Mendelssohn-Hensel, Fanny (1805–1847)

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Mendelssohn-Hensel, Fanny (1805–1847)

German composer and performer whose works were increasingly performed and recorded in the late 20th century and whose playing and compositions have been compared favorably to those of her more famous brother Felix Mendelssohn. Name variations: Fanny Cäcilie; Fanny Hensel; Fanny Mendelssohn; Fanny Cäcilia Mendelssohn; Fanny Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Born Cäcilie Mendelssohn in Hamburg, Germany, on November 14, 1805; died in Berlin on May 14, 1847; daughter of Abraham Mendelssohn (an international banker) and Lea (Salomon) Mendelssohn (a gifted amateur musician); married Wilhelm Hensel (a court painter), on October 3, 1829; children: one son, Sebastian (b. 1830).

Became Fanny Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, converting with her family from Judaism to Protestantism at age 11, the same year she wrote her first musical composition (1816); sponsored the first of her musical salons while still in her teens (1822); after her marriage, conducted large weekly musical salons which became highly influential in Berlin's musical and social circles; at age 40, despite her brother's opposition, announced her intention to publish her compositions (1846); had published some sixty of her several hundred compositions by the time of her death (1847).

The lives of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel and her brother Felix Mendelssohn provide a striking illustration of the way in which societal and familial expectations of appropriate behavior for women in the 19th century could impact even the wealthy and highly talented. Born only three years apart into a rich and cultured German-Jewish family, both sister and brother showed early an extraordinary aptitude for music which their parents encouraged. Yet while Felix gave his first public performance at age nine and quickly went on to a lauded and very public career as a composer and pianist, throughout her life Fanny was strongly discouraged by her family (including her brother) from performing in public or even publishing her numerous compositions.

The first of four children of Abraham and Lea Salomon Mendelssohn , Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1805. Both her mother's and her father's sides of the family had grown wealthy as international bankers, and around 1811 the Mendelssohns moved to Berlin, where they spared no expense on their children's education; Fanny and her siblings were probably among the best educated children of their era. The product of the Enlightenment approach to learning, they began their lessons each day at dawn, reading Goethe and Shakespeare before moving on to science and drawing. As the two oldest children, Fanny and Felix were educated together, and developed a particularly close relationship which would remain central to both of their lives. Lea Mendelssohn, who was a gifted musician, was the first to instruct them in music, and soon they were inventing games that centered on composing. Mendelssohn-Hensel wrote her first composition at age 11, in honor of her father's birthday. She proved to be a much more gifted pianist than Felix, but took great joy in his accomplishments and sought his opinion on virtually every topic. Later, when he left home to expand his musical horizons, she missed him desperately and wrote to him frequently; on her wedding day, she wrote:

I am very composed, Dear Felix, and your picture is next to me, but as I write your name again and almost see you in person before my very eyes, I cry.… Actually I've al ways known that I could never experience anything that would remove you from my memory for even one-tenth of a moment.… Your love has provided me with an inner worth, and I will never stop holding myself in high esteem as long as you love me.

The early years of the 19th century saw the beginning of what would be called the Jewish Enlightenment,

in which Jews slowly began to receive equal rights in Europe. (This eventual development would be due in no small part to the writings of Mendelssohn-Hensel's grandfather, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.) Jews were, however, under great pressure both to conform to the society around them and to convert to Christianity, particularly as they began moving in the higher (Christian) echelons of society. When Mendelssohn-Hensel was 11, her father had the members of his family baptized as Protestants, and they took the "Christian" name of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. A devout and upright man, Abraham never fully rejected his Jewish heritage, and frequently emphasized the correlation between Judaism and Christianity; he made it clear to his children that the reason for their conversion was to offer them better opportunities. (Many members of the family, expressing their ambivalence about the necessity of converting, nonetheless refused to use the name "Bartholdy.") The wealth of the Mendelssohn family, as well as their status as newly converted Jews, caused them to adhere rigidly to the accepted notion of a woman's place in the world. Mendelssohn-Hensel's parents wanted her life to be shaped by the social conventions prescribed for women of her class. Had she been born in less prosperous circumstances, she might well have lived as Clara Schumann did, performing on the concert stage and earning an income that supported first her father and then her husband; but the lack of any need for Mendelssohn-Hensel to earn income compounded the constraints placed on her by the fact that she was Jewish.

On October 3, 1829, Mendelssohn-Hensel married the court painter Wilhelm Hensel, in what would prove to be a successful and happy marriage. The couple moved into a house on the grounds of the large Mendelssohn complex, where they would remain their entire married life. Wilhelm always encouraged Mendelssohn-Hensel in her musical abilities, and wanted her to receive recognition for her composing; had she relied solely on his advice, she would almost certainly have published more of her music. However, the rest of her family, particularly her father and Felix, were adamantly opposed to the publication of her compositions because they felt it would demean the family name, and for a long time she acceded to their wishes. A year after the wedding, a son Sebastian was born, and Mendelssohn-Hensel had difficulties adjusting to her new roles as wife and mother. When she wrote to Felix that she no longer had enough time to devote to composition, he wrote back that if he had a child, its interests would come first. To his credit, Felix did understand that composing was important to her, and voiced his concerns about his sister's feelings in letters to his friends.

