Fanny Mendelssohn: in the shadow of Felix

Fanny Mendelssohn, drawing by her later husband Wilhelm Hensel

Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was Felix Mendelssohn’s elder sister by four years. They both received sound musical training, but she surpassed him in virtuosity at the piano. Her relationship with Felix was intense, but also suffocating. Due to his opposition, Fanny Mendelssohn was unable to build an independent career as a composer. To this day her work is overshadowed by that of Felix, though she wrote almost five hundred compositions of very high quality. In its first edition the new February Festival features not only works by Felix, but also by Fanny Mendelssohn.

 Queen Victoria sings a song by Felix, oops Fanny

During one of his successful tours through England, Felix Mendelssohn had a private meeting with Queen Victoria. She loved his music dearly, and sang her favourite song, Italien, from his collection opus 8. When the queen had finished singing, Felix had to confess it was not he, but Fanny who had composed this song.

This anecdote illustrates the immense shadow Felix Mendelssohn cast over the life, and especially work, of his elder sister. Not only did he forbid her to publish her compositions, but he also appropriated some of them. Nevertheless, he highly esteemed her musical judgement: he submitted all his pieces to her for consideration.

Many only reached their final form because of her insightful comments. The oratorio St. Paul in particular bears the traces of Fanny’s influence. That Felix restricted his sister’s career so much may not only have been due to the misogynous ideas of his time, but also to jealousy. She was at least as talented, if not more talented than he was. The cruel fate is that Fanny Mendelssohn died shortly after she finally freed herself from his influence. She got a stroke while conducting a piece by Felix.

Bach-fugue fingers

Initially her prospects were promising. Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on November 14,1805 in a wealthy Jewish banking family. Her grandfather was the respected philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Two great-aunts had played an important role in eighteenth-century salon circles and would come to serve as role models for the entrepreneurial Fanny.

The Mendelssohn family was assimilated and liberal, but for certainty’s sake Fanny and Felix were baptized, while the gentile ‘Bartholdy’ was added to their surname. Thus their parents hoped to create more opportunities for the siblings – the climate in Germany was rather anti-Semitic.

Immediately after her birth her mother was delighted to see that Fanny had ‘Bach-fugue fingers’. She gave her the first piano lessons herself, her daughter turning out to be a child prodigy.

Playing ‘like a man’

In 1809 the family moved to Berlin, where the young Fanny started studying the piano with Ludwig Berger. At the age of eleven, she also briefly took piano lessons from Marie Bigot in Paris. Three years later she composed her first piece, a song for her father’s birthday. After that she studied music theory and composition with Carl Zelter, under whose care she composed her first important work in 1824, the Sonata in c minor for piano.

Her astonishing virtuosity on this instrument overshadowed that of her brother and led to the dubious compliment that she ‘played like a man’. During a family trip to Switzerland she developed a romantic longing for nature and Italy, which she translated into a number of songs, including the beautiful Italien that Felix would unabashedly appropriate.

Composing as ‘ornament’ rather than profession

Because of her enormous talent, a musical career for Fanny Mendelssohn seemed to lie ahead. But where her father stimulated his son on his compositional path, he thwarted his daughter’s ambitions. ‘Music is likely to become a profession for Felix, while it is only an ornament for you; it may never form the core of your life’, he told Fanny.

Forced by these circumstances, she dedicated herself to the Sonntagsmusiken. These musical salons at the family’s home had been set up by her mother in 1823 to develop the talent of her children. There was a small orchestra and the entire cultural elite of Berlin visited these afternoons. Famous contemporaries such as Carl Zelter, Wolfgang Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Niccoló Paganini, Franz Liszt, Clara and Robert Schumann and the Humboldt brothers were regular guests.

Initially, the concerts were led by Felix, but when he started the first of his many concert tours in 1829, Fanny took over the lead. She seized her opportunity to develop herself as a composer and pianist within the protective walls of the Mendelssohn home. She soon formed a choir, with which she could also perform large-scale works. In addition to chamber music, she composed orchestral and choir works and various cantatas, which she conducted herself with great zest.

Marriage with Wilhelm Hensel

Also in 1829, Fanny Mendelssohn married the court painter Wilhelm Hensel, who was considerably more liberal than her father and brother. Atypical for the period, he did not demand his wife to stop composing, but emphatically supported her musical ambitions. Her mother and the poet Wolfgang von Goethe also encouraged her.

