Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel finally moves out of her brother’s shadow

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, here in a 1842 portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, is finally receiving her due.

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For most of the 20th century, Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn, was often regarded as a musical dilettante — an intriguing footnote to the biography of her much more famous composer-brother, Felix.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when archives in the former East Germany became available to researchers, the full scope of her accomplishments has emerged. At last, Hensel is being seen in an entirely new light.

That reconsideration has accelerated in recent years with heightened attention on gender disparities in the classical-music world.   

“She is now recognized as a really important composer of the 19th century, which is as it should be,” said R. Larry Todd, author of Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2010. The book emerged out of research that he began in writing his earlier biography of her brother. “It was a pretty easy step to decide that we needed a new book about her,” Todd said.

Hensel’s String Quartet in E-flat Major will be the culminating work on a virtual concert that debuts April 15 on the CSOtv video portal. Four members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s pre-professional training orchestra, will perform the work, along with selections by Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and Rebecca Clarke.

One of four children, Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) was born in Hamburg nearly four years before Felix, and the two received similar musical training, including lessons with Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a student of Mozart, and Ignaz Moscheles. Like her brother, she was something of a prodigy, playing all 24 preludes from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier by memory by the time she was 14. The two had a close relationship, with the siblings influencing each other’s compositions and her works sometimes played alongside her brother’s during concerts organized by the Mendelsssohns.

A quick note on the composer’s name: She was born Fanny Mendelssohn, but in 1816, she was baptized in the Lutheran faith and gained the added surname of Bartholdy in her family's attempt to downplay their Jewish origins. She became Fanny Hensel in 1829, after she married artist Wilhelm Hensel, but when a little of her music was released at the end of her life, the publishers made sure to put “born Mendelssohn” after her married name to build on her brother's fame.

There are 467 extant works by Hensel, considerably more than anyone for many decades realized she had produced, but Todd believes she wrote at least 30 more, because some have been lost. Her specialty, one that was in part imposed upon her, were miniature forms. More than half of her works are lieder or art songs, settings of poems for singer and accompanist, and they are performed more frequently than anything else she wrote.

Another 125 or so are works for the piano. Among them is an hourlong set of works titled Das Jahr (The Year), one for each month, plus an epilogue. “This is the piece that really needs to be rediscovered and played by the great pianists,” Todd said. “It hasn’t quite yet happened, but I suspect that it will as more attention is turned to her music.”

At the same time, Hensel did take on some larger-form works, including a piano quartet, orchestral overture and some Bach-influenced cantatas. Of special note is her first-rate string quartet, which she wrote in 1834; it is not clear whether it was performed in her lifetime.

Duke University professor R. Larry Todd believes that 19th-century composer Fanny Hensel deserves much more recognition.

Duke University/J. Black

Todd called it a daring undertaking, especially considering she was composing in the shadow of such giants as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, who wrote the last of his celebrated works in the form just eight years earlier. “It’s an august tradition, and here is Fanny, as a woman composer, trying to wrestle with this genre,” he said. “There just aren’t many string quartets by women from that time,” he said.

Beyond being a major composer, Hensel also was what Todd calls one of the great piano virtuosos of the 19th century. Yet, as far as the musicologist was able to document, she played only three public concerts outside her family home. One strong piece of evidence of her piano prowess is Das Jahr, a challenging work for advanced keyboardists.

One fascinating historical tidbit was her friendship with Clara Schumann, a composer and acclaimed pianist of the era. The two conferred in 1847 when Hensel was working on her piano trio as a birthday present for her younger sister Rebecca. Schumann began writing her own piano trio soon after with the intent of dedicating it to Hensel.

“I like to think that these two women pianist-composers both turning to the piano trio, to a larger traditional classical form, was an extraordinary moment in musical history,” Todd said. “Both Fanny and Clara were conditioned by social pressures of the time to not believe in their own abilities to compose, and yet they both turned to the piano trio. And by the way, they are both wonderful pieces.”

Despite such career milestones, it is clear that Hensel was limited not only by her sex but also her class. Women of any standing in 19th century Germany were not expected to be composers, and this was especially true of female members of the upper class, which the Mendelssohns assuredly were. Her father tolerated her composing but wrote an oft-cited discouraging passage in an 1820 letter to her: “Music will perhaps become his [Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”

But Hensel was undeterred in her way. She made composition a daily regimen and was able to get her works heard through fortnightly private concerts that she oversaw in a music hall at the Mendelssohn family home. These soirees included chamber music, concert versions of Mozart operas and Bach cantatas, and musical notables of the time would often attend. “So she was well known, even though she wasn’t publishing and getting reviews in the press,” Todd said.   

Although a few of Hensel’s works were published through her efforts and those of her brother, most were not. The general unavailability of her music, especially after the imposition of the Iron Curtain, as well as the pervasive biases against women composers, kept her from gaining the widespread attention that Todd believes she deserves.

“To the extent that we knew Fanny Hensel’s music, say, back in the 1970s and ‘80s, most musicologists, they didn’t exactly dismiss it, but they tended to regard it as derivative of Felix, that she was a kind of epigone,” Todd said.

In his research Todd discovered that there is a kind of “Mendelssohnian” style to which Fanny as well as Felix contributed, and at the same time, she carved out her own distinctive approach to composition. “One thing that Fanny does is that she takes more risks,” he said. “Because most of this music was written for her own use, she was able to experiment more. She didn’t have to worry about the critics criticizing this or that.”

Since Mendelssohn died at 41 from the complications of a stroke, it’s impossible to know what she might have accomplished had she lived longer. Todd compared her to Franz Schubert, who also began his career as something of a miniaturist but later turned to larger forms like the symphony.

“Fanny never did that, but she was on the way to doing that," Todd said. "Had she lived longer, who knows what she would have become?”

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