Felix Mendelssohn is one of the most renowned composers of the 19th century; his works are performed all over the world and their is no doubt about their firm place in the standard repertoire. The works of his prodigious sister, however, are far less familiar to even the most enthusiastic classical music fans.
The eldest child in the family, Fanny Mendelssohn was also a brilliant musician and composer; and yet her output of over 500 pieces of music is rarely performed. The daughter of a bourgeois German family, Mendelssohn displayed great musical talent from a young age.
Although she was encouraged to write and to play, her family did not believe music was a respectable career for a young woman and so, while Felix travelled Europe with his compositions, Fanny stayed at home.
Often, when listening to her music, one is left wondering what she could have been capable of, had she not been constrained by societal expectation. She wrote two cantatas – but what would a full-scale oratorio have sounded like? She wrote an orchestral overture – could she have developed it into an opera? Here we celebrate the understated genius of Fanny Mendelssohn with six of her greatest works.
String Quartet in E flat major
Mendelssohn has packed a huge amount of emotion into her short quartet. The work opens with a number of beautiful short sequences, which are passed around the instruments in haunting echos.
The second movement is lively, exhibiting features characteristic of the Baroque composers that Mendelssohn admired. The work finishes with an wonderfully tender and incredibly moving third movement.
This is one of the few larger scale choral works written by Fanny Mendelssohn. Composed in 1831, the powerful Biblical text is taken from the book of Job.
Mendelssohn had long been an admirer of JS Bach; her mother noticed her ‘Bach fingertips’ when she was born, and his influence is evident in the contrapuntal vocal parts accompanied by energetic strings.
Overture in C
The C major Overture is Mendelssohn’s only known orchestral work. A peaceful opening paves the way for some virtuosic runs in the strings revealing a work no less impactful than those by her male contemporaries.
For all its splendour, the work retains the delicacy characteristic of much of Fanny Mendelssohn’s music. It never comes close to being brash, and for every majestic, showy passage, there is a light and restrained one to counter it.
Notturno in G minor
Many of Mendelssohn’s pieces were small in scale – not because of a lack of ambition on her part, but because of her position in society. Her brother was afforded the opportunities to travel and present his orchestral works in a concert hall setting, whereas Fanny was expected to lead a domestic life entertaining the members of the correct social circle.
Having married the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel, she began to host a series of successful salon concerts on Sundays, with well-known composers like Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann often attending. Short pieces like this thoughtful Notturno would have often been heard at these gatherings.
In 1875, Tchaikovsky was commissioned by the editor of a St Petersburg music magazine to write 12 short pieces for piano. Each piece was to be based on a different month of the year, and the finished collection became The Seasons. But Tchaikovsky was not the first to take inspiration from the calendar; more than thirty years before, Fanny Mendelssohn had written a collection of character pieces entitled Das Jahr (The Year).
The Mendelssohn family had spent a year travelling Italy and this happy time inspired the composer to write what she called a musical ‘second diary’, with each piece representing a different month of her travels. The works are full of musical and autobiographical motifs, many of which, sadly, we may never know the personal significance of.
This short lied was written on 13 May 1847, just one day before Fanny Mendelssohn unexpectedly died of a stroke while practising one of her brother’s oratorios. Felix was distraught over her death and collaborated with her widowed husband to arrange for the publication of several of Fanny’s works.
As a mark of respect, Felix also dedicated his String Quartet No. 6 to her, before dying only six months after his sister. Fanny’s last work is a short, spritely song for soprano and piano, with a text written by the Romantic German poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff.
Listen to our 'Best of Fanny Mendelssohn' playlist here: