Man or woman? Does it matter? At the time it did. In 1843 Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–1847), Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, wrote an outstanding piano work, the Piano Sonata in G minor (H-U 395). But her family had made clear that her compositions should not be published and that she should not perform in public. She was meant to be a distinguished lady, a good housekeeper and a caring mother. This didn’t keep Fanny Mendelssohn from composing, nor from publishing her works for that matter and she could count on the support of another man, her husband. As much as Fanny loved Felix, she had a brain of her own and knew how to use it.
The introduction of the first theme of the sonata – a falling line in the soprano over a deep bass tremolo, as the biographer R. Larry Todd describes it, has a distinct masculine feeling, an echo of Ludwig van Beethoven, whom Fanny Mendelssohn had studied and admired just as much as her brother did. It underlines the futility of the search for female or male traits in music. It’s music, full stop. Music is about expressing feelings and ideas, and since there are no exclusively female or male feelings or ideas, such a distinction in music makes no sense.
Fanny’s Romantic heritage
Fanny Mendelssohn did however have a distinct signature as a composer. Obviously, being a child of her time, she was influenced by the Vienna classics and had a Romantic outlook on the world – like her brother or Robert Schumann and his wife Clara Wieck for that matter. She did not pay too much respect to formal composition principles.
In the first movement she skips the usual second, contrasting theme and returns after a lengthy bridging phrase to the original theme, played fortissimo now. “The purpose of Fanny’s telescoping of the sonata process becomes clear toward the end of the first movement, linked, like the second and third movements, to what follows”, writes Todd. “The individual movements do not stand alone but are subordinate to an overarching process and tonal scheme…”
This linking process becomes very obvious at the end of the first movement which seamlessly becomes the beginning of the second movement. A graceful and elegant transition, inspired perhaps by the technique that Felix Mendelssohn applied to link the third and fourth movements of his Cello Sonata No. 2 in D major (Op. 58). The scherzo is written in B minor, a stark contrast to the first movement. A theme sounding very natural, similar to a folk song, followed by tremolos in the highest register suggesting a high-flying bird, a sensation of being removed from the daily hustle and bustle.
Again, there is no clear break where the third movement begins with a graceful melody recalling the Lieder Fanny Mendelssohn wrote under the impression of her trip to Italy. The finale is technically demanding for the pianist with a couple of three-hand passages, conjuring again reminiscences of Beethoven’s musical language.
On the last page of the manuscript Fanny Mendelssohn scribbled a note: “For Felix – during his absence.” Felix was away from the family home in Berlin, the weekly Sunday concerts remained suspended as she felt too weak. She suffered from a lack of sensation in her arms since the death of her mother Lea a year ago. Nevertheless she mustered the will to write this piece, her last major composition for the piano. The manuscript lay dormant for nearly 150 years until 1991. It is of a striking beauty. It has been recorded by the Luxembourg pianist Béatrice Rauchs in 1997.
© Charles Thibo
N.B. Oxford University Press has an interesting website with samples of Fanny Mendelssohns works and details about R. Larry Todd’s biography of the composer.