Neapolitan Songs That Need No Words

La luna. © Charles Thibo

A night in Naples, the moon is rising over the volcano Vesuvio, straight out of the crater, and Fanny Mendelssohn and her husband Wilhelm Hensel enjoy a romantic moment on the balcony of the house they occupy. Spring 1840: Fanny had rented a piano and her inspiration knew no limits. She composed as she had already done earlier when the Hensels had still been in Rome, an uninterrupted flow of beautiful melodies, set free by the liberty she enjoined far away from her home in Berlin. O fortuna velut luna…

Fanny wrote several undated pieces during her stay in Italy, and one of the most remarkable of these is her Allegro vivace in B major (H-U 356), published in 1847 as No. 2 of her cycle “Four Songs for the Piano”, Op. 6. It is a brightly lit work, writes the biographer R. Larry Todd, and he is quite right. A touch of melancholy, an equal portion of lightness, precisely balanced, a touch of brilliance – finito!

The first song from that cycle, the Andante espressivo in A flat major, is slightly more dark and nostalgic. It begins in the same key as her brother Felix’s Song without Words No. 1 (Op. 35), but Fanny’s work differs from her brother’s composition by its greater harmonic richness and the more generous alternation of major and minor modes. The third piece of Op. 6, the Andante cantabile in F sharp minor (H-U 424), saw the light several years after the Hensels’ trip to Italy, in May 1846, after Fanny and Wilhelm had celebrated the confirmation of their son Sebastian. Its mood is calm, almost solemn, appropriate to the festive moment.

The final piece of Op. 6 is called “Il saltarello Romano” (H-U 372) and written in A minor. Fanny finished it in March 1841; she wrote it on the basis of a sketch she had noted in Rome the year before. It is as such a reminiscence of the folk music she heard in Italy. To quote Todd again, it is “a lively, spirited composition with whirling, dizzying melodic configurations, offbeat accents and zesty dissonances – all in all, an effective display piece that can stand among the best artful imitations of Italian folk music.” Bellissimo!

In her diary, Fanny wrote on June 2, 1841. “On this day, a year ago we left Rome […] O happy, rich, singular days! How fresh is my memory of you, how vivid and deep are you impressed upon my heart. How happy I feel and how thankful, to have these pictures, to possess them, this treasure, that nothing except the extinction of my memory, of reason itself can take from me.” True words.

The cycle “Four Songs for the Piano” has been recorded by Matthias Kirschnereit.

© Charles Thibo

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