The longest night, that is winter solstice, has passed, and it’s time to look forward to spring. “This spring is extremely agreeable to me […] I feel like newly born and I enjoy the magnificence of our garden growing lovelier by the day, like an ephemeral piece of luck ,” writes Fanny Mendelssohn in her diary in May 1846 after a time marked by illness and living in a dark, confined and humid house. And the composer had reasons to rejoice. She was back at organizing Sunday concerts at the Mendelssohn’s house in Berlin and, more importantly, she had found the will and inspiration to compose again. By the end of the summer she would have two competing offers for a publication of her Op. 1, a set of six songs.
Fanny Mendelssohn was aware that her brother Felix was – as a matter of principles – opposed to the publication of Fanny’s compositions as well to her performing in public. However Felix was away and busy and she took matters in her own hand, encouraged by her husband and Robert von Keudell, a pianist and a friend of the Hensels’. She accepted the offer from Bote & Bock and informed her brother, not without excusing herself for defying his stated will: “I hope I won’t disgrace all of you through my publishing, as I’m no femme libre and unfortunately not even an adherent of the Young Germany movement.” This cultural movement requested democracy and a liberalisation of social norms, but the Mendelssohn family wanted to be accepted among the German bourgeoisie and overcome the stigma of being of Jewish origin.
Felix Mendelssohn gave his sister the “Handwerkssegen”, that is his professional blessing, and he was right to do so. Fanny’s first published set of Lieder shows her knowledge, her imagination, her sense of harmony. The six songs are, to borrow Fanny’s words, ephemeral pieces of luck for the listener and make her a worthy representative of a German musical tradition that started with Franz Schubert. Felix positive reaction satisfied her: “I know that he is not quite satisfied in his heart of hearts, but I am glad he has said a kind word to me about it.” Actually she called the summer of 1846 the happiest period in her life with the exception of her stay in Rome, that had triggered another compositional period.
Fanny’s diary notes clearly show that music was her raison d’être and her single passion. She displayed an exceptional talent, be it as a pianist, a composer or an event manager for the Sunday concerts, and only the discriminative circumstances of the 19th century prevented her from attaining the same celebrity as her brother Felix or their contemporary Robert Schumann did. Some 150 years later, women are still being discriminated, but at least Fanny Mendelssohn has now found the much deserved recognition of the music world.
Fanny Mendelssohn’s set “Sechs Lieder, Op. 1” have been recorded by Isabelle Lippitz (Soprano) and Barbara Heller-Reichenbach (piano).
© Charles Thibo