1805 — 1847
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Fanny Mendelssohn was not only a brilliant composer and pianist, but also the older sister of the celebrated composer Felix Mendelssohn. While her music is steadily being introduced to the public, much of it remains unpublished, as part of private collections. Despite having talent that challenged, and perhaps exceeded, that of her brother, Fanny’s compositions did not receive the wide circulation granted to her brother, simply because she was a woman.
Fanny and Felix, along with two more siblings, were born into a cultured German family that had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism, though Fanny retained her Jewish values. Both Fanny and Felix’s musical talent was evident from a young age; reportedly their mother, Lea, noticed that Fanny has “Bach fingers” at the time of her birth. They first received lessons from their mother and then from prominent teachers such as Ludwig Berger and Marie Bigot (in Paris in 1816). Their father then hired the conservative C.F. Zelter, a champion of Bach, to teach his children theory and composition.
Fanny and Felix were the best of friends until about 1819, helping each other with their compositions, fully trusting the opinion of the other. At the age of 14, it became quite obvious that Fanny would not be permitted to pursue the same career as her brother. It was at this time that her father reminded her, after having performed all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues by heart for his birthday, that she played very well, but would not be able to make a public career of music and should instead focus on her future womanly duties. Her first composition, a lied, was composed for his birthday that year.
In 1820, after enrolling at the newly opened Berlin Sing-Akademie, Fanny Mendelssohn wrote many more lieder and piano pieces, including her remarkable Easter Sonata(c1821). The Easter Sonata is important as it was composed less than a year after Beethoven’s death, at a time when other composers didn’t dare write piano solo pieces, as they didn’t know what they could contribute to the genre that Beethoven hadn’t already done. The work remained unknown until 1970 when record collector and producer Henri-Jacques Coudert discovered the manuscript in a bookshop in Paris. He purchased the manuscript and arranged for pianist Eric Heidieck to record the sonata that they believed was from Felix Mendelssohn, as it was simply autographed F. Mendelssohn.
It wasn’t until 2010 that the piece was rightly attributed to Fanny, after the American musicologist, Angela Mace Christian, recognized Fanny’s unique voice. After a period of research and heated discussions with Coudert, who claimed, “It can’t be by Fanny…It’s a masterpiece…very masculine. Very violent”. Further proof has established that it is, indeed, from Fanny. The piece has disappeared again, absorbed into another private collection.
Up until her marriage in 1829, Fanny’s reputation remained within the Mendelssohn’s circle of friends as a great pianist and composer of lieder and piano pieces. Unlike her brother, who was able to travel extensively for his education, conducting, performing and socializing across Europe, Fanny was to stay home. Making the best of her situation, Fanny continued to compose salon pieces to be performed at the private house concerts in the family home. One work that stands out from this period is her Piano Quartet (1822). During these concerts, called the Sonntagsmusiken, which featured musicians from the Hofkapelle, Fanny and Felix had the opportunity to perform works by older and contemporary composers, in addition to premiering their own works.
Desperate to have her music heard outside of her home, Fanny had five of her lieder published under her brother’s name, along with a duet with piano accompaniment; these works appeared in Felix’sLiederheften op. 8 and 9 between 1827 and 1830. Fanny then proceeded in copying these works and presenting them to friends and acquaintances. Felix was quite upset when he asked Queen Victoria which of his songs she liked best, and it turned out to be one of his sister’s! Despite his sister’s talent, or perhaps because of it, Felix forbade her to publish her works. It is quite likely he was jealous as he was very encouraging to other female composers, including Clara Schumann, whose Piano Concerto he conducted.
Upon Felix’s departure to England in 1829, the Sonntagsmusiken stopped. In this same year, Fanny married a painter she had not seen for seven years. This painter, Wilhelm Hensel, supposedly fell in love with Fanny but was sent away to first prove himself worthy of her. He was teased by the Mendelssohn family for his complete lack of musical ability and subpar intelligence. However, after returning to marry Fanny, he proved himself to be a very worthwhile husband. He encouraged, even insisted, his wife compose every day. Apparently he would leave early every morning to go paint, leaving behind a blank piece of manuscript paper on her music stand, hoping to see it full of music when he returned.
For her wedding to Wilhelm, Fanny even composed the music herself. She did this the night before the ceremony because Felix, who had agreed to compose a piece for her, had failed to follow through.
In 1831, Fanny decided to reinstate the Sonntagsmusiken, which attracted all sorts of talented musicians from Berlin and elsewhere. She conducted and accompanied her own choir of approximately 20 singers and was joined by friends who played instruments. They performed chamber music, opera arias and oratorios by composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Weber and Mendelssohn. She also introduced many of her own works at these well-attended concerts, including her piano solos, lieder, duets, choral songs, Piano Trio (1846) and the sceneHero and Leander(1832) for soprano and piano or orchestra. Most impressively, her Orchestral Overture in C (1830) was performed by the Orchestra of the Königstädter Theater. Famous people such as the Humboldt brothers, Franz Liszt, Clara Wieck-Schumann, Johanna Kinkel and Heinrich Heine attended her concerts.
In 1831, Mendelssohn composed a number of larger works including the cantatas Hiob and Lobgesang in addition to the Musik Für Die Toten Der Cholera-Epidemie ( Oratorium Nach Bildern Der Bibel).
Fanny travelled with her husband to Italy in 1839/40, spending a whole year travelling around the country. This was one of the happiest times in Fanny’s life. Not only was her music appreciated, but she also met a number of musicians who thought highly of her, such as a young Charles Gounod, who described her as “an extremely learned musician…[who] played the piano very well. Despite her small, slight figure she was a woman of excellent intellect and full of energy that could be read in her deep fiery eyes. Along with all this she was an extremely talented pianist”.
Upon her return to Berlin, Fanny composed the piano cycle Das Jahr (1841), a biographical work which depicted each month of the year musically.
In 1846, against the wishes of Felix, and with the support of the family friend Robert von Keudall, Fanny decided to have her works printed, beginning with lieder, a cappella choral songs and some piano pieces, which were published with the opus numbers 1 to 7. She did not have the chance to continue publishing her works as she died suddenly on 14 May 1847, having suffered a stroke during the rehearsal of her Sonntagsmusiken. Fanny’s death launched Felix into a great depression. He died later that year, suddenly on 4 November 1847.
At the request of Fanny’s husband, Felix arranged for more of her works to be published. These works appeared in 1850, before a number of her works were printed more than 100 years later in 1987 by Furore Verlag. To this day, many of her 400+ works have still not been published or recorded.