The other Mendelssohn. Felix’s sister.
That’s how Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was known for a century and a half.
Only very recently have scholars begun to take her own compositions seriously, and as it turns out, she was something of a prodigy herself.
In this series, we’re discovering the stories of the best composers in Western music history and why their work matters to us today.
This is Fanny’s story.
Fanny Cacilie Mendelssohn Hensel
A brilliant pianist and composer of over four hundred keyboard works and lieder (parlor songs), a piano trio, a piano quartet, and several cantatas. She was known for her ability to write for stringed instruments and compose counterpoint (the combination of several independent melodies). One of her works, the Cholera Cantata, was written after her family survived an epidemic of the disease.
November 14, 1805 – May 14, 1847.
Fanny lived during the expressive Romantic period. She was a contemporary of Robert and Clara Wieck Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Johannes Brahms.
Fanny was born in Hamburg, Germany and later moved to Berlin, where she spent most of her life. She and her brother Felix (another famous composer) spent several months studying in Paris as children, and she spent a year traveling through Italy with her husband Wilhelm Hensel.
Why It Matters
Fanny and Felix had an enormous influence on each other. They often gave advice on the other’s compositions. We know that Fanny advised her brother on the composition of his famous St. Paul oratorio. We’ll probably never know just to what extent she influenced Felix and his works, but he wouldn’t have been the same man or the same composer without her.
It was, in fact, Felix Mendelssohn who reintroduced the work of J.S. Bach to the public after he had been
forgotten for over a hundred years. It’s entirely possible that this idea was partially inspired by Fanny, who loved and admired Bach’s music.
Fanny was remarkable for her time. She was one of the first pianists to perform from memory, and she wrote large works like piano trios and sonatas that many people in her day thought were beyond the skills of a female composer. She pushed the limits of what a Victorian women were believed to be capable of doing.
Other Interesting Facts About Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
The Mendelssohn family was of Jewish origin but converted to Christianity when Fanny was a small child. She received an excellent education and had the same music instructors as her brother. She was something of a child prodigy; one of her teachers said that she was a female Johann Sebastian Bach.
However, her family did not want her to concentrate on music or composition as a career. Her father Abraham once wrote to her that, “for you it [music] can and must be only an ornament, never the basis of your being or doing.” She once said “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 was a magnificent pianist, but she performed in public only twice in her lifetime. The first time was at age twelve when she performed all twenty-four of the preludes from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, which she had memorized. This was an astonishing feat in her day, since music was rarely performed from memory. Her second and final performance was at a concert for charity in 1838.
As an adult, Fanny hosted Sunday afternoon musical gatherings, or Sonntagsmusiken, in her home every week.
Her family did not approve of her compositions being published, although Felix did publish some of her works in his own name. That led to an uncomfortable situation for Felix when he visited Queen Victoria of England, who offered to sing his song Italien for him. He was forced to explain that it was actually Fanny’s piece, not his. Awkward…
Fanny’s 1829 wedding to painter Wilhelm Hensel hit a bit of a snag. Her brother Felix was supposed to play for the ceremony, but he was injured from a fall and couldn’t come. Also, the family copy of Bach’s Pastorella, one of her chosen pieces, went missing. That didn’t stop Fanny, though. She just sat down and wrote her own wedding music. At the last minute. Like a boss.
Fanny’s only child, Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel, was named after her three favorite composers: Bach, Beethoven, and her brother Felix Mendelssohn.
Her year-long trip to Italy with her husband Wilhelm inspired the composition of her song cycle Das Jahr, or The Year. The work contains a piece written for every month of the year, and it is considered one of her finest works.
At her husband’s encouragement, Fanny did publish several of her works in the final year of her life. She was one of the first female composers to do so. Many more of her works were discovered and published in the years after her passing.
She had a lifelong bond with Felix, and he was brokenhearted by her early death from a stroke. He died six months after her, also from a stroke.
The Ostersonate, or Easter Sonata, signed by “F. Mendelssohn” was attributed to Felix for decades after it was discovered in a Parisian bookstore in 1970. Only in 2010 did Duke University student Angela Mace Christian, after a long investigation, discover proof that it was actually composed by Fanny. The final movement of the sonata features a long-running tremolo in the let hand, reflecting the earthquake that occurred at Christ’s crucifixion. It concludes with a slow, simple arrangement of an German Easter chorale. It was performed in Fanny’s name for the first time in 2012.
This is a performance of the September movement of Das Jahr, recorded by pianist Sarah Rothenberg:
And that is the story of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below!