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Fanny Mendelssohn

Composer of the month: Fanny Mendelssohn

Her father and brother did not want Fanny to perform in public, so she used the family concerts to play, conduct and present her work, says Diana Ambache

Classic fm Magazine

November 2005 If you turned the radio on ‘blind' and heard Fanny Mendelssohn's music, you might think it was by her younger brother Felix - it shares the high energy, the fizz, the aeration. Indeed, the two shared much else: they had the same education, they were both precocious musically - Johann Goethe described her to Felix as ‘your equally talented sister'.

But the siblings, born just over three years apart, were not totally alike: while Fanny's music is similar to her brother's, it is more emotionally direct. It also has great verve and vivacity, and an impassioned intensity.

And although culture and education were highly valued in the Mendelssohn household, the expectations for Felix and Fanny in the public sphere were different. Felix was encouraged to go out and explore, learn from travel, meet people and exhibit his pianistic and composing talents. But it was considered unseemly for a 19th Century woman to do those things, so Fanny was forced to accept her destiny as housewife and mother. Her father wrote to her "What you tell me in your letters about your musical urges as compared to Felix's was as well thought out as it was expressed. Perhaps music will be his profession, whereas for you it can and must be but an ornament, and never the fundamental of your existence and activity."

I might have thought of leaving home at that point, but that wasn't an option for a German teenager in 1820. Music was Fanny's life, and somehow she had to find a way of doing what she loved, while being prevented from doing it in public. But she had two advantages. Firstly, she married a man who, although unmusical himself, totally supported her musicical efforts. Her husband, Wilhelm Hensel, the Prussian Court Painter, encouraged her to compose and even wanted her to publish - an idea both Abraham and Felix disapproved of.

Second, Abraham started a series of Sonntagsmusik (Sunday morning musical matinées) in their Berlin home. They were designed to give Felix experience of conducting an orchestra and a chance to present his compositions. But because these were private events, Fanny could to play, conduct and present her pieces here as well. She used the platform brilliantly, and the performances gave her a musical outlet. The concerts attracted the great and the good of the city, along with touring musicians including Paganini, Clara Schumann, Liszt and many other great Romantic figures.

But, like us all, she craved appreciation - which Felix was getting in spades. They were very close musically and personally - so close, they were sometimes referred to as 'twins'. He consulted her so often, it could be said that Fanny was his principal advisor. Reciprocally, Felix's opinion