Fanny Mendelssohn would compose over 250 songs in her short life, many of which to texts by Goethe. But even after her marriage with Hensel, the publication ban imposed by her father and brother remained in force. As a result, she could only hear her works in the salon and not submit them to public scrutiny.

However, thanks to the enduring and abundant praise from the illustrious visitors, her name became known more widely. Yet her only performance for a paying audience was a charity concert in 1838. Where she did not perform a piece of her own, but her brother’s First Piano Concerto.

Symbiotic relationship

Despite these frustrating circumstances, Fanny Mendelssohn continued to compose, even after giving birth to her son Sebastian in 1830. Four years later, she wrote her lively string quartet in E flat, which is still being performed today – albeit rarely.

When her father died in 1835, Fanny made her first contact with publishers. Again, however, she found Felix on her way, who opposed this fervently. ‘I think Fanny has neither the sense nor the vocation to go through life as a composer. For this she is too much a woman – as it should be’, he wrote to their mother.

As a married woman, Fanny did not really need to heed her brother’s dictates, yet nevertheless she was deterred by his negative attitude. This may seem strange today, but Fanny’s relationship with Felix was so symbiotic that she couldn’t bring herself to go against him. She decided not to publish her work, and continue to showcase her talents in the family salon only.

Unforgettable Italy

In 1839 Fanny Mendelssohn made a stimulating trip to Italy with her husband Wilhelm Hensel and their 9-year-old son Sebastian. In Italy, she was taken seriously as a composer and received a lot of response from the artists’ environment. She also met Charles Gounod, with whom she would remain friends for the rest of her life.

Jubilantly she noted in her diary: ‘I can’t think back unmoved by the beautiful pine trees, mixed with cypresses, which I saw from the Villa Medici and Villa Ludovisi! Never up close, but so often! And with so much pleasure! Oh, you beautiful Italy! How rich I have become innerly through you! What an incomparable treasure I will bear in my heart at home soon! Will my memory be true? Will I remember everything as vividly as I experienced it?’

Piano cycle and Song without Words

After a year, the couple returned to Berlin, where Fanny cherished her memories. She eventually incorporated them in the large-scale piano cycle Das Jahr. In a dozen character pieces she sketches the characteristics of the twelve months of the year.

January, from ‘Das Jahr’

This had never been done before. Moreover, it was also a multimedia work avant-la-lettre. Fanny wrote her music on coloured pages, surrounded by verse lines, and illustrations of her husband Wilhelm.

In the same period she probably also developed the ‘Lied ohne Worte’ (Song without Words), a genre that is invariably attributed to her brother. Characteristic is a lyric part in the high registers, which, like in a song, is supported by a thorough accompaniment in the lower registers.

Thanks to her stimulating experiences in Italy, the support of her husband and her many contacts with poets, philosophers, musicians and artists, Fanny Mendelssohn gradually gained more confidence in her own abilities. Moreover, her reputation grew steadily, despite the limited circle in which her music was heard.

First publications

In 1846 she was approached by two publishers asking her to publish her work. Felix finally gave his reluctant blessing, after which she published six opus numbers in quick succession, mainly consisting of songs and piano works. That same year she composed and published her cheerful Gartenlieder (Garden Songs) for choir a cappella, intended to be sung in the open air. She was very content with them and wrote to Felix: ‘There is a very pleasant time associated with these songs, that’s why they are more dear to me than my other trifles.’ – The mere choice of words is telling.

Positive review on dying day

Finally, at forty-one, she had cast off the shadow of her brother. On May 14,1847, a very laudatory review of her Gartenlieder appeared in the prestigious Zeitschrift für neue Musik. A successful career as a composer lay in store, but fate decided differently. That very same day Fanny Mendelssohn succumbed to a stroke – during a rehearsal of one of Felix’s choral works.

Her brother received the news in London, too late to attend her funeral. When he visited his sister’s grave on return, he was so devastated he could no longer work. Shortly after he himself suffered some strokes, dying on 4 November 1847, not quite half a year after his sister.

Felix was buried next to Fanny. – Even in death brother and sister were inseparable.

The February Festival presents music by Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn and by Clara & Robert Schumann from 14 to 18 February.
On Friday 16 February I will discuss the (in)visibility of female composers in my lecture Between Diapers & Dishes. Public library The Hague, 4-5 pm. 
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