Composing Incognito – Fanny Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn wouldn't let his sister perform in public. © Charles Thibo
Felix Mendelssohn wouldn’t let his sister perform in public. © Charles Thibo

“Fanny, as I know her, neither has the wish nor the vocation to be known as the composer [of her works]. She is a good woman busy with housekeeping and doesn’t think about the audience or the world of music or music as such, unless she is done with that first job.” The author of these lines was no lesser genius than the German composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. In a letter he wrote in 1835 to his mother, he adamantly refused to support his sister pursuing a professional career as a pianist and a composer.

Publishing her works under her own name? Felix would have none of it. Fanny giving public concerts? That was out of question. His only concession: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel would be allowed to organize the family’s traditional private concerts in Berlin and to play the piano for the house guests. At the same time, Felix was full of praise for Fanny’s talent both as a pianist and as a composer. At the same time he also supported another woman in her career as a pianist: Clara Wieck, the later wife of the composer Robert Schumann and Felix’ favourite solo pianist.

While the social conventions of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century would somewhat excuse Felix Mendelssohn’s position, it remains difficult to reconcile with the deep respect he had for Fanny’s talent. For talent she possessed. The French composer Charles Gounod, whom Fanny had met in Rome, remembered her as an “exceptional musician, a remarkable pianist, a woman full of esprit and full of energy. She was gifted with rare qualities as a composer.”

Between 1822 and her early death in 1847, she composed some 250 “Lieder” (songs, mostly romantic poems set into music), several piano quartets and sonatas, preludes for the organ, cantatas, an overture, a quartet for strings, a trio for piano, violin and cello and many smaller pieces for piano. It must have been a bitter pill for Fanny Mendelssohn to remain in the shadow of her famous brother, as the two had shared an intimate artistic companionship when they both started composing as teenagers.

To give you an idea about the refined and subtle character of her composing, let me invite you to listen to two important works, the Piano trio in D Minor, Op. 11 (available on Youtube) and the piano cycle “Das Jahr” (The Year), performed by the Latvian pianist Lauma Skride and available on Spotify. I warmly recommend the album by Lauma Skride published in 2007. Op. 11 is available with recordings of several other pieces of chamber music by Fanny Mendelssohn on an album published by the label Troubadisc since 2012.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s talent did not get the recognition that it deserved while she lived. Therefore I am more than happy to see that today there are efforts underway to make her works known to the public. However, as a closing remark, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that all Men are still not equal in the classical music business. While many women have embarked on successful careers as solo performers and some as composers, we still see only few female conductors leading symphonic orchestras. One more bastion to take, ladies! You are welcome.

© Charles Thibo

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