A guide to Fanny Mendelssohn’s music
A brief introduction to one of history’s best known female composers
With BBC Radio 3’s announcement of special programming for International Women’s Day, we present a brief guide to the music of one of history’s best known female composers.
Fanny Mendelssohn excelled in short forms, using the focus as a kind of sketch, or diary. The pieces are often pictorial, as heard in Das Jahr, her musical account of her year in Italy. Reflecting her great energy, frequently the piano writing is excitingly virtuosic.
She loved writing songs and wrote about 300; her brother Felix was so impressed at her skill in this that he didn’t wish to compete. The majority of her texts were by Goethe, Eichendorff, Heine, Hölty, Klopstock, Lenau, Novalis, Schiller, Tieck and Uhland, several of whom she knew personally. She had a direct response to the atmospheric content of the words, which she supported with demanding and expressive piano parts.
These are generally more extended works, with her Piano Trio being the biggest and most successful of them all, with a formidable piano part. The 1823 Piano Quartet is a brilliant teenage shot at a mature form. There are three miniature duos: two for cello and piano (1829-30), and a beautiful Adagio for violin and piano (1823). Her Three Pieces for Four Hands are attractive character pieces, in her unique and daring harmonic manner. Her String Quartet in E flat, 1834, also shows great originality.
Mendelssohn wrote a large Oratorium nach dem Bildern der Bible (1831), and four Cantatas for soloists, chorus and orchestra. More numerous are the four-part chorus a capella works, in a form she learnt as a member of the Berlin Sing-Akademie.
Radio 3's International Women's Day Programming begins on Monday 2 March 2015. Visit bbc.co.uk/radio3
Pick up the March issue of BBC Music Magazine, out 18 February, to read our feature about 10 female composers from history
• Six of the best: works by Fanny Mendelssohn