Felix Mendelssohn composed some of the baroque period’s most enduring, famous music. But it was Felix’s older sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who first showed talent composing. Host Chris Wolf was left wanting more after featuiring Fanny for International Women's Day, so he's picked five works to treat us to this week in celebration of National Siblings Day.
Fanny received her first piano instruction from her mother, who had been trained in the Berliner-Bach tradition by Johann Kirnberger, who was himself a student of Johann Sebastian Bach. Thusas a thirteen year old, Fanny could already play all 24 Preludes from Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier by heart, and she did so in honour of her father's birthday in 1818. She studied briefly with the pianist Marie Bigot in Paris, and finally with Ludwig Berger. In 1820 Fanny, along with her brother Felix, joined the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin which was led by Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter at one point favored Fanny over Felix: he wrote to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1816, in a letter introducing Abraham Mendelssohn to the poet, 'He has adorable children and his oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special'. Much later, in an 1831 letter to Goethe, Zelter described Fanny's skill as a pianist with the highest praise for a woman at the time: "She plays like a man." Both Fanny and Felix received instruction in composition with Zelter starting in 1819.
Fanny showed prodigious musical ability as a child and began to write music. Visitors to the Mendelssohn household in the early 1820s, including Ignaz Moscheles and Sir George Smart, were equally impressed by both siblings. She may also have been influenced by the role-models of her great-aunts Fanny von Arnstein and Sarah Levy, both lovers of music, the former the patroness of a well-known salon and the latter a skilled keyboard player in her own right.
However, Fanny was limited by prevailing attitudes of the time toward women, attitudes apparently shared by her father, who was tolerant, rather than supportive, of her activities as a composer. Her father wrote to her in 1820 "Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament". Although Felix was privately broadly supportive of her as a composer and a performer, he was cautious (professedly for family reasons) of her publishing her works under her own name. He wrote:
From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.
The siblings shared a great passion for music. Felix did arrange with Fanny for some of her songs to be published under his name, three in his Op. 8 collection, and three more in his Op. 9. In 1842 this resulted in an embarrassing moment when Queen Victoria, receiving Felix at Buckingham Palace, expressed her intention of singing the composer her favourite of his songs, "Italien", which Mendelssohn confessed was by Fanny.
In turn Fanny helped Felix by constructive criticism of pieces and projects, which he always considered very carefully. Their correspondence of 1840/41 reveals that they were both outlining scenarios for an opera on the subject of the Nibelungenlied: Fanny wrote 'The hunt with Siegfried's death provides a splendid finale to the second act'.
Fanny Mendelssohn composed over 460 pieces of music. Her compositions include a piano trio and several books of solo piano pieces and songs. A number of her songs were originally published under Felix's name in his opus 8 and 9 collections. Her piano works are often in the manner of songs, and many carry the name Lied ohne Worte (Song without Words). This style (and title) of piano music was most successfully developed by Felix Mendelssohn, though some modern scholars assert that Fanny may have preceded him in the genre.
She also wrote, amongst other works for the piano, a cycle of pieces depicting the months of the year, Das Jahr ("The Year").The music was written on coloured sheets of paper, and illustrated by her husband Wilhelm . Each piece was also accompanied by a short poem.
Here is Lauma Skride performing 'March: The Year' from 'Das Jahr'.
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