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Fanny Mendelssohn: Her Life and MusicThe Life & Music of Fanny Hensel
Picture of Fanny Cécile Mendelssohn|Hensel.

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An article written by Dr Jill Halstead in the programme notes for a concert of music by Clara Schumann and Fanny Hensel at the Royal Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool in March 1998.


Fanny Mendelssohn: Her Life and Music

1.Child Prodigy
2.Parting of the Ways
3.The Paradox of Publication
5.The tradition of Sonntagmusik
6.Felix: The Stamp of Disapproval
7.Travel to Italy: Creative Revival
8.Background: Music, Art and Politics; The raise of the Salon.

Fanny Mendelssohn, born 14th November 1805, was the eldest child of Abraham Mendelssohn (1776-1835) and Lea Salomon (1777-1842). The family had three other children Felix (1809-1847), Rebecca (1811-1858) and Paul (1812-1874). The maternal and paternal genealogy was Jewish. Abraham Mendelssohn was the son of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a renown Jewish intellectual and philosopher and Lea’s family were wealthy Bankers. Jews at this time were despised and mainly consigned to ghettos, even Jews who held great wealth were "outsiders" in the upper echelons of German society. Sadly, many saw the renunciation of their Jewish faith and culture necessary if they were to be assimilated in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of nineteenth century Europe. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn converted to Protestantism in 1822, also adopting the name Bartholdy.
Abraham founded a banking house "Mendelssohn Brothers and Company" in the year that Fanny was born. The early years of Fanny’s life were divided between Hamburg, Berlin and Paris, depending on the demands of the business. Paradoxically, considering Abraham’s profession, he taught his children to value art, music, education and morality above all things, including monetary gain. The children’s lives were centered around a relentless stream of learning and not one moment of the day was wasted in their quest for knowledge and artistic attainment. From the outset Fanny and Felix gained reputations as child prodigies. The pair were inseparable, sharing not only sibling love but also prodigious talent for music. Both parents dedicated themselves to the education and training of all their children, employing only the very best tutors. Whilst in Paris, Fanny and Felix took piano lessons with Marie Bigot (1786-1820), who was a close friend of Beethoven. In 1818, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), the then director of the famous Berlin Singakademie, was appointed to teach them composition, whilst the philosopher Karl Hayse (1797-1855) was appointed to cover general studies. In 1820 the pair began taking piano lessons with Ludwig Berger (1777-1839). Berger himself had been a great virtuoso taking lessons with Clementi. Berger and Zelter were fine teachers, they gave the children a thorough grounding in the music of J.S. Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. This musical heritage was to become the cornerstone of Fanny and Felix’s musical taste and compositional style.

1.Child Prodigy

From the earliest infancy Fanny showed a great talent both for performance and creativity, when she was born her mother remarked that her tiny fingers were "suitable for playing Bach fugues". This prophecy was fulfilled at the age of thirteen, when she played from memory all twenty-four of the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The first composition known to have been written by Fanny is a song Ihr Töne, schwingt euch frölich! (Songs, fly joyously away!) which was written as a present for her father’s birthday in 1819. At this time Fanny was the centre of attention in all musical gatherings, her skills overshadowing all the other children, including Felix.

2.The Parting of the Ways

By the age of 15 Fanny’s studies with Zelter were bearing fruit in the form of a number of more mature compositions. Between 1820-1821 she wrote thirty-eight songs, eleven piano pieces, four choral arrangements for four voices, a chorus and various arias. However, the years of devoting herself solely to music were already drawing to a close. Like Felix, she felt a clear calling to devote her life to music, yet it was unimaginable that she be allowed to follow her own heart. Despite the fact that she showed huge potential and had been encouraged with solid education and much encouragement, it was clear that Fanny’s training should prepare her only for a domestic role as wife and mother. Music was only meant to provide Fanny with a hobby or interest after her domestic responsibilities had been fulfilled. That she would never be allowed to fulfill her potential proved a cruel and destructive experience. Sadly, this was an all too common event for middle class women at this time. The pressure faced by Fanny is clear from a letter sent to her by her father in 1820:
Perhaps music will be his [Felix’s] profession, whereas for you it can and must be but an ornament and never the fundamental bass-line of your existence and activity.
To embark on a career as a musician, even for an upper-middle class male, was considered at best frivolous, at worst, demeaning. Felix’s uncle, Jacob Bartholdy, summarises the view of the time when he heard that Felix was to be allowed to become a musician:
A professional musician - I can’t get that into my head. Its neither a career, nor a life, nor a goal; one is no further advanced at the end than one was at the beginning, and one knows it; in fact, one is generally better off at the beginning.
It was unthinkable that Fanny should enter any profession, least of all one which involved music.
The difference in path taken by the lives of Felix and Fanny was emphasised in 1821. In this year Felix, then twelve years old, was taken by Zelter to meet the great German poet Goethe. Goethe agreed that the boy had real talent and this endorsement secured Felix’s smooth passage into the professional world of music. Fanny, on the other hand, met her future husband Wilhelm Hensel. At the time Hensel was a Hofmaler (court painter), when he asked for Fanny’s hand in marriage it was refused, not by Fanny, but by her mother. Hensel took a job at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome in 1820. During his five year absence the couple were not even allowed to correspond. Fanny eventually met Goethe in 1822, when the whole family traveled to Switzerland. Goethe was very impressed by Fanny’s musical talents and described her as Felix’s "equally gifted sister".

