Small picture of Donizetti

 

 

Sir Julius Benedict

DO WE REALLY CARE ABOUT OUR MUSICAL HERITAGE ?

by Brian Brooks

This article appeared in Newsletter 29, May 1982.

Of the three principal operatic composers in mid-Victorian England - Balfe, Wallace and Benedict - Benedict, my great-great grandfather, was perhaps the most prominent in the eyes of those who were at the centre of the social and artistic life of London during most of Queen Victoria’s reign.

Born in 1804 into a prosperous Jewish family of Stuttgart merchant bankers and related, through his mother to Heinrich Heine, Benedict was brought up in a cultivated household where artistic talent was encouraged and appreciated. His father enrolled him as a student with Hummel and later, in 1821, he became a pupil of Weber who, on one occasion, took him to see Beethoven. In 1823 he was given, on Weber’s recommendation, the post of conductor at the Kärtnerthor Theatre in Vienna and while there he was chosen, when still only 21 years of age, to be the conductor at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, one of the most important opera houses in Ita1y. It was there that his first opera Giacinta ed Ernestowas produced in 1829. His tenure of office at the San Carlo covered the years 1825-1834, a period during which a number of Donizetti’s operas, including Francesca di Foix, given at this year’s Camden Festival in London, were produced and it seems likely that Benedict would have conducted the first performances of most of them. While he was living in Naples Benedict married Adèle Jean, a niece of Donizetti’s publisher Cottrau and a first cousin of the father of Degas, the painter.

In 1834 Benedict left Naples for Paris and from there, the following year, at the suggestion of Malibran, he went to London, where he became conductor first at the Lyceum Theatre and later at Drury Lane. In 1838 he produced his first English opera The Gypsy’s Warning, to be followed by The Brides of Venice (1844) and The Crusaders ( 1846 ). In 1850 he was chosen as Jenny Lind’s accompanist for her very successful tour of America under the management of Barnum, the circus proprietor. After returning from America, Benedict continued his career as a conductor and appeared in that capacity for many years at the Norwich Festival where he produced his cantata Undine in 1860. He also conducted at performances by the Liverpool Philharmonic Society and at the Monday Concerts.

His most famous opera The Lily of Killarney, based on Dion Boucicault’s play The Colleen Bawn, was produced in 1862. After the first night Benedict wrote in his diary “First performance. The overture, Haigh and Santley’s duet. L. Pyne’s second song and Haigh’s "Lily Mavourneen” encored. Called before the curtain after each Act. Immense enthusiasm. Congratulations on all sides". There were letters from many friends and Thackeray sent his card.

The Lily of Killarney was Benedict’s last opera but he wrote an operetta The Bride of Song, given at Covent Garden in 1854. He also wrote two oratorios - St. Cecilia for the Norwich Festival in 1866 and St. Peter for the Birmingham Festival in 1870. He was knighted in 1866 and died at his home in Manchester Square, London, in 1885. He had led an immensely active and full life as a composer, conductor and teacher of music. Among his numerous friends and acquaintances were the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) who was godfather to his youngest son, and the Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandra), Dickens, Thackeray, Théophile Gautier, Chopin, Rossini, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Weber, Auber, Sullivan, Gounod, Wagner, Meyerbeer and, of course, the famous singers of the day such as Sims Reeves and Patti.

The Daily Telegraph in its obituary of him said "Upon the life of every man who raises himself out of the indistinguishable multitude some great characteristic is stamped. That of Sir Julius Benedict was a spirit of activity and a fertility of resource simply amazing to those who now contemplate the departed musician’s career. He possessed talent of the highest order – talent so close to genius that sometimes it is hard to trace the dividing line. Still, the line did exist. Sir Julius Benedict made no pretensions to rank with the deathless masters of music who had a mission to earth from the very source of the divine art. In partial compensation he owned qualities which many a Heaven-sent genius has lacked. No talent confided to him was wrapped in a napkin and buried, but kept in circulation with prodigious activity. He spread himself over the whole area of his art, and the chapters of his life, from the opening labours at Vienna early in the "Twenties", to the close but a few days ago, are so crowded with varied and comprehensive work as to be a wonder as well as a lesson to a self-indulgent age". This assessment of Benedict’s abilities makes interesting reading today when his work, with that of Balfe and Wallace, is accorded all too little recognition.

Further information about Benedict can be found at http://victorianenglishopera.org/composers/benedict.htm  

 

THE OPERAS OF SIR JULIUS BENEDICT

Giacinta ed Ernesto

Naples - Fondo

31/3/1827

Un Anno ed un giorno

Naples - Fondo

19/10/1836

The Gypsy's Warning

London - Drury Lane

19/4/1838

The Brides of Venice

London - Drury Lane

22/4/1844

The Crusaders

London - Drury Lane

26/2/1846

The Lily of Killarney

London - Covent Garden

8/2/1862

The Bride of Song

London - Covent Garden

3/12/1864