Fanny Hensel - The Other Mendelssohn

by Alison Young, Minnesota Public Radio
March 25, 2010
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St. Paul, Minn. — On my 23rd birthday, my mother gave me "The Joy of Cooking."

Although 20+ years later, the pages are dog-eared and spattered with grease and other random stains, I resented that gift since at the time I was working toward a graduate degree and far from domesticated.

On Fanny Mendelssohn's 23rd birthday, her father gave her a letter with explicit instructions of what was expected of her -

"You must become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your calling, the only calling of a young woman -- I mean the state of a housewife."

"Music will perhaps become his profession, but for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing."
- Abraham Mendelssohn to his 14-year-old daughter Fanny

This was from a man who loved her dearly and recognized her immense talent as a pianist and composer with her main rival one of his own off-spring, her younger brother Felix.

But the early part of the 19th century was a different time, and even in spite of such contemporary role models as Clara Schumann and George Eliot, the public life was not open to Fanny Mendelssohn.

In R. Larry Todd's vivid new book "Fanny Hensel -- The Other Mendelssohn" we are ushered into the drawing room of one of the wealthiest and well-connected families in Prussian Berlin and he helps unravel the myriad reasons for music to remain an "ornament" in Fanny's life rather than front-and-center as it was Felix.

Fanny was the grand-daughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and great-grand-daughter of Daniel Itzig, court banker to Frederick the Great. Her world was that of the highly-cultured and assimilated Jew -- with friends from all walks of life, including Goethe, Ingres, Hans Christian Anderson and Robert Schumann.

Indeed she was even surrounded by strong women, her mother for one who championed Bach and taught her to learn the Well Tempered Clavier by heart, thus stoking the fire which would become the Bach revival taken up by Felix.

It is truly remarkable that in one family there would be two siblings of the stature of Felix and Fanny. I can think of few examples, except Mozart, who had an older sister with great talent and skill, who sadly was also kept from fulfilling an artistic destiny.

The two Mendelssohn children eagerly shared the finest tutors and music teachers who instilled a sibling rivalry in the very best sense. They shared everything, worked out musical problems together and challenged each other in musical games, very early on creating a 'Mendelssohn' sound.

Fanny's burgeoning talent was concerning to her parents who were disinclined to allow her to venture beyond the drawing room. Even in her marriage -- to a court-painter who was really out of his league in the Mendelssohn family but gave Fanny a much-needed emotional foundation -- Fanny longed for her ties to continue with her brother who was moving further and further away from her.

In spite of living in the leisured class and isolated from the glamorous world of her brother, Fanny was compelled to write and perform from inner necessity, composing nearly 500 compositions and presenting throughout her life, an extraordinary series of Sunday concerts for groups of 200 or so cultured friends.

Dr. Todd's book is chock full of keen insights and musical examples that satisfy a musicological mind, while he spins the tale in an easy, straight-forward style for the novice arm-chair musician.

By far, my favorite part of the book is his description of the Hensel family's year-long sojourn in Italy viewing art, strolling through ancient ruins and gardens alike, and taking in the music, as well as meeting other ex-patriots as themselves like Charles Gounod who counted Fanny as one of his most important influences.

Surprises included the complications for the Mendelssohn's in preserving their privacy. While it's tough for a 21st century woman to understand Fanny's musical suppression - even by Felix, who Fanny writes "never writes down a thought without submitting it to my musical judgment" - it is even more troubling to ponder that there was ever a question of whether Felix would be allowed to pursue a public life. This was soon dealt with and he went on to experience a "grand style of living" as compared to Fanny and Wilhelm's "little pocket edition.'

Surprisingly it is mostly regret Fanny experiences missing out on the kind of life Felix led, since he was usually far enough away that she would need to purchase his music to learn of his latest success rather than hear of -- and discuss it - directly with him.

Though Fanny was kept creatively isolated, she produced a truly sophisticated body of work that ventured past the acceptable miniatures and songs into cantatas, chamber music and longer-format piano works like her masterpiece "Das Jahr."

Fanny was by all accounts her "own person" but longed for support while fearing her brother. In a late song, the words she quotes by poet Nikolaus Lenau capture her feelings:

"The dearest thing I may acquire in songs that abduct my heart is a word to me that they please you, a silent glance that they touch you."

Almost like a bad joke, just as a 41-year-old Fanny begins to emerge - with Felix's conditional blessing -- as a published composer, she suddenly dies. I read the end of the book with great sadness that this remarkable woman's life was cut off just as she was beginning to live -- truly at the happiest time of her life.

It is only recently that Fanny's music is being rediscovered, published and performed. Several examples are available on the book's handy web-site.

Dr. Todd - who wrote the definitive biography of Felix Mendelssohn in 2003 - coaxes Fanny out of the shadow of her brother and breathes life into this remarkable woman, who in spite of doubt, little support from her family and societal restrictions continues to create a significant opus with joy and determination.

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