured him the post of conductor at the Kärntnertor Theatre. After this whirlwind of networking at the very highest musical level, Barbaia took Benedict to Naples in 1825 where he became conductor of the San Carlo and Fondo theatres. He spent nine productive and successful years there, working as conductor, pianist and teacher; he also composed three operas for the Neapolitan houses, which elicited only moderate approbation from audiences. In 1834 he went to Paris, and then, encouraged by the famous diva Maria Malibran, in 1835 he migrated to London, which would be his home for the rest of his long career.
Benedict quickly found work in London, conducting Italian operas at the Lyceum and making his debut as a composer with a revised version of Un anno ed un giorno, previously given in Naples. Engaged by Alfred Bunn in 1838 as conductor at Drury Lane, he wrote three English operas for this company as well as directing the premieres of Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl and Wallace’s Maritana. In 1848 Benedict conducted a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah in which Jenny Lind made her first appearance as an oratorio singer; he would subsequently be Lind’s accompanist for part of an extensive American tour. On returning to London in 1851 he resumed conducting activities at Her Majesty’s Theatre, and he founded a vocal ensemble which he directed for ten years. His remaining two operas were written for the Pyne-Harrison Opera Company: one of them was to be his most popular work, The Lily of Killarney (1862). In addition to his operatic endeavours Benedict found time to edit an edition of Beethoven’s piano music (1858) and to produce an Italian version of Weber’s Oberon with newly composed recitatives. He wrote books – as mentioned earlier – on Mendelssohn (1850) and Weber (1881), and between 1845 and 1878 was the conductor of the provincial music festival at Norwich. Several of his choral works were written for this festival, including the highly rated Legend of St Cecilia (1866), and two movements of the present Symphony Op.101 were premiered there in 1872. Among his other pieces were two piano concertos, over 100 songs, and a multitude of occasional compositions for piano solo. He was knighted for services to music in 1871. The Musical Times summed up his ubiquity and significance thus: “ In reviewing the fifty years of Sir Julius Benedict’s career in this country, during which music has grown from an aristocratic luxury to a popular necessity, it must be recollected that he has ever been one of the most active agents in its progress; for as executant, composer, teacher, lecturer, and writer he has made a name which will be permanently enrolled in the annals of art. (The Musical Times, 25, 1884, 14)
In March 1885 Benedict took ill with bronchitis. After recovering sufficiently to resume teaching he died suddenly in his London home on 5th June that year.
In his music Benedict showed an Italianate love of melody in his operas and a more Germanic contrapuntal bent in his choral music. His assimilation of English musical characteristics came to the fore in his later works. The two movements of his Symphony in G Minor Op.101 heard at the 1872 Norwich Festival were the first movement and the Scherzo. This latter proved so popular that it was enthusiastically encored. The first complete performance of the symphony took place at the Crystal Palace in London on 22nd November 1873. Critics and audience were warm in their praise, and the composer was called for at the end to be loudly applauded. The first movement commences with a melancholy introduction featuring a ‘falling leaf’ pattern that will appear in a minor role in the main sonata form Allegro Appassionato; there are three main ideas here: an uneasy questing melody (page 10), a march-like peroration (page 16) and a tender contrasting theme (page 20). However there is a wealth of subsidiary ideas that tend to muddy the directionality of the development section, even though this is carried through with considerable contrapuntal aplomb. The gentle intermezzo that follows (Andante con moto) is a rondo structure with a clear returning theme and a secondary motif heard on bassoon and ‘cello on page 77. Of particular note is the beatific coda that gives time for both ideas to linger in the memory. The Scherzo has a quicksilver quality that makes one recall Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, and also that looks forward to Sullivan’s Iolanthe overture. It is in E flat with a trio section in the surprising key of B major. The finale jumps straight in with a rushing semiquaver gesture that asks to be developed in contrapuntal combination. A second subject (page 141) might have come from an operetta. Sure enough the development section does explore a lively fugato texture, but before the ebullient recapitulation we hear reminiscences from the three previous movements (pages 159 – 161). A faster coda (page 174) rushes to the end in a burst of high spirits.
Alasdair Jamieson, October 2020
For performance material please contact the publisher Robert Lienau, Erzhausen.