3.The Paradox of Publication

Despite the fact that it was now clear that Fanny could never be allowed to devote herself to composition or performance, alongside Felix, she took lessons with the famous pianist Ignaz Moscheles, whilst he was staying in Berlin in 1824. Felix was now beginning to spread his musical wings. He published a number of pieces including his lieder Op. 8 and 9. Each of these sets contained three songs written by Fanny (Das Heimweh Op.8 no.2, Italien Op.8 no.3, Suleika and Hatem Op.8 no.12, Sehnsucht Op.9 no.7, Verlust (lost) Op.9 no.10, Die Nonne Op.9 no.12). It was unthinkable that Fanny would wish to compromise herself by publishing under her own name. To publish under her own name would be considered a statement of intent to become a known composer, as this was clearly not to be the case, anonymity was the only proper option. This incident seems to summarise how Fanny was supposed to experience musical life – by proxy, through Felix. Felix went to Paris in 1825 to further his musical connections and education. The bond between the brother and sister was not weakened by their separation, they wrote to each other daily and played musical games, sending each other compositions to finish. Paris was considered the musical capital of the world at this time, Fanny longed to go there, instead only through Felix’s letters could she experience this world. In 1825 the Mendelssohn family moved into a mansion in Berlin at 3 Leipziger Strasse. The property was a huge complex of buildings which had many rooms, the grounds included several guest houses and a park. During Fanny’s adult life this house was to became both beautiful sanctuary and prison.


In October 1828 Wilhelm Hensel returned from Italy. Naturally both Fanny and Wilhelm had changed during their five years apart. At first Fanny found relations with Hensel difficult. However, the whole family was concerned that she should be married – and soon. In a letter to Fanny on her twenty-third birthday in 1828, her father stated:
You must take yourself in hand and concentrate harder; you must school yourself more seriously and eagerly for your true profession, a young woman’s only profession: being mistress of the house.
Accordingly, Fanny married Hensel in 1829. Fanny made no break with her family after her marriage and continued to live in apartments of your order within the family home until her death. Moreover, the special bond between brother and sister was unchanged by her new status. Their closeness is illustrated in a letter Fanny wrote to Felix on the morning of her wedding:
I have your portrait before me, and ever repeating your dear name, and thinking of you as if you stood at my side, I weep! ... every morning and every moment of my life I shall love you from the bottom of my heart, and I am sure that in so doing I shall not wrong Hensel.
As Fanny had feared, her new domestic responsibilities put a halt to her creative work. In 1830 she gave birth to her only child, Sebastian Ludwig Felix, named after her favourite composers, Bach, Beethoven and her brother. There is evidence that a number of further pregnancies ended in miscarriage which weakened and depressed her both physically and mentally. Throughout this time Fanny’s mother and husband were most encouraging that she continue her creative work, but only Felix could furnish the reassurance she required. Sadly, no such reassurance was forthcoming. He could not really understand why Fanny needed music now that she was a mother. When Fanny wrote to Felix expressing her concerns for her lack of creative motivation, he replied:
[...] you cannot expect a man of my caliber to wish you musical ideas; you are insatiable to complain of their absence; per bacco, if you really wanted to, you’d be able to compose [...] and if you don’t want to, then why are you complaining so dreadfully? If I had a child to coddle, I wouldn’t want to be writing scores [...] the child is not yet six months old, and you’d already like to be thinking about something other than Sebastian (not Bach). Be glad you have him; music is only absent when its not in its right place [...]
In the light of such sentiments Fanny became very depressed with her music, moreover generally life in Berlin between 1832-1833 became quite bleak. An outbreak of cholera claimed the lives of thirteen close friends, fellow musicians and family members. Fanny also caught the disease herself but recovered.

