Thirty years ago, that name carried two associations: as the surname of Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher who brought a modernized Judaism into the Enlightenment, and as that of Felix Mendelssohn, the preternaturally gifted composer of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an immortal violin concerto, four symphonies, a collection of charming chamber music, and a number of oratorios we’ve largely lost our taste for. But there was another Mendelssohn, one who combined the intellectual broad-mindedness of Moses with the flowing musicianship and compositional genius of Felix, one who adored writing, performing, and conducting, but was compelled by tradition and the benevolent tyranny of familial pressure to restrict those gifts to a purely private sphere until the very tail end of a tragically brief life.
Her name was Fanny Cacilie Mendelssohn, later Fanny Hensel (1805-1847), and her story is a profound example of opportunities surrendered at the altar of expectations. She was the first child of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn, both profoundly intelligent individuals of significant wealth who were able to provide every possible educational opportunity for their offspring. Lea in particular believed fiercely in the necessity of intellectual development, and took her children’s education in her own hands, pushing them to always be doing something that improved their minds, be it language acquisition, musical and artistic development, or the refinement of a historical awareness. For four years, Fanny was the sole focus of Lea’s concentrated energies, and under her tutelage developed into a prodigious musical talent whose virtuosity at the keyboard was as astounding to outsiders as it was expected by Lea.
When she was four years of age, however, there was a new addition to the family, a boy named Felix, whose gifts would make the family name while sealing Fanny’s private fate. As children, Fanny and Felix were given equal shares of every opportunity to develop themselves. Fanny’s four year head start made her the natural leader of the duo, Felix’s teacher and role model in all things, and the two developed a sibling bond of such profound and beautiful depth that, reading their letters as a child I used to dream of having a sister whom I could care about, and be cared about, as deeply as Felix did Fanny, and Fanny did Felix.
They encouraged each other to develop their gifts to the highest level, and their mutual early love of the great canon of German classical music set its stamp on their unique compositional voices. In an age that would increasingly give itself over to the glitzy showmanship of The Virtuoso, they devoted themselves to studying the deep structures of Bach, the choral works of Handel, and the developing depths of Beethoven. Except for Weber’s Der Freischutz and Beethoven’s Fidelio, the early nineteenth century opera scene with its cultivated showiness passed them entirely by. This was a brother and sister who wanted to get into the very guts of the musical craft, and relished the opportunity of doing so together.
Everything was perfect, until it wasn’t. Unbeknownst to Fanny, there was a firm line set on her musical development which she was to experience with the onset of adolescence. Her father wrote to her one day to express his expectations of her role in the family. She was to continue to play and compose, of course, but never to publish her work or perform in public. She was to be the light of her family, as was her mother, and to remain at home performing her duty, taking her pride in the development of her brother’s talents while restricting that of her own. This paternal injunction was not long in manifesting itself materially as Felix was packed off to meet and perform for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the ultimate arbiter of German culture, while Fanny was left behind.
Thus was the stage set for most of Fanny’s life – Felix traveled, gaining experience and connections that furthered his career, while Fanny lived vicariously through his success. Their letters to each other brim and bubble with musical news and mutual insight. Felix had to have Fanny’s opinion about everything he was working on, and she regularly sent him her compositions, some of which he included in his own printed collections, under his name. To be entirely fair, he delighted in telling other people about the true authorship of the songs ascribed to him, and boasted about his sister’s talents whenever he had the opportunity. It simply never occurred to him that he was benefiting from opportunities that were being unfairly denied to his sister, and Fanny for her part never expressed the slimmest shred of frustration about her lot in life.
If her letters and diary speak with genuine pride in Felix’s accomplishments and with only the slightest whiff of disappointment here and there, it is because the wealth of the Mendelssohns allowed Fanny to experience a private musical world that for two decades was satisfying enough to give her a sense of fulfillment which, if it was not everything she might have had by virtue of her talents, was enough. Lea and Abraham instituted the Sonntagmusikabend, a gathering of the musical cream of Berlin society which gave Fanny a chance to shine among a small group of well wishers and musical enthusiasts. Here she could perform the works that meant so much to her, including published pieces by Felix and private works of her own. Here, within the respectable privacy of her home (for domestic respectability was the watchword of a young woman in post-Napoleonic Germany), she could conduct, or play the piano, or sing, and receive the admiration that was due her talent.
In this atmosphere, she developed into a gifted composer of chamber music and that particular early 19th century German obsession, Lieder, which set to music some of the great poetry of the German Romantic movement. Today, we think of song composition as somehow a lesser art than the writing of a symphony or opera, but to a society that cherished informal gatherings where songs might be performed by gifted amateurs, the hunger for new songs was palpable, and as composers rushed to fill the need, they developed the form into something requiring nuance, subtlety, genius, and musical economy every bit as honed as the gifts required to craft a symphony or set a tenor to yelling at a soprano for two and a half hours.
Fanny’s Lieder are exquisite, full of feeling but counterbalanced by the compositional rigor one might expect from someone who had Bach as her model since youth. Little wonder that, wherever Felix performed them, they earned rave reviews and ovations, each of which he communicated with clear pride to his sister at home. With his clear interest in the performance and dissemination of her works, it seemed that all that was necessary was the passing of their father in order for the injunction against her publishing to be lifted, and her life as a public composer to well and truly begin.
