A delicate, poetic scent from Fanny’s garden of songs

Unobtrusive beauty. © Charles Thibo

Four voices. Nature as the inspiring element. Silence and peace as one of the central themes. Purity. Beauty. Harmony. “Unfortunately I have nothing for you except my part-songs and I would appreciate if you could play them for Cécile, always a well-meaning audience for me […] I associate a very pleasant time with these songs and I prefer them over my other songs”, writes the composer on February 1, 1847. Fanny Mendelssohn is the author, and in 1847 she sent a copy of the Gartenlieder, Op. 3 (Garden Songs) to her brother Felix. Cécile of course was Felix’ wife and the two women kept in touch regularly through letters. Fanny stayed in Berlin, Felix and Cécile in Leipzig where Felix led the Gewandhausorchester.

Fanny often used Cécile as a go-between; in an earlier letter she had confessed to her brother: “Why didn’t I address my Lieder [Op. 1] to you? In part I know why, in part I don’t. I wanted to enlist Cécile as a go-between because I had a sort of guilty conscience towards you. To be sure, when I considered that 10 years ago I thought it too late [to publish any of my works] and now is the latest possible time, the situation seems rather ridiculous, as does my long-standing outrage at the idea of starting Op. 1 in my old age. But since you’re amenable to the project now, I also want to admit how terrible uppity I’ve been, and announce that 6 4-part-songs, which you really don’t know, are coming out next.”

Gender inequality then and now

Here’s is a woman devoured by guilt over her talent and her wish to be recognized as composer. Feeling guilt towards a brother of whom she was extraordinarily fond of and with whom she shared a rare musical intimacy. True, Felix had spoken out against Fanny performing in public and publishing her compositions many years ago, but I am convinced that he had done so rather because such a decision was commanded by the social rank the Mendelssohns’ held in Berlin and less because he was convinced about the righteousness of it. He was well aware of his sister’s talent and of the pain her self-imposed restraint caused her. Still it was Fanny who had a bad conscience when she finally overcome the obstacle to fulfil her dream – her own inhibition.

I can’t help it, but this state of affairs make me angry. I can understand both Fanny’s self-restraint and Felix’ reluctance to grant his sister celebrity status, considering they lived in the 19th century. In fact what makes me angry is that humanity hasn’t made much progress since. In too many countries and in to many jobs woman are still not considered equally equal to others. #MeToo is only one aspect of a much broader gender inequality and it remains to me totally unacceptable that talented people are being discriminated because of their gender.

Fanny Mendelssohn’s high degree of compositional skill becomes immediately apparent in her Gartenlieder. There’s a beautiful recording by Leonarda Ensemble Köln, and if you listen to No. 4 Waldeinsam (Forest Solitude) or No. 8 Morgengruß (Morning Greeting) you will concede that these songs are in no way inferior to those composed by Felix. Robert Schumann had the songs performed in Dresden the year they were published and a critic in the „Neuen Zeitschrift für Musik“ wrote: “The harmonies are carefully chosen and testify of and artful hand. The music exudes a delicate, poetic scent.”

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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