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Women in the Arts – Fanny Mendelssohn: A Prodigious Talent

Meet the F. Mendelssohn


While not as well-known as her younger brother, Felix Mendelssohn (Feb. 3, 1809 - Nov. 4, 1847), 19th century German Romantic composer Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn Bartholdy exhibited a prodigious talent equal to or even surpassing his. Born into a family academic and artistically inclined family on Nov. 14, 1805 in Hamburg, Germany, Fanny possessed an innate musical sense that left an indelible mark on the world of Western music, although her contemporaries, including her own father, tried to, if not erase it, but overwrite it with her younger's brother's pen. Although she has been relegated to the background of Felix's biography, Fanny's artistic brilliance and mastery of compositional skill are finally receiving the recognition that they deserve in the 21st century.


Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched in 1829 by Wilhelm Hensel; Yale Library
Fanny Mendelssohn, sketched in 1829 by Wilhelm Hensel; Yale Library

Like her brother Felix, Fanny's musical gifts were evident early in life. Their mother, Lea, who herself had been a studen to a student of J. S. Bach, nurtured their talents and instructed Fanny in piano. By the age of 13, Fanny could play all 24 Preludes from Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier. In 1820, she and Felix joined the Sing-Akademie in Berlin (a music society), directed by the composer and music educator Carl Friedrich Zelter (Dec. 11, 1758 – May 15, 1832). Zelter was so amazed with the Fanny's musical ability that he wrote a letter about her to his friend the author, playwright, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Aug. 28, 1749 – March 22, 1832) declaring: “This child really is something special.” While Fanny's father, Abraham, did support the musical education of both his eldest daughter and son, he merely tolerated Fanny's musical ambition, while encouraging Felix to pursue music as a lifelong career. In 1820, he wrote to her: "Music will perhaps become his [Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”


It must be a sign of talent that I do not give up, though I can get nobody to take an interest in my efforts.

– Fanny Mendelssohn


The prevailing gender biases of the 19th century prevented Fanny from receiving the recognition she rightfully deserved as it was considered inappropriate for women to be the creators of high art. One well-regarded 19th century music critic George P. Upton argued ithat "...women lacked the innate creativity to compose good music" due to "biological predisposition." Because of this chauvinist bias, the musical aspirations of women were generally limited to small performances in homes or as music tutors for young children. Despite this, Fanny composed throughout her life. To get her music heard and performed, they published some of her music under Felix's name. This had led to some of them to misattributed to Felix. Fanny's compositions exude her unique brilliance through her distinctive musical voice. Her music, characterized by lyrical melodies, intricate harmonies, and emotional complexity, showcases her musical inclinations, well-honed skill, and originality. It is only in recent years that scholars and music enthusiasts have begun to uncover and acknowledge the true extent of Fanny Mendelssohn's immense musical contributions, shedding light on a hidden treasure of compositions that had long been overshadowed by her brother's career.



Felix, however, took no joy in receiving acclaim for Fanny's works. He wanted his sister to be recognized for her own genius. When at a reception in Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria told Felix Mendelssohn that she would sing her favorite song by the composer… and began to sing the song, Italien. Felix became embarrassed and confessed that it was actually Fanny's composition. You can listen to Italien performed by players from the Chicago Symphony in the video above.


April from the manuscript of Fanny Hensel's Das Jahr (illustration by Wilhelm Hensel), IMSLP
April from the manuscript of Fanny Hensel's Das Jahr (illustration by Wilhelm Hensel), IMSLP

Another one of her works, The Easter Sonata [Ostersonate], is a piano sonata in A major that was discovered in France in 1970. The manuscript was only attributed to "F. Mendelssohn" and musicologists at the time, believed that "F." must stand for "Felix."The piece was heralded as lost masterpiece of Felix Mendelssohn and recorded for the first time in 1972 by French pianist Éric Heidsieck (b. Aug. 21, 1936). However, in 2010, scholarship by Duke University doctoral candidate and Mendelssohn Hensel expert Angela Mace, proved that the work was in Fanny's hand. Mace described the find one of the most exciting moments of her career so far. The piece was debuted again in 2012 by Australian pianist Andrea Lam and this time properly attributed to Fanny. Listen to Lam and Lace discuss the Easter Sonata in the video below.



Fanny Hensel née Mendelssohn-Bartholdy : drawing by Wilhelm Hensel; 1829, Leo Baeck Institute, F 2802R.
Fanny Hensel née Mendelssohn-Bartholdy : drawing by Wilhelm Hensel; 1829, Leo Baeck Institute, F 2802R

In 1829, Fanny married German painter, Wilhelm Hensel (July 6, 1794 – Nov. 26, 1861) was a German painter, adding his last name to her name. (Hensel drew the sketch of Fanny accompanying this paragraph.) Fanny and Wilhelm had one child, Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel, the following year. Wilhelm was supportive of his wife’s music-making and her music was often performed at a Sunday concert series, Sonntagsmusiken [Sunday Music], in the family home. For Fanny, the small scale of the salon provided the opportunity to create art without having to negotiate with the tastes of the public whim. Fanny's musical output encompasses a diverse range of musical works, including piano compositions, chamber music, songs, and choral pieces. Her ouvre includes a piano trio, a piano quartet, four cantatas, 125 piano pieces, and over 250 German language art songs or lieder. Most of her works were unpublished in her lifetime.


The Music Room of Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) Julius Eduard Wilhelm Helfft1849; Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
The Music Room of Fanny Hensel (nee Mendelssohn) Julius Eduard Wilhelm Helfft1849; Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum

On May 14, 1847, a few hours after rehearsing Felix's cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht for a Sonntagsmusiken performance, Fanny collapsed and died of a stroke at the age of only 41.


Beginning in the late 20th century Fanny's works have been catalogued in a similar manner to those of other highly regarded composers by musicologist Renate Hellwig-Unruh with each work referred to by H-U number.

 

For Further Information


Classic FM. Best Female Composer Quotes.

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-music/best-female-composer-quotes/


Duke Today. Graduate Student Solves Mystery.

https://today.duke.edu/2012/09/eastersonata


Griffinger Collection. Wilhelm Hensel Drawing.

https://www.lbi.org/griffinger/record/210348


Library of Congress. Fanny Mendelssohn Biography.

https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200156440/


The Mendelssohn Society. Fanny Mendelssohn Biography.

https://www.mendelssohn-gesellschaft.de/en/mendelssohns/biografien/fanny-hensel


Parlor Songs. In Search of Women In American Song: A neglected musical heritage.

http://parlorsongs.com/issues/2002-9/thismonth/feature.php


 

Janae J. Almen is a professional music instructor, composer, sound artist, and writer. She has a BA in Music/Education from Judson University and a MM in Computer Music/Composition from the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of Perennial Music and Arts and is passionate about sharing her love of music and arts.



Contact Janae: janae@perennialmusicandarts.com


 







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