(b Stuttgart, 27 Nov or 24 Dec 1804; d London, 5 June 1885). British composer and conductor of German birth. His date of birth is usually given as 27 November 1804, but Squire (DNB) stated that it was generally believed to have been 24 December. Benedict’s father, a local banker, placed him under Ludwig Abeille for musical instruction; at the age of 15 he went to Weimar as a pupil of Hummel, who introduced him to Beethoven. His father, anxious for him to study with Weber, took him to Dresden in February 1821, and Hummel persuaded Weber to take Benedict as his first pupil. Weber soon treated him as a member of his family, and gave him 12 lessons a month. Benedict accompanied Weber to Vienna in September 1823 for the first performance of Euryanthe (25 October), and was present at Weber’s famous meeting with Beethoven at Baden on 5 October. When Weber left Vienna on 5 November Benedict stayed behind to keep an eye on the subsequent performances.
In the summer of 1824 Weber passed him on to Barbaia, who had already secured him the post of conductor at the Kärntnertortheater. In 1825 Barbaia took him to Naples, where he became conductor at the S Carlo and Fondo theatres; he remained there for nine years as a successful conductor, pianist and teacher. He wrote three operas for Naples: despite his training they seem to have been principally in the style of Rossini. In 1834 he went to Paris, and in 1835 to London, which became his home for the rest of his long career.
In 1836 Benedict was appointed conductor of the Opera Buffa at the Lyceum Theatre, where on 31 January 1837 he brought out his one-act opera Un anno ed un giorno, performed at Naples earlier in the season. He was engaged as musical director at Drury Lane (1838–48) during the period of Alfred Bunn’s management, which was also the most promising time for English Romantic opera. In addition to The Bohemian Girl, Maritana and other highly successful operas by Balfe and Wallace, Benedict brought out three English operas of his own, with more modest success. In 1848 he conducted Mendelssohn’s Elijah at Exeter Hall, when Jenny Lind made her first appearance in oratorio. He accompanied Lind on an American tour in 1850, directing most of her concerts. On returning to London in 1852 he became conductor at Her Majesty’s. His two remaining operas were produced by the Pyne-Harrison company at Covent Garden; one of them was The Lily of Killarney (based on Boucicault’s The Colleen Bawn), by far his most popular work.
Meanwhile Benedict had become established in that thoroughly English institution, the provincial festival. He conducted every Norwich Festival from 1845 to 1878, the meeting due in 1851 being postponed until the following year to allow his return from the USA. He began to compose secular cantatas for the Norwich Festival in 1860, and wrote an English oratorio in 1870. He had also in 1855 founded a Vocal Association modelled on the German Gesangverein, and conducted its concerts at the Crystal Palace for ten years. He accompanied for many years at the Monday Popular Concerts, and conducted the Liverpool Philharmonic Society from 1876 to 1880. J.F. Barnett described Benedict in these later years:
He was one of the busiest musicians of the time … It was said by some he composed during the night and taught during the day; notwithstanding he continued to be present at nearly every important concert or fashionable reception given by patrons of musical art … Benedict was a man of engaging manners, and, of course, quite a society man; yet … he was at all times most accessible.
In 1871 Benedict, who had previously been naturalized, was knighted, together with Elvey and Sterndale Bennett. German and Austrian honours followed on his 70th birthday. In spite of his industry and reputation, he was in need of financial assistance at the end of his life: in 1884 a ‘Sir Julius Benedict Testimonial Fund’ was set up with royal patronage to raise money for him, with a Jubilee Concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He continued to teach almost until his death, which occurred suddenly from heart failure. He was twice married.
The geographical progress of Benedict’s career closely paralleled that of Handel; and, as with Handel, it was the Italian influence, rather than the German or English, that formed the basis of his operatic and vocal style, despite his close association with Weber. In his earlier English operas he transferred the Rossinian idiom directly to the English situation. Perhaps for this reason he could not at first match the success of technically inferior composers such as Balfe and Wallace. He gradually learnt how to write an English ballad, and in The Lily of Killarney he at last produced a work which could equal the popularity of The Bohemian Girl and Maritana. It can be called the first Irish national opera, though without political overtones: it deliberately evokes nostalgia for old Ireland, using musical conventions established by Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. Several themes are pentatonic, including a sinister ‘murder’ motif (anticipated in the overture). As well as several well-written ballads there are extended scenes of dramatic tension, such as the Trio and the Act 2 finale. The scene for Danny Mann, wrestling with conflicting emotions of tenderness for Eily (the Lily of the title) and fanatical devotion to his friend’s cause, is especially powerful.
In later life his music became superficially more English: he wrote choral cantatas, an oratorio, even an anthem; but to the end he was apt to plunge into a cabaletta whenever he had the chance. On the other hand, his thorough contrapuntal training, of little use in his operas, showed up well in the choral works. The Legend of St Cecilia, thought by some critics to be his finest work, has some strong choral polyphony as well as some trivial solo songs.
Benedict was one of the most accomplished pianists of his day, and devoted more of his time to composing, editing and teaching piano music than to any other branch of the art. His piano style could be called pre-Lisztian, maintaining to the end the light-textured virtuosity of Field, Hummel and Weber. His concertos are worthy examples of this idiom, with by no means perfunctory orchestral parts. Most of his published piano pieces, however, are hack-work, including fantasias on operas by Balfe, Barnett, Bellini, Donizetti, Flotow, Gounod, Halévy, Meyerbeer, Verdi and Wallace; fantasias on Irish, Scottish and Welsh melodies; ‘Souvenirs’ and ‘Remembrances’ of this and that – including even Recollections of the Monday Popular Concert (1867); variations, dances, marches, and pieces with programmatic titles. His most pleasing style is a simple lyrical one, as in Evening Thoughts op.49 (1853). He published an important edition of Beethoven’s piano works; edited sonatas and other major works by J.L. Dussek, Mendelssohn, Weber and others; and prepared valuable collections of teaching pieces that throw light on his methods as a teacher. Like Balfe, he tried his hand at chamber music in later years, with modestly successful results. In purely orchestral music, he seems ill at ease in the absence of his two habitual companions, the piano and the voice. His biography of Weber, published in 1881, has proved to be one of the most important sources for that composer’s life.