5.The tradition of Sonntagmusik

Despite these trying times, and her temporary creative block, Fanny decided that if she were to continue to develop as a musician she needed to create her own musical environment in which to stimulate her talents. At the time music in Berlin centred around its two orchestras, the Berlin Opera and the Royal Chapel orchestras, but the organisation of events and concerts was disorganised. To remedy this lack of musical life, Fanny decided to revive the Sunday morning musical salon concerts, known as Sonntagmusik which had been held by her mother.
Musical concerts, performed in the home, had always been an integral part of family life for the Mendelssohn children The domestic salon had been the venue where both Fanny and Felix gained their first experience playing with an orchestra. If Fanny could not go out into the world to experience music making, she would bring the musical world into her own home. Fortunately, the Mendelssohn’s domestic situation allowed for the concerts to be fairly large events, often attended by over one-hundred people. The musicians who performed were a mixture of accomplished amateurs and hired professionals, the standard of the concerts was high, and on a scale which incorporated orchestras, choirs and soloists. Fanny was able to conduct the orchestra and chorus, she also played solo piano and presented her own works. She now had the means to perform her music and an invited audience to appreciate it. The musical stimulation proved to be the inspiration Fanny needed and she began to compose again. Between 1831-1832 she wrote four cantatas including Lobgesang , Hiob and Oratorio. All these works and many others were performed in the Sonntagmusik salon.
Despite her musical triumphs it is clear that Fanny felt them hollow when she compared them to those of her brother; whose fame was spreading throughout Europe. Fanny’s self made musical world was no substitute for professional life, traveling across Europe, experiencing musical life in the London, Vienna and Paris, making contact with all the finest musicians. Unsurprisingly, she underwent periods of depression where she was unable to compose anything. One such depression occurred in 1834 after she completed a string quartet in C minor. Fanny’s lack of confidence in her own abilities is clear and she very much missed having suitably qualified musicians to judge her work. In 1836 she confided to her friend Klingemann:
When one never encounters either objective criticism or goodwill, one eventually loses the critical sense needed to judge one’s work, while at the same time losing the wish to create it. Felix, who could easily take the place of an audience for me, can only reassure me sparingly for we are seldom together. I am thus more or less alone with my music.

6.Felix Mendelssohn: The Stamp of Disapproval

Fanny’s husband continued to encourage her Sonntagmusik salons but he also understood that to gain the critical attention she so craved, she must publish her compositions under her own name. Despite his good intentions Hensel was not a musician, as always the only opinion that really mattered was that of her distinguished brother: In a letter to Felix in 1836 Fanny states:
With regards to my publishing [...] I have rather neutral feelings on the subject, but Hensel desires it and you are opposed. In any other matter I would of course comply unconditionally with my husband’s wishes, but in this particular case your consent is too important to me, for without it I should undertake nothing of the kind.
It is hard to believe that Fanny’s own feelings on the subject were neutral. Behavioral conventions dictated that women should be modest in all things; unassertive, diffident behavior from women was simply common social currency. Fanny’s lack of confidence may have been misread by Felix as lack of commitment. Constantly he reminded Fanny that being a great composer should not be her primary objective:
If I don’t like two or three successive pieces quite as much as other things you have written, this has no more serious cause than that you now compose less than you did before. [...] you will henceforth have to think of many other things besides composing beautiful lieder. And it is surely better this way.
Of the hundreds of songs and other works composed by Fanny up to this point only one song Die Schiffende, made it to publication in 1837, as part of a volume of lieder by various unknown composers. The song was very well received, a fact noted by Felix but he remained opposed to the publication of Fanny’s work until after her death.
Fanny continued to run the salon which became the centre of musical life in Berlin. In addition to her creative work, Fanny’s reputation as a formidable pianist was well-known in her immediate circle of friends, however, it was out of the question that she should tour Europe playing for money. Her status and background meant that working for money was unthinkable, it was a matter of both status and propriety. Indeed a critic from an English musical review The Athenaeum stated:
Had Frau Hensel been a poor man’s daughter, she would have been known throughout the world, alongside Frau Schumann and Madame Pleyel, as a female pianist of the highest order.
Probably spurred on by the success of her concerts at home, Fanny gave the only public performance of her life in 1838, playing Felix’s G minor Concerto. The event was a concert given by amateurs to raise money for the poor. Only under the auspices of such a philanthropic venture was it appropriate for a woman of Fanny’s position to accept the offer to play for the public.

