I like poems from the era of German Romanticism and I like songs that set them to music. If I do not share Fanny’ Mendelssohn’s talent as a musician, at least we share the love for a specific kind of literature in common. And of course I like to play the songs she composed… these beautiful harmonies! Challenging and rewarding. In 1850 she published a set of six songs: Sechs Lieder (Op. 9), recorded by Barbara Heller (piano) and Isabel Lippitz (soprano). The corresponding poems had been written by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty and Johann Heinrich Voss; springtime renewal, the anticipation of death and Romantic longing are the subjects.
Op. 9 is the result of a creative phase stretching from 1826 to 1828, when “Fanny seemed content to refine her art as a miniaturist, in contrast to [her brother] Felix’s broadening compositional aspirations”, as her biographer R. Larry Todd writes. Song composition dominated those years, she wrote some 30 new songs within that period – an astonishing feat for Fanny who considered herself at the time as an amateur ranking far behind the excellence of her brother, who had completed his musical education by 1827.
However there was no reason to feel inferior to Felix. Her famous brother borrowed several of her melodies to use them in his compositions and though it was obvious to Fanny that a professional career as a composer was unthinkable, she longed at the same time to participate in Berlin’s intellectual life. “But do you know that at his majesty’s desire [Humboldt] has begun a second course of lectures in the hall of the Singakademie, attended by everyone who lays any claim to good breeding and fashion, from the king and the whole court, ministers, generals, officers, artists, authors, beaux esprits (and ugly ones too), students, and ladies, down to your unworthy correspondent?”, she wrote in a letter at the time.
The song cycle exerts a singular effect upon me. Fanny’s songs, almost 200 years old by now, trigger in me, at the beginning of the 21st century the kind of Romantic longing and idealistic hope for a better world that was very much en vogue in the early 19th century. A timeless message, a lasting emotional content the songs expressivity unfolding their psychological effect in a very different social contexts – Fanny would most likely have laughed out loud if anyone from her semi-private audience of the Sonntagsmusiken would have claimed that her songs would be valued 200 years later.
© Charles Thibo