The distinguihsed English composer, William Sterndale Bennett, was the son of Robert Bennett, an organist. Having lost his father at an early age, he was brought up at Cambridge by his grandfather, from whom he received his first musical education. He entered the choir of King's College chapel in 1824. In 1826 he entered the Royal Academy of Music, and remained a pupil of that institution for the next ten years, studying pianoforte under W. H. Holmes and Cipriani Potter, and composition under Lucas and Dr Crotch.
It was during this time that William Sterndale Bennett wrote several of his most appreciated works, in which may be traced influences of the contemporary movement of music in Germany, which country he frequently visited during the years 1836-1842. At one of the Rhenish musical festivals in Düsseldorf he made the personal acquaintance of Felix Mendelssohn, and soon afterwards renewed it at Leipzig, where the talented young Englishman was welcomed by the leading musicians of the rising generation. At one of the celebrated Gewandhaus concerts he played his third pianoforte concerto, which was received enthusiastically. A laudatory account of the event was written by Robert Schumann, who pronounced Bennett to be the most musikalisch of all Englishmen, and an angel of a musician (copying Gregory's pun on Angli and Angeli).
But it was F. Mendelssohn's influence that dominated William Sterndale Bennett's mode of utterance. A good example of this may be studied in Bennett's Capriccio in D minor. His great success on the continent established his position on his return to England. In 1834 he was elected organist of St Anne's chapel (now church), Wandsworth. In this year he composed his Overture to Parisina, and his Concerto in C minor, modelled on Mozart. An unpublished concerto in F minor, and the overture to the Naiads, impressed the firm of Broadwood and Sons so favorably in 1836 that they offered the composer a year in Leipzig, where the Naiads overture was performed at a Gewandhaus concert on the February 13, 1837. Bennett visited Leipzig a second time in 1840-1841, when he composed his Caprice in E for pianoforte and orchestra and his overture The Wood Nymphs.
William Sterndale Bennett settled in London, devoting himself chiefly to practical teaching. In 1844 he married Mary Anne, daughter of Captain James Wood, R.N. He was made musical professor at Cambridge in 1856, the year in which he was engaged as permanent conductor of the Philharmonic Society. This latter post he held until 1866, when he became principal of the Royal Academy of Music. Owing to his professional duties, his latter years were not creatively fertile, and what he then wrote was scarcely equal to the productions of his youth.
The principal charm of William Sterndale Bennett's compositions (not to mention his absolute mastery of the musical form) consists in the tenderness of their conception, rising occasionally to sweetest lyrical intensity. Except the opera, he tried his hand at almost all the different forms of vocal and instrumental writing. His best works include piano music (his three sketches, The Lake, The Millstream and The Fountain, and his third piano concerto); orchestral music (his Symphony in G minor, and his overture The Naiads); and vocal music (his cantata The May Queen, written for the Leeds Festival in 1858). For the jubilee of the Philharmonic Society he wrote the overture Paradise and the Peri in 1862. He also wrote a sacred cantata, The Woman of Samaria, first performed at the Birmingham Musical Festival in 1867.
In 1870 the University of Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L. A year later he was knighted, and in 1872 he received a public testimonial before a large audience at St. James Hall, the money subscribed being devoted to the foundation of a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music. Shortly before his death he produced a sonata called The Maid of Orleans, an elaborate piece of programme-music based on Schiller's tragedy. He died at his house in St. John's Wood, London.