7.Travel to Italy: Creative Revival

Between 1839-1840 Fanny had the opportunity to travel, with her husband and child, to Italy where she met Gounod, Berlioz and Massenet. Everyone was impressed with both her intellect and musical talents. Respect from such esteemed men ensured that this foray into the outside world provided Fanny with a much needed boost in confidence. On returning to Berlin, full of inspiration from the trip, she began to compose a series of 12 piano pieces Das Jahr, (The Year) with each piece given the title of a month. The Sunday salon concerts continued with great success.
By 1846 Fanny was working consistently at her composition. At this time she became acquainted with Robert von Keudell(1824-1903), a musically talented and well educated man. He attended the Sunday concerts and gradually became a daily visitor to the Hensel household. Fanny had received offers from two publishing houses (Bote und Bock and Schlesinger) to publish her work. Keudell urged Fanny to accept the offers and present her work to the world. Obviously the encouragement of a person other than her husband or mother gave Fanny confidence to broach the subject with Felix:
Since I know in advance that you won’t be pleased, I’ll go about this awkwardly. Laugh at me, if you like, but at the age of forty I’m as afraid of my brother as I was of Father when I was fourteen ... In a word I’m beginning to publish.
Felix took one month to reply to Fanny’s letter, but finally gave his "professional blessing upon your decision to enter our guild". Fanny confided in her diary that she knew in her heart that Felix did not like the situation, but at last he had offered "a word of encouragement".
Accordingly between 1846-47 some of Fanny’s music was published. Works included Sechs Lieder, Op. 1 (1846); Vier Lieder für das Pianoforte, Op. 2 (1846) and some Gartenlieder: Sechs Gesänge für Sopran, Alto Tenor und Bass, Op. 3 (1847) all published by Bote und Bock; in addition, Six melodies for Piano in two volumes, Op. 4 (1-3) and Op. 5 (4-6) (1847). Encouraged by her successes Fanny felt confident enough to return to composition in larger forms. In the summer she began work on the Trio in D minor for piano, violin and cello. It was premiered as the opening to a new season of Sunday concerts and was hailed as a great success.
At last Fanny was gathering momentum and beginning to become known as a composer. The publication of her work meant it was reviewed, praised and criticised, only from such critical attention can a composer truly mature. Tragically, this new found success and confidence were to be short lived. On Friday 14th May 1847, Fanny had been rehearsing for the regular Sunday concert when she was taken ill (most probably a stroke). She died that evening. Felix was devastated by the news and died himself on the 4th November the same year. He was buried alongside Fanny in Berlin.

8.Background: Arts and Politics and the rise of the Salon

In the vast houses of the wealthy middle and upper classes, a salon room was distinguished as a smaller, drawing room. It is in these more intimate rooms that the institution of the salon was originated by the Marquise de Rambouillet (1588-1665) in Paris in the early 1600s. In her salon rooms, the Marquise initiated gatherings where women and men could meet and share witty conversation, art, music, poetry and politics, all expressed away from the rigours and pressures of court. This became a much needed outlet for many talented and intelligent women who were largely confined to home, starved of intellectual and artistic stimulation. In France the women who ran salons were known as salonières. A skilful salonière could attract the elite of political and artistic society into her home. Although salons brought new opportunities and some influence for women , salons could also be a place where rich and powerful men came to instigate extra marital sexual relationships. The fact that men and women mixed freely often led to speculation that the relationships were not platonic. Some famous salonières, such as Marquise de Rambouillet, avoided this slur on their reputation by becoming celibate.
From the second half of the eighteenth century through to the end of the nineteenth century salons flourished in all the major cities of Europe, primarily London, Vienna, Rome, Copenhagen and Berlin. The salon was a place where new ideas, philosophies, literature and music could be introduced without fear of persecution. The primary focus of each salon varied depending on the taste of the woman who ran it, some enjoyed card games, dancing and conversation, rather than music, art and politics. Salons could also vary in character, some women had a reputation of "holding court", whilst others were more family orientated.
When Fanny Mendelssohn reestablished the Sunday morning concerts she was continuing a long family tradition. Fanny’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a central figure in the Berlin enlightenment, he was a brilliant man who championed Jewish civil rights and integration. He was renowned for running an "open-house" salon where Jews and Christians, men and women, actors, authors and aristocrats mixed. The Berlin salons, mainly run by Jewish families, were well known for their music-making and between 1815-1848 women such as Amalia Beer (mother of composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and poet Michael Beer), Elisabeth von Staegemann, Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and later Fanny Mendelssohn, were the centre of musical life in the city.
Fanny Mendelssohn, like many salonières before her, attracted the elite of intellectual and artistic world to her home. Men such as the scientist Alexander von Humbolt, the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the actor Eduard Deurient and the writer Jean Paul, were frequent visitors. Although the salon brought new freedoms for women in the 1600s, stimulating company was not enough for many nineteenth century women, already suffocated by a life contained of your order within the domestic sphere. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) who had to struggle for many years to be allowed to create a life outside the family home, summarises the feelings of many women when she lamented in 1851:
What am I that their [other women] life is not good enough for me? Oh God what am I? ... why, oh my God cannot I be satisfied with the life that satisfies so many people? I am told that the conversation of all these good clever men ought to be enough for me. Why am I starving, desperate, diseased on it?

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