Being ‘somebody’s sister’ usually belittles the person. Even though Fanny Mendelssohn was four years older than Felix (if she is mentioned in music history books at all), it is almost always as an appendage to him; and there is little appreciation of her ardent compositions and virtuoso piano playing. Fanny and Felix were very close and their correspondence is now more famous than her music. Ironically, he referred to her as ‘The Boss’, ‘The Cantor’, and he deferred to her opinion on his compositions to such a degree that she could have been described as his mentor, or chief consultant. This begs the question – as he valued her musical ideas so highly, why do we value it so little?
It was unseemly for a woman to create professionally in those days; and her father Abraham wrote her a letter forbidding a life as a composer, which has become one of the most famous put-downs in musical history: ‘Perhaps music will be Felix’s profession, whereas for you it can and must be but an ornament, and never the fundamental of your existence and activity.’ But she was passionate about music, and even today we can be inspired by the way she coped with living with the ban and how she found a way round it. To be fair to Abraham, he also wrote at a later date ‘a woman’s profession is the hardest of all; everything you can think of constitutes a woman’s duty, a woman’s difficult duty.’
In many ways Fanny was lucky. She was born into a highly cultured family, who knew the value of a good education, and the parents gave Fanny and Felix the same upbringing. They were both child prodigy pianists, and as children Fanny felt the advantages of being the elder one. The problems started when Felix was old enough to be sent out to meet Goethe and to travel the world.
Fanny began to see that the encouragement she received was only up to a glass ceiling; her destiny as a woman was to be housewife and mother. Where she did have choice was in who she married. She chose well, in that Wilhelm Hensel encouraged her to compose, indeed even to publish. They also collaborated on projects, creating exchanges between painting and music (he was the Prussian Court painter). He gave her a charming gilt-edged, heart-shaped album, in which they painted and composed together, as a kind of diary. He wrote at the beginning ‘This little book is like one’s heart: what you write in it brings joy and pain.’
The other thing she turned to her advantage were the Sonntagsmusik, Sunday musical salons, held in the family home in Berlin. As these were private occasions, it was considered acceptable for her to compose, perform and conduct there, and she made these occurrences the forum for her music making. They were highly prestigious events, to which not only the best musicians in Berlin came to play and listen, but touring soloists as well. Here she met many of the famous characters of the 19th century, from Clara Schumann and Liszt, to Paganini, Hegel and Heinrich Heine.
For many years she was also the organiser or, one might say, festival director – is it possible to name any other 19th-century women who had their own music festival? However, while the concerts gave her a platform to present her work as composer and pianist, it was a long way from the privileges Felix had travelling round Europe, meeting people like Queen Victoria and conducting the great orchestras of the day; Fanny was deeply envious of those experiences and opportunities.
The words ‘equally gifted’ recur as a leitmotiv for Fanny and Felix. Their aunt Dorothy Schlegel (also an excellent musician) said in 1830 that Felix played ‘with genius, Fanny with a virtuosity that defeated all understanding’. When Fanny was aged 13, she surprised her father by playing by heart all the Preludes of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Their friend the singer Eduard Devrient wrote ‘I found Felix’s playing extraordinarily dextrous and possessed of great musical assurance, but still it did not equal that of his sister Fanny.’
An example of the siblings’ closeness can be seen with one starting to compose a new piece, and the other finishing it off. This pairing had a twin-like aspect, sometimes likened to the major-minor relationship, reflecting the light and dark associations of these modes. Felix was handsome, Fanny was less conventionally attractive, having inherited her grandfather Moses’ hunchback; Felix went travelling while Fanny stayed at home; Felix had a public persona, Fanny’s was private.
Nevertheless she wrote some 400 works, particularly Lieder and short piano pieces. In 2005 the German publisher Furore Verlag rissued many of her compositions, including a special facsimile edition of Das Jahr, her 12 character pieces written after her Italian journey in 1839-40, taken with her husband who provided the illustrations.
Fanny and Wilhelm Hensel began their creative collaborations with a cycle of six Lieder on poems by Droysen. Fanny sent Felix the manuscript with an ornamental miniature painted by Wilhelm – she inscribed her Liederkreis ‘For Felix during his absence in England 1829.’ (It is preserved in Oxford’s Bodleian library.) The idea of bringing music and drawing together on the page transformed a music manuscript into a work of art.
The work Fanny and Wilhelm did together possesses charm, and Felix was delighted with it, especially the final song. Fanny was particularly touched by her brother’s appreciation, as he now had stature as a professional. He wrote: ‘These Lieder are more beautiful than one can say. I swear I’m speaking as a cool critic, and I find them very pretty. They prove that true music exists, which is as if the quintessence of music has been grasped, as if the soul were made of music. These Lieder are like that. Heavens! I know of none better.’
In 1839-40 Fanny, Wilhelm and their son Sebastian spent a year in Italy, which included three months in Rome, with the artistic community at the Académie de France at the Villa Medici. She received huge appreciation there both for her playing and her compositions. Gounod remembered their musical parties years later: ‘Mme Hensel was an incomparable musician, a remarkable pianist, a woman of superior intelligence, small and slender, but endowed with an energy revealed in her deep eyes and fiery gaze.
She had rare gifts as a composer… She sat down at the piano with that good grace and simplicity possessed by people who make music because they love it, and thanks to her prodigious memory I was introduced to a host of masterpieces from German music which, at that time, were completely unknown to me.’
On 9 July 1846, Berlin, Fanny, buoyed up by this positive reception, wrote to her brother: ‘Dear Felix, I have to write and tell you something. Since I know in advance that you won’t be pleased, I’ll go about this very awkwardly. Laugh at me if you like, but at the age of 40 I’m as afraid of my brothers as I was of Father when I was 14, or rather, I feel uncomfortable. In a word, I’m beginning to publish.
Since I made the decision on my own initiative and cannot blame anyone in my family if annoying consequences result, then I can console myself with the knowledge that I in no way sought out or occasioned the kind of musical reputation that might have brought me such offers.’
Felix replied on 12 August: ‘Dearest Fenchal, only today do I, hard-hearted brother, get around to answering your kind letter and give you my professional blessing upon your decision to enter our guild… may you obtain satisfaction and joy from providing delight to others.’
Coming from her brother, this was praise indeed and Fanny went on to publish several groups of songs which, in the way of the world then, received somewhat reluctant appreciation. She composed her biggest piece for her sister Rebecka’s birthday, 11 April 1846: it is a splendid and dramatic Piano Trio in D minor, which Felix had published after Fanny died. It shows her passion, animation, and great inspiration.
With this encouragement, she attained a new maturity and the self-confidence to publish, and she began to send her work out into the world. However, she died suddenly after a stroke, having conducted a Sonntagsmusik rehearsal in 1847; Felix was so bereft that he died six months later, many say of a broken heart. Meanwhile he had also carried on the work of publication, persuading Brietkopf & Härtel to issue some of her Lieder and her dramatic Piano Trio, Op 11.