The Harmonious Hostess of Romantic Music– Do You Know Her?
Fanny Mendelssohn (also known as Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Fanny Hensel) was born in Hamburg in 1805. Although she was baptized as a Christian later in life, Fanny was a member of a prominent German Jewish family.
Music had a central role in Fanny’s life from the beginning. Her Great Aunts Fanny von Arnstein and Sarah Levy were themselves patrons of the arts and performers, and her first music lessons were with her mother, Lea Salomon Mendelssohn. Fanny’s younger brother, Felix, would also go on to become a celebrated composer. Lea taught Fanny piano and encouraged her daughter to study the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. At the age of 14, Fanny could play all 24 preludes from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” by memory, which she did for her father’s birthday. It was largely due to the efforts of both Fanny and Felix that Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” was resurrected and Bach’s name returned to the canon.
Recognizing the potential in their children, the Mendelssohns sent both Fanny and Felix to Carl Friedrich Zelter for instruction in the art of composition. In 1816, Zelter wrote to a colleague that Fanny “could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.” He also expressed a somewhat back-handed compliment about Fanny’s piano skills: “She plays like a man.” Four years later, Zelter encouraged Fanny and Felix to join the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, a well-respected musical society.
All throughout their childhoods, Fanny and Felix were described as being comparably gifted artists– with some even saying that Fanny was the superior pianist. Despite this, the trajectory of their careers diverged drastically when Fanny turned 14 and her father instructed her that her musical talents should now be relegated to the “ornamentation” of her future as a wife and mother.
“She plays like a man.” –Carl Friedrich Zelter
Bending to expectations, she married artist Wilhelm Hensel in 1829. Still, the marriage was happy and the two had one son together, Felix Ludwig Sebastian Hensel. Fanny paid tribute to her three favorite composers in her son's name: Felix Mendelssohn, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Johann Sebastian Bach. When her mother died in 1842, Fanny began managing the Mendelssohn’s Berlin home, frequently organizing local concerts and occasionally appearing in them as a pianist and conductor.
Many music historians have noted that Fanny faced career restrictions as a result not only of her gender, but because of her family’s social status. Musicologist Angelica Mace Christian wrote that Fanny "struggled her entire life with the conflicting impulses of authorship versus the social expectations for her high-class status [...] her hesitation was variously a result of her dutiful attitude towards her father, her intense relationship with her brother, and her awareness of contemporary social thought on women in the public sphere." There are documents from both Felix and their father Abraham discouraging her from publishing her music. Fanny could not escape the burden of her family’s expectations, and although they kept her from publishing, she did not let them stop her from doing what she loved. One of her songs was published in a collection attributed to F. Mendelssohn which Felix brought to England and played for Queen Victoria. When Fanny’s piece came up the Queen pronounced it her favorite, and Felix, much to his dismay, had to admit it was written by his sister.
Even after she married, Fanny remained a prolific composer, creating over 450 pieces of music throughout her life. These pieces largely center on the piano– Fanny’s instrument of choice– but also include an orchestral overture, four cantatas (medium-length narrative pieces), and 250 lieder (solo songs often centered on pastoral themes or romance). With her husband Wilhelm’s encouragement, Fanny did finally publish a collection of her songs under her married name in 1846 to great acclaim. During this period, she also developed a friendship with fellow composer and pianist Clara Schumann.
Felix considered Fanny indispensable, even nicknaming her “Minerva” after the Roman goddess of wisdom.
Fanny and Felix bonded over their dedication to their craft, providing critiques of the other’s works. Fanny wrote, “I have always been his only musical adviser, and he never writes down a thought before submitting it to my judgment." Felix considered Fanny indispensable, even nicknaming her “Minerva” after the Roman goddess of wisdom. Fanny would perform several of her brother’s pieces in the public concerts she gave at her home, which often included a full orchestra. It was in this setting that she conducted many of her own pieces, as well. It’s likely that all of her larger works, including “Das Jahr” and the cantatas, had a hearing in her salon.
Fanny died of a stroke in 1847 while rehearsing one of Felix’s pieces. Felix went on to write “String Quartet No. 6 in F minor” in her memory, but was so heartbroken by her loss that he passed away six months later of a similar stroke.
Fanny was writing music during the early Romantic period, an era of music known for its dramatic emotionality and its focus on literature, poetry, and nature. She wrote some small collections of choral music, including her Gartenlieder, and her four cantatas, which include an orchestra. Felix taught her how to orchestrate her pieces, as she was not able to study this practice formally. Her pieces experimented with harmonic density and she used word painting confidently, constructing harmonies that would have been considered abnormal at the time. Many musicologists have made the connection between her works and those of Beethoven during the later portion of his career.
Cappella Clausura had the privilege of bringing the New England premieres of “Hiob” and Lobgesang” in 2016, and of the so-called “Cholera Cantata” in 2019. It is worth mentioning that the “Cholera Cantata” ("Oratorium nach Bildung der Bibel") was written to honor the victims of the 1831 cholera epidemic in Berlin. On a similarly interesting note, all three were written the same year Fanny gave birth to her first and only child.
Our full concert of 2019 is available by permission. You can check out an excerpt, “Abendlich Schon Rauscht der Wald” from Gartenlieder here:
Want to learn more about Fanny? Check out Newnam College's biography page, the Library of Congress's article, and this discussion with her great-great-great granddaughter.
Let us know what you found most interesting about Fanny’s life in the comments, and check back next week for our article on Rebecca Clarke! Feel free to check out last week's article on Vittoria Aleotti as well.
“Do You Know Her” is Cappella Clausura’s newest educational initiative. With this series, we hope to expose our audiences to a range of female composers throughout history and celebrate their often overlooked achievements. By the end of August, we’ll have shown a spotlight on four remarkable women from history.