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.
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.
One of my favourite movies is the French production ” Un husard sur le toit” starring Juliette Binoche, my favourite actress. At the center of the plot is a young French lady and an Italian revolutionary fleeing the outbreak of the plague in southern France. A love story amidst human misery and suffering – very romantic, very much my taste. It also compels me to acknowledge how fortunate I am not to have to fear any deadly epidemics in Europe with the exception of HIV. Only a century ago, in 1918, Europe was fighting the outbreak of a particularly tough type of flu and between 1826 and 1837 the great cholera pandemic the killed almost killed the composer Felix Mendelssohn.
Man or woman? Does it matter? At the time it did. In 1843 Fanny Mendelssohn (1805–1847), Felix Mendelssohn’s sister, wrote an outstanding piano work, the Piano Sonata in G minor (H-U 395). But her family had made clear that her compositions should not be published and that she should not perform in public. She was meant to be a distinguished lady, a good housekeeper and a caring mother. This didn’t keep Fanny Mendelssohn from composing, nor from publishing her works for that matter and she could count on the support of another man, her husband. As much as Fanny loved Felix, she had a brain of her own and knew how to use it.