Hensel, Fanny Mendelssohn

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Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Composer Fanny Hensel (1805–1847) lived for much of her life in the shadow of her more famous brother, Felix Mendelssohn. Most of her works were known only to her family and her immediate circle of acquaintances, but renewed interest in the music of women composers led to the rediscovery of her works and convinced many researchers and musicians that her talent was unique.

Hensel's musical career suffered because the middle-class German family in which she grew up held the typical belief that women should devote themselves to domesticity and child-rearing, pursuing creative work as a strictly limited hobby if at all. It was her brother Felix who steered her away from publishing her music, which would have led to wider renown; her husband, painter Wilhelm Hensel, encouraged her work, and she began to publish some of her more than 500 compositions shortly before her sudden death at age 41. Although he worked to squash her career, Felix Mendelssohn was well aware of his sister's talent and often consulted her on musical matters.

Was Granddaughter of Jewish Philosopher

The Mendelssohn family were well-off citizens of Hamburg, Germany, where Hensel was born, Fanny Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, on November 14, 1805. They moved to Berlin in 1809. Hensel was the oldest of four children; Felix Mendelssohn was four years younger, and the two were close from early childhood onward. Their grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a well-known philosopher who tried to establish a basis for friendly coexistence between Jewish and Christian Germans. By the generation of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn his project had begun to progress: Jews found more opportunities in Germany and became more integrated into German culture. But opportunity and integration often carried a price; both Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn converted to Lutheranism.

Most of their musical education was shared between the two. Hensel was taught to play the piano by her mother Lea, and she went on to take piano lessons from top performers in Berlin and Paris. She became a top-flight pianist, and unlike most other piano works by amateur composers of the nineteenth century, hers are generally difficult to play. Both Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn studied musical composition with Carl F. Zelter, a song composer well known for his settings of the classic poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Zelter also introduced both Mendelssohn siblings to the century-old music of Johann Sebastian Bach, today considered some of the greatest ever written but largely forgotten at the time. Felix Mendelssohn went on to lead a revival of Bach's music in Germany, and it made a strong impression on Hensel as well. By the time she was 13 she could play all of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, a collection of 48 piano pieces covering all 24 major and minor keys twice through, from memory. Her first composition, written when she was 14, was a song celebrating her father's birthday.

In 1820 she enrolled at a music school, the Berlin Sing-Akademie. She wrote numerous lieder (German-language songs) and piano pieces during this period. Often she wrote short, evocative, highly melodic piano pieces called Songs without Words; Felix Mendelssohn often cultivated the genre, but it is unclear which sibling originated it. Just as her career was beginning to flower, her family threw roadblocks in her way. Her father discouraged her from composing, and Felix Mendelssohn, by now an internationally known composer, refused to help her find a publisher for her works.

His reasons for this discouragement have been much discussed by historians. Certainly, in devaluing the creative powers of women, he was very much a product of his time. Yet he may also have been acting out of sheer competitiveness. Several of Hensel's songs were published under Felix Mendelssohn's name between 1822 and about 1830; one of them, "Italien" (Italy), became widely known, and Felix Mendelssohn, during an audience with England's Queen Victoria later in his life, had to admit the fraud when the queen requested the song and proclaimed it her favorite.

Founded Salon

Fanny Mendelssohn married Wilhelm Hensel, court painter to the King of Prussia, in 1829; a pencil portrait of her that he drew that year reveals a woman who strongly resembled her famous brother physically. The marriage finally gave Hensel an outlet for her music, even if it was not an international platform: her husband backed her efforts to compose, and soon she founded a salon—a regular (often weekly) gathering for individuals interested in the arts and intellectual trends. In this she followed two of her great-aunts who had been enthusiastic salon participants. The Hensel home became one of Berlin's most important intellectual gathering places. Hensel was able to write music for her own salon and perform it there, and she soon began to develop the musical ideas she had formed during her training.

Piano music and songs remained at the center of Hensel's output, but now she began to attempt larger works: an orchestral Overture in C major in 1830, for example, and a 35-minute Oratorio on Scenes from the Bible (an oratorio is a dramatic but unstaged work for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, often on a religious theme) the following year. That work remained unheard between whatever initial performance it may have had and the year 1982, when it was rediscovered. Like many of the choral works of Felix Mendelssohn, Hensel's oratorio was steeped in the music of J.S. Bach. San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman opined that "it's hard to know where to fault this masterly work, or how to explain its neglect as anything but simple sexism." Kosman pointed to such passages as the chorus "Wir leiden um unsrer Sünden willen" (We suffer for our sins), in which Hensel "builds a splendid fugue [a difficult passage in which voices enter at different times with the same melodic material] on a strangely gnarled, disjointed theme." She also wrote chamber music—music for small instrumental ensembles—including a String Quartet in G minor that took after similar works by her brother. She also wrote a considerable amount of music for women's chorus.

Whatever tensions may have existed in their relationship, Hensel and Felix Mendelssohn continued to work together closely when it came to music. She is thought to have played a role in the composition of some of his major works, including the oratorio Paulus (St. Paul, 1837), and in general he played through his music to get her opinion and suggestions before notating it in finished form. Felix Mendelssohn married that year, and his marriage seemed to free Hensel from some of her career restrictions. In 1838, Hensel made an appearance as a pianist, performing Felix Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1.

Traveled to Italy

Between 1839 and 1845 Hensel and her family (she had one son and may have suffered a miscarriage) made two trips to Italy. The voyages were musically rich ones for Hensel, who made the acquaintance of the young French composer Charles Gounod and influenced his music. In 1841 she composed the piano work "Das Jahr" (The Year) as a memoir of the first journey; it consisted of twelve short pieces, one for each month of the year, plus a final chorale (a harmonization of a German Lutheran melody). "This is an outgoing cycle: even the ruminative, bittersweet Serenades, June and July, grow into densely textured virtuoso works, and most of the pieces have more of [Robert] Schumann's audaciousness than Felix Mendelssohn's delicacy …," noted New York Times reviewer Allan Kozinn after hearing the work in 1996. Indeed, not all of Hensel's music resembled Felix Mendelssohn's; she also drew on the meatier innovations of younger innovators of the day such as Schumann and Franz Liszt.

Late in her life, Hensel decided to publish some of her music regardless of what her family thought. A long statement on this decision in one of her letters, reproduced on the website of the music publisher W.W. Norton, testifies to her lack of confidence about her decision: "I hope I shall not disgrace you all, for I am no femme libre [liberated woman]," she wrote. About 25 publications of her music, mostly of songs and piano pieces, appeared in all, some of them after her sudden death from a stroke in Berlin on May 14, 1847, while she was leading a rehearsal of Felix Mendelssohn's choral Erste Walpurgisnacht cantata. Felix Mendelssohn was strongly affected by her death, and died himself six months later.

For well over a century, Hensel's music was almost completely forgotten. Her manuscripts remained in the possession of her family, and in 1965 they became part of an archive of Felix Mendelssohn materials held at the West Berlin State Library (now the Berlin State Library) in Germany. As feminism began to make inroads in academic musical circles, scholars unearthed records of Hensel's career. But the archive's director, Rudolf Elvers, pooh-poohed the interest of what he called (according to Christopher Swan of the Christian Science Monitor) "all these piano-playing girls who are just in love with Fanny," and he dragged his feet in making Hensel's music available. Musicians who asked to see the manuscripts were told to wait while priorities were sorted out.

The situation began to change in the 1990s, and recordings of Hensel's music appeared. A four-disc set devoted to Hensel was issued by Germany's CPO label, and the Thorofon label issued three volumes of her vocal and keyboard music. Printed editions of selections from her body of work were published, but most of her manuscripts remained locked up in the Berlin State Library or held in private collections. As of the early 2000s, most of her music was still inaccessible to performers.

Critical opinion was divided, sometimes but not always along gender lines, about those Hensel pieces that had been placed before the musical public. "You feel like you're listening to a major composer, the workings of an authentic creative soul," Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Stephen Albert told Christopher Swan in reference to Hensel's Piano Trio of 1846. "I'll tell you, she's certainly more adventurous than her brother. She's plenty talented…. There's a clarity of thought, a real inevitability to her music…. This last movement is very Brahms-like. Only it was written when Brahms was around 14 years old." Composer Gunther Schuller told Swan that "she was extremely prolific, but on a very high, consistent level. The kind of thing where you say, 'Why don't we know this music better?'"

Edward Rothstein of the New York Times dissented, calling Hensel's short piano pieces "works of some charm but uncompelling character" and asserting that "the lieder were also relatively banal, with a few moments of surprising modulation." Some writers took the position that Hensel was a composer with raw talent to equal her brother's, but that she had never been allowed to develop it fully. A full evaluation of Hensel's creative contributions awaited deeper research into her life and works. The year 2005 saw the modern premiere of an Italian-language concert aria by Hensel, "Io d'amor, oh Dio, mi moro" (I die, O Lord, of love). Perhaps in future years Hensel's remaining and as of yet unreleased body of work will be discovered and enjoyed.


Citron, Marcia J., The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 2001.

Citron, Marcia J., ed., The Letters of Fanny Hensel to Felix Mendelssohn, Pendragon, 1987.

Tillard, Françoise, Fanny Hensel, trans. Camille Naish, Amadeus, 1996.


American Record Guide, March-April 1998; July-August 1999; May 2000.

Christian Science Monitor, March 27, 1986.

New York Times, September 29, 1991; March 23, 1996.

Observer (London, England), May 1, 2005.

San Francisco Chronicle, February 5, 1990.


"Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel," W.W. Norton publisher, http://www.wwnorton.com/classical/composers/hensel.htm (November 10, 2005).

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