As early as 1822, when she was only 17, Mendelssohn-Hensel had hosted a salon. (Her maternal great-aunt, Sarah Itzig Levy , had hosted a musical salon in Berlin for many decades; many of the musical manuscripts she gathered form a significant part of the collection now in the Singakademie Library.) In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the salons offered women opportunities to exert considerable social and cultural power. In cultural centers like Berlin, London, Paris, and Vienna, women could determine the popular fashions in literature, music, and the arts by offering the settings in which such works were presented and discussed. Private but open to those who were invited, the salon was an acceptable place for women to display their abilities. In the years after her marriage, the salons of Mendelssohn-Hensel became an important outlet both for her and for her guests. According to one author: "The Sunday musicales provided a forum for Fanny's talents in which the Mendelssohns maintained their privacy, and Europe came to their living room." Of Mendelssohn-Hensel's playing, a visitor wrote to Felix, "Fanny … played fugues and passacaglias by memory with admirable accuracy."

In the beginning, her salons functioned as a weekly gathering of intimate friends. Gradually, however, they grew to include more than one hundred, then two hundred, people. Mendelssohn-Hensel decided who would perform, chose the music, selected the musicians, and rehearsed them. Guests at various times included violinist Joseph Joachim, Clara Schumann, composer Robert Schumann, and the soprano Jenny Lind . Members of high society also vied for invitations, and there were sometimes as many as eight princesses in attendance. These concerts also gave Mendelssohn-Hensel free reign to produce and create special events, sometimes featuring whole choirs and orchestras, and she often performed her compositions. In 1833, she wrote cheerfully to Felix, "In general I'm making a great deal of music this winter and am extremely happy with it. My Sunday musicales are still brilliant."

The composing also continued, with a number of her compositions being played in public by her now-famous brother and even published under his name. In England, when Queen Victoria complimented several of his piano pieces, he acknowledged some as the work of his sister. Mendelssohn-Hensel wrote for voice and piano as well as string quartets, chorales and other religious works. She sent many of these pieces to Felix, once writing, "I want to ask your advice, although I'm perfectly capable of making such decisions when I'm alone." He occasionally criticized her for deviating from standard musical form, and although she admitted she might be wrong, she did not alter her work in response. Her harmonies were often unexpected, but in her mature works the style was distinct, particularly in its lyricism, and she was recognized by many as a talented composer.

Perhaps for [your brother Felix] music will become a profession, while for you it will always remain but an ornament; never can and should it become the foundation of your existence and daily life.

—Abraham Mendelssohn in a letter to his daughter, Fanny

Mendelssohn-Hensel had wanted all of her life to go to Italy, and had often thought that she would have gone there alone on a glorious, romantic adventure if she had been born a man. In 1839–40, in fulfillment of her wish, the Hensel family took a trip to Italy. The high point of the year was a six-month stay in Rome where they became part of the artistic circle clustered around the French painter Ingres. Meeting fellow artists, performing for them, and talking with them was a delight for both Fanny, the composer, and Wilhelm, the painter. Day after day, they enjoyed picnics in the countryside, explored the sights, and spent late evenings devoted to music and discussion. In Rome, Mendelssohn-Hensel enjoyed recognition as a talented composer and musician foremost, and as a woman second. Toward the end of what was perhaps the happiest period of her life, she wrote:

It will cost us a hard struggle to leave Rome. I could not have believed that it would have made such a deep impression upon me. I must not conceal from myself that the atmosphere of admiration and homage in which I have lived may have something to do with it, for … I never was made so much of as I have been here, and that this is very pleasant nobody can deny.

It was probably in Rome that Mendelssohn-Hensel began to consider publishing her work, and Wilhelm Hensel no doubt played a crucial role in her decision. Although tolerant of the extremely close-knit family life of his in-laws, he also recognized the creative toll it took on his wife, who before this trip had never been physically separated from her family. Even Mendelssohn-Hensel eventually accepted his observation that when Felix was around, her creativity seemed to diminish. Psychological independence could not take place, Wilhelm believed, until physical separation was achieved. That his observation apparently proved correct was, perhaps, the most important outcome of their trip to Rome. At age 40, Mendelssohn-Hensel decided to seek publication for her music, breaking out of the narrow confines that had been imposed on her for two decades. Writing to Felix, she nonetheless remained typically self-deprecating:

Actually I wouldn't expect you to read this rubbish now, busy as you are, if I didn't have to tell you something. But since I know from the start that you won't like it, it's a bit awkward to get under way. So laugh at me or not, as you wish: I'm afraid of my brothers at age 40, as I was of Father at age 14—or, more aptly expressed, desirous of pleasing you and everyone I've loved throughout my life. And when I now know in advance that it won't be the case, I thus feel RATHER uncomfortable. In a word, I'm beginning to publish.

Collections of her work began to appear in 1846. Of her hundreds of compositions, only sixty were published before her life was suddenly cut short when she suffered a stroke and died on May 14, 1847. Mendelssohn-Hensel was only 42 years old, and her younger brother Felix, then at the apogee of his career as Europe's foremost composer, collapsed when he learned of her death and never recovered. He died a few months later.

The music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, appreciated by limited but enthusiastic audiences during the mid-19th century, was gradually forgotten for several reasons. The fact that she was a woman caused her works to be dismissed as "feminine." As well, her reputation at the time was closely linked with her brother's, and less than two decades after his death his compositions were also being labeled "feminine" by such composers as Richard Wagner, who wished to eradicate from German life such products of "Jewish" culture. As anti-Semitism grew, Felix Mendelssohn's compositions were played less and less frequently. For much of the 20th century, Mendelssohn-Hensel was known to history primarily as Felix's beloved and also talented sister. After World War II, however, the works of Felix Mendelssohn were rehabilitated. The works of his sister, safeguarded for generations by friends and family, were eventually preserved in good number as a collection of the Preussische Staatsbibliothek. From the later years of the 20th century on, they gradually have found new audiences, and Mendelssohn-Hensel's reputation has grown. Through modern performances and recordings, she has now achieved what her family so anxiously sought to avoid—a name as a truly fine and publicly recognized composer.


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Mendelssohn-Hensel, Fanny (1805–1847)

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