Fanny and Felix

Sheila Hayman explores the complex relationship between classical music’s most famous siblings 

Fanny and Felix
Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn at the piano (Credit: Getty)

My great-great-great-grandmother, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, died a hundred and seventy years ago this year, but to read her letters and diaries you’d think she was writing today.

Getting to these letters and diaries was an ordeal in itself. It’s a measure of the different image Fanny and her famous brother Felix had of themselves that Felix made sure his letters were collected and bound in the ‘Green Books’ that live in splendour in the Bodleian Library. Meanwhile, Fanny wrote hers on scraps of paper which she shared with her mother and sister, and nobody bound them, still less thought of reading or publishing them, between 1847 when she died and the 1980s.

With feminism came an interest in the work of female composers, and Fanny began to attract the attention of musicologists.

There was just one problem. Fanny’s papers lived in the Berlin State Archives, and the custodian of the Mendelssohn archive was Dr Rudolf Elvers. A fervent admirer of Felix, he had no time for Fanny whom he called ‘just a housewife’, and wouldn’t let anybody near her papers.

Why? Because all the people who wanted to see them were women, and he was ‘waiting for the right man to come along’.

One of these women. Marcia Citron, wasn’t to be deterred. Eventually she wore him down and got access to the letters – only to discover they were written in Old German gothic script, which she couldn’t read. Luckily, her Berlin landlady could, and gave her lodger a crash course so she could go back to Dr Elvers and decode the mystery of Fanny’s personality. And what she found was truly fascinating.

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s talent was obvious to everybody.

Her brother Felix knew it; he published half a dozen of her songs under his own name, and declared them better than any others he knew.

Her creative impulse was equally obvious; among the 500 pieces she composed in the space of thirty years are her own wedding music (which she wrote the night before the ceremony while the rest of the family were celebrating, despite the fact she’d never written for the organ in her life). 

One year, with a toddler at her feet, she nursed the family through an epidemic of cholera, and then wrote it out in a ‘Cholera Cantata’. So there’s not much doubt about her commitment either.

And yet, her adored little brother Felix, the international musical superstar, who encouraged and supported many other women as composers and performers, who knew her better than anybody, who trusted her judgement above all others – her brother would not approve of her desire to be a published composer and have a life in the European musical world.

And Fanny, whose talent and intellect were so formidable that even the best musicians were terrified of playing for her, was apparently only frightened of one man; and that man was Felix Mendelssohn.

Until 1829, when she was twenty-three and he was twenty, they were inseparable; they learned together, practised together and showed each other their work before making it  public.

Then, in April 1829, Felix went off on a Grand Tour to give him the inspiration and experience he needed to become a famous composer (remember, in those days, if you didn’t hear music live, you didn’t hear it, and most works were only performed a few times).

Fanny, meanwhile, stayed home to prepare for marriage to a man she hadn’t seen for seven years (but as in all the best fairy tales, turned out to be the hero).

Her fiancé, Wilhelm Hensel, declared he wouldn’t marry her unless she carried on composing. So it was he, not Felix, who kept her going after that.

Felix pretty much disappeared from her life apart from letters and the odd visit. And that was the thing Fanny found hardest.

Without Felix to listen, criticise but also encourage, Fanny frequently found it hard to believe in her own talent or see any point in continuing to write music that, as far as she knew, neither she nor anybody else would ever hear.

And yet she did; she finished her last song on the day she died, at the age of forty-one. Within six months, Felix was dead too, quite possibly in part from grief and guilt.

So that was what Marcia Citron found in the Berlin archives: the vivid, passionate voice of a woman who was deeply confident of her own talent, irresistibly driven to express it, and yet terrified of not being good enough, of being thought show-offy, or pushy, or any of those other words that are still too often used of women who behave like men.

And that, above everything else, is what I love about my Granny Fanny; that for all the years that separate us, I recognise her struggle, and her courage and perseverance, all around me today.

Sheila Hayman is a BAFTA-award winning film-maker. Her film for the BBC, Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me can be found at her website. She is currently working on a documentary about Fanny, Felix and the Easter Sonata.

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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