Let’s hear a song about spring, about a warm night in May, let’s hear about love and sorrow, the longing for home and the longing for Italy, where this composer felt at ease, far away from rigid Prussia, in a setting that gave birth to so many beautiful works: Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s talented sister. We have met Fanny already, an excellent pianist, an excellent composer, when I presented her piano cycle “Das Jahr” and her Piano Trio in D minor (Op. 11) in an earlier post.
Of all the romantic composers and pianists having excelled in the art of composing “Lieder” (songs), I certainly prefer Fanny Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert. And the fact that her brother, whose music I deeply affectionate, would not let her perform in public and publish her works under her own name, motivates me to promote her cause here and now. I have a keen sense of justice and support gender equality!
Felix, Fanny and Rebekka
The pianist Eugene Asti and the soprano Susan Gritton have recorded a number of Fanny Mendelssohn’s songs and they are absolutely wonderful! Just a few examples: Zwölf Lieder Op. 8: lll. Italien, Zwölf Lieder Op. 9: III. Der Rosenkranz and V. Der Maienabend, furthermore Die Schiffende and the cycle Sechs Lieder Op. 1.
Song number III “Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß” of Op. 1 was the preferred song of Fanny and Felix. She set to music a poem of the writer Heinrich Heine and offered the song to Felix’ wife Cécile as a wedding present. She had composed it with the voice of her sister Rebecka in mind. Fanny would often perform it with Rebecka just for Felix. It is full of romantic longing and makes you melt away!
Private concerts at number 3
I like to imagine Fanny in her study or in the veranda, the famous “Gartenzimmer” that she liked so much, thinking about new songs, trying a few bars on the piano, developing the melody. I like to imagine her performing her or her brother’s songs during the famous “Sonntagsmusiken”, private concerts that the Mendelssohns gave on Sundays at their house in Berlin at Nb. 3 in the Leipziger Straße. Great venues, where they received local dignitaries, members of the nobility and many artists like Heine, the violinist Niccolo Paganini, the flautist Louis Drouet, the composer Edgar Rietz, the pianist Ignaz Moscheles and so many more.
These concerts saw the premiere of many of Fanny Mendelssohn’s songs, some would be illustrated by Fanny’s husband, Wilhelm Hensel. She would set to music poems from different poets (Heine, Grillparzer, Hölty, Tieck, Voss, Klopstock etc.) and compose her songs in Italian, French, English, but mostly in German. A recurrent subject would be the feeling of longing, of paramount importance to the Romantic era1. How far did her songs also reflect her longing for recognition, public recognition as a composer and a pianist?
Recognition as an artist
In 1839, Fanny Mendelssohn travelled with her husband to Italy and had thus one of her dearest wishes fulfilled. She wanted to explore the heritage of the Greek and Roman empire, to travel back to the Renaissance era like so many other artists in the 18th and 19th century. “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühen…” – the first line of this poem called “Mignon” and written in 1795/1796 by Johann Wolfgang Goethe is one my favourites, and it reflects the wish to cross the Alps, to see Italy and the quest for its beauty or rather the idea of Beauty.
Unsurprisingly, Fanny Mendelssohn would characterize her stay in Italy as the happiest period in her life. “I am composing a lot now, nothing pushes me more than the recognition [I get here], while disapproval is discouraging and depressing me”, she writes in her diary.
I like to imagine Fanny Mendelssohn visiting St. Peter’s Dome in Rome and St. Mark’s Dome in Venice. I see her in the company of painters, poets, musicians, fellow composers like Charles Gounod debating aesthetic questions and new productions in the Mendelssohn’s house in Rome. She would spend many evenings at some expat’s home discussing Europe’s cultural and political affairs, enjoying concerts among friends, being encouraged to play some piece she has just composed. I see a woman who can finally be what she always wanted to be: a free artist, unrestrained by what was deemed correct behaviour for a young German lady in Berlin. For a short time span, she came very close to the ideal life as it was imagined by Romantic artists.
1 We will come back to that feeling in a philosophical post of biblical length about Weltschmerz in a few days. You have been warned!
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© Charles Thibo