Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847)

Sierra Club


If nobody ever offers an opinion or takes the slightest interest in one's production, one loses not only all pleasure in them, but all power of judging their value.

It must be a sign of talent that I do not give up, though I can get nobody to take an interest in my efforts.


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Born on 14 November 1805 in Hamburg to parents Abraham Mendelssohn, a banker and litterateur, and Leah Solomon, an amateur musician and artist. The oldest of four children, Fanny's siblings included Felix, a prolific composer and conductor, Rebekka, and Paul. Her paternal grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, an influential German philosopher of the Enlightenment. Fanny's early years in Hamburg were overshadowed by years of Napoleonic oppression, and in 1811 the family fled Hamburg for Berlin. To escape possible anti-Semitic views, the family was Abraham Mendelssohn had his children baptized in 1816. Following this, they took the family name Bartholdy. Growing up in the safe environment of the Mendelssohn home, Fanny enjoyed the luxuries of an affluent upper class family. The Mendelssohn home became quickly the most important salon in Berlin. A cultural atmosphere was provided by the weekly theatrical performances, literary readings, and regular Sunday musicales. Guests included the natural scientist Alexander Von Humboldt, Goethe , Hegel, and the critic Adolf Bernard Marx. At an early age, it was discovered that both she and Felix had an incomparable musical talent. Undoubtedly, her first teacher was her mother, who had upon her birth commented on her 'Bach fugue fingers.' Along with her brother, she enjoyed a broad education with the best tutors in Berlin. She studied piano with the acclaimed pianist and teacher Ludwig Berger and studied theory and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, a violinist and principal of the Berlin Singakedemie. During her youth, her comparable talent to her brother's was encouraged as an ornament and musical gift. In 1816, the family traveled to Paris and Fanny was given the opportunity to study piano with Marie Bigot, a teacher who had been esteemed by both Haydn and Beethoven. She was thought to be an excellent pianist, and it was noted that by the age of 13 she could play the entire length of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. She composed small works in the style of Bach and Mozart throughout her youth, but was forbidden from pursuing any public display by both her father and Felix -although the family was greatly anticipating a career for her younger brother. In 1822, the family traveled to Switzerland. In 1825, she attended Alexander Von Humboldt's lectures on physical geography and Holtei's on experimental physics at the Berlin Singakademie. By 1828, her family began expressing their desire for her to give up any desire for a music career and to prepare for what were to be her 'mature' occupations - of housewife and mother. In 1829, she married the German painter Wilhelm Hensel, who was a great supporter of her music. Perhaps not coincidentally, she chose someone who was not a musician. In addition, it was at this time that she became an avid and somewhat vicarious follower of her brother's career. On 16 June 1830, she gave birth to her only child, Sebastian, who would go on to become a prominent biographer of the Mendelssohn family. It has been indicated that in the following years she would miscarriage several times. During the years of 1831-32, Fanny attempted the composition of larger scale works for voice and instruments, most likely under the direction of her brother. She abandoned several cantatas and overtures for the smaller domain of piano and lieder. In 1837, she disobeyed the wishes of her brother and published a song in a collection. Although initially displeased with her disobeyal, Felix expressed joy that she did publish the work, although he convinced her not to try to publish anything further. In 1838, at the age of 33, she performed in public the first time, performing Felix's piano concerto no.1 in G minor, Op. 25. In 1839-40, Fanny and her family traveled to Italy, spending time in Milan, Venice, Naples, Rome, and Genoa. It was during this period that Fanny considered the high point of her life, she felt that she was able to compose freely. Following the death of her mother in 1842, Fanny became the central figure in the Mendelssohn household and led the Sonntagsmusik concerts in the Mendelssohn home in Berlin. Fanny worked to make these performances of the highest caliber, and often she made appearances as a pianist and conductor of a small choral group. These performances often included her own compositions, and she continued to compose for voice and piano. During this time she occasionally made appearances as a piano soloist in Berlin. In 1846, bids by two rival publishing companies spurred her to publish a small number of what she considered her best works: two books of solo songs, a variety of piano compositions, and a book of part songs. The success of these publications urged her to compose a work of larger scale, this, her Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11, was first performed in April of 1847. Fanny Hensel died during a rehearsal of her brother's Walpurgis Nacht on 14 May 1847. Her final diary entries are committed to her happiness and desire to continue composing larger and more varied works. Interestingly, one week later, a favorable view of her published works appeared in a prominent Leipzig music journal. Today, Fanny is remembered as a major talent whose familial and societal restrictions curbed her development. Although the majority of her works still remain unpublished, her contributions as a historical influence are important, as her diaries and letters provided the main source of biographical information for her brother.

She composed 300 songs during her career. Her songs were influenced by the study of Bach and her brother's compositions. She quickly developed her own distinctive song writing style. Her songs bear a confidence and melodic ease lacking in Felix Mendelssohn's works of the same genre. Six of her songs were published under her brother's name in his Op. 8 and 9 (Heimweh, Italien, Sulieka und Hatem, Sehnsucht, Verlust, and Die Nonne). Several volumes of her songs were published in 1847, but the majority remain unpublished. [Adapted from Suzy Smith]

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