But that was not to be. Abraham died in 1835 and Felix slid right into his role as the voice of paternal authority. Fanny repeatedly asked him for his blessing to publish her own works and he as often, with all the good humor and well meaning in the world, refused it. It is difficult today to crawl into his head and discover his motivations in so doing – how did somebody who so clearly loved his sister and adored her music, who saw what it would mean to her to publish her works and receive some encouragement from the outside world, nevertheless decide that seemliness must be maintained at all costs? Was it out of dutifulness to a father he respected and feared, jealousy of competition, a desire to protect her from the sordid world of musical publishing and criticism, or a fundamental inability to see beyond the bourgeois expectations of domestic gender roles?
Though we’ll never know in what ratio, I suspect all of those motivations played their role, with the result that, besides one song published in a larger collection, it was not until her last years, when Felix at last relented and gave his permission, if not his enthusiasm, to her career, that she began to release her works into the world. In the meantime, there was family to be tended to. She married Wilhelm Hensel, a painter now known primarily for his tendency to slap massive anime-style eyes on everybody he portrayed but who was in his time a respected and well-loved artist who served the Prussian nobility faithfully with portraits and religious works. Most importantly, he recognized the worth of Fanny’s gifts. Each morning, he would sit down to paint and she to compose and so engaged they spent many happy hours in joint creation. Many of the manuscript copies of songs written by Fanny bear on them beautiful illustrations by Wilhelm, marrying art and music in a sphere of private delight.
They had a son, Sebastian, who survived to write the Mendelssohn story, but after a series of miscarriages, Fanny despaired of having another child, and the early 1830s saw her at her lowest point. Weakened by illness, frustrated professionally, grieving for her lost children, she gradually lost the will to compose. In the strangling atmosphere where lack of encouragement combines with self-doubt, she found that ideas just didn’t seem to come to her as they once did. Fortunately, personal rebirth was just around the corner, in the form of a trip to Italy in 1839. It was the first foreign trip of any significance she had been allowed to take since her childhood, and though disappointing in the main, it terminated in Rome where she was to finally discover the appreciation and admiration that gave her the confidence to go on with her work.
In Italy she found a musical audience hungry for precisely what she could offer. Bach and Beethoven exploded with the force of revelation to the group of musicians and artists who gathered around Wilhelm and Fanny in increasing numbers, including a young Charles Gounod who positively worshipped Fanny, begging her on his knees to play more of the music she loved best. He would take what she showed him to France and use it to reignite French classical music, but in the meantime Fanny tasted at last a bit of the admiration that Felix had known his whole life as a matter of course. She felt encouraged and respected, and when she returned home, not only did she reinstate the Sonttagmusikabend tradition, but began seriously considering proposals from several sheet music houses to publish her works at last.
In 1846, a year before her death, she came out with her Opus 1, and subsequently her brother gave his permission for her to continue following this path. Of the nearly five hundred works she composed, she managed to arrange for the publication of some fifty of them before she died, including that true masterpiece, the Piano Trio in D Minor, composed in 1847. This product of her last year, the penultimate piece of music she ever composed, so full of invention, is a work only she could have produced. It eschews both the glitzy fire of the young Liszt and the studied antiquity of the Berlin Singakademie’s regular religious offerings, crafting a middle road that combines the formal heft of a Bach with the melodic sense of high Romanticism, with Fanny’s own sure sense of balance and tone.
The Trio was a sure sign of a composer coming into her full powers, a confident statement that here was a musician with a voice entirely her own to challenge the reigning fashions. The Mendelssohns, however, were not a long lived people. Abraham and Lea had both died suddenly, without warning, and one day, in 1847, while rehearsing for an upcoming concert of one of her brother’s works, Fanny felt a sudden paralysis in her hands that spread to her whole body. It was a stroke, the same as had ended her mother’s life. Fanny passed into unconsciousness and died the same day, at the age of 42. Six months later Felix died, aged only 38, but not before preparing some more of her works for publication as if to atone for his actions when she was alive.
With most of her published works in the form of songs and solo piano works that were soon to be dwarfed by the scale of German music in the age of Wagner, however, Fanny Mendelssohn’s music grew a little bit fainter with each passing year. The hundreds of compositions which existed only in manuscript form ended up in various private and family collections, from which many have yet to surface still after a century and a half. And so Mendelssohn again came to mean Felix, or Moses at a stretch, while Fanny patiently waited for a new generation of performers to champion her works. She was the center of her family’s life, respected and loved even as she was circumscribed and limited, and in the privacy of Wilhelm’s studio or the carefully regulated atmosphere of her music evenings she knew artistic happiness and fulfillment granted to but few, and a prosperity that dispensed opportunity even as it demanded sacrifice in the name of respectability. She was less than she might have been, but more than most were allowed to be, and from the hazy space in between she crafted perfectly polished jewels of song to be enjoyed then, and now, and at tragically few places in between.
Lead image via Library of Congress
The Piano Trio is a must. Here is a recording of it by the Claremont trio with the score shown simultaneously…
Francoise Tillard, a pianist who wrote the standard biography of Mendelssohn (which is a simply wonderful, if a bit hard to come by, volume), also recorded a number of Mendelssohn’s works. Here is her recording of the first movement of the trio by way of comparison:
As to the songs, there are so many to choose from that I’m somewhat paralyzed among the riches. I think I’m going to go with Sehnsucht, however. Italien was a favorite of Queen Victoria, and it’s also great, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this one. Everybody has a different opinion about how Lieder should be performed, which ultimately just comes down to subjective taste, but I’ve always gravitated to performers who favor naturalness of expression and meaning, among my favorite of which is Dorothea Craxton, who has done a lot to record not only Mendelssohn’s but Clara Schumann’s vocal music. But I can’t find a clip of her doing it, so here is Barbara Bonney, who I think also is exceedingly good:
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