Fanny Breaks the Rule on her Quest of Self-expression

Drifting into the night. © Charles Thibo

Drifting peacefully into the evening. Watching the sun. Observing the changing colours of the sky. Remaining in a suspended state of mind until darkness surrounds myself. Questions. What did cross Fanny Mendelssohn’s mind when she wrote the String Quartet in E flat major, H-U 277? It remains a mystery. I went through Fanny’s diary and the letters she wrote to her brother Felix during the first half of 1834 and found nothing. Fanny completed the quartet in August that year and she did not seem eager to share anything about it.

However what I did find was a description of her general mood. Energetic, self-assured, pleased with what she did. In June 1834 she had performed her Overture for orchestra in C major before a selected audience and the piece did receive a warm applause. She conducted the piece herself and felt “an unexpected joy”. This may explain why the string quartet amounts to a daring and exceptionally beautiful tonal experiment, disregarding the standard composition rules.

Tonal experiments

The piece begins quartet contains an eloquent opening adagio,  a touch of melancholia, with the sound swaggering up and down from C minor to E flat major, lingering in E minor and F major. She has no use of a clear distinction of exposition, development and recapitulation of the main theme. The scherzo in C minor is slow, intense, with “hushed dynamics” as the biographer R. Larry Tod puts it while the third movement, the “Romanze” in G minor, features a dissonant, unstable middle section, liberated from the rules of harmony. Listen to the fabulous recording by the French Quatuor Ebène, and you will hear what I mean.

“Fanny’s first three movements thus use tonality in an expressive way that further separates her from the eighteen-century tradition in which [the composition teacher Carl Friedrich] Zelter had trained her and Felix”, writes Todd. The direct inspiration was Ludwig van Beethoven. She was drawn to his String Quartet No. 10 in E major (Op. 74), that I have presented in an earlier post. The slow introduction, “a tonally shifting, ambiguous preamble” greatly impressed her, according to Todd and she set out to try the same technique in her quartet.

Beethoven as a source of inspiration

Beethoven acted as a liberating force for Fanny in her endeavour to compose larger works, and here lies the irony: Her brother Felix, greatly impressed by Beethoven’s “Harp Quartet” too, strongly disapproved of her sister’s quartet. On January 30, 1835, after he had played the quartet, he wrote to his sister: “If you will permit me a small critical comment, then that concerns the style of the whole, or, if you like, the form. I would prefer that you pay more heed to a definite form, namely in the modulations. It is admittedly fine to shatter such a form, but in that case, the contents must shatter it, through inner necessity.”

A sign of small-mindedness? Are some more equal than others? No, not necessarily. Felix admitted having strayed of the path in his own, more recent works. “I speak from experience, though I do not know if I could do any better.” Where Felix saw an obstacle however, Fanny saw an opportunity and a purpose. Both had grown up with a clear picture of how a composition should look like, a mold that was to be filled with the artistic content that the composer wished to express. If the mold did not fit, content would have to be adapted. But Fanny shattered the mold and broke the rule. Not for the sake of breaking the rule, but to express herself without any formal restrictions. What a courageous woman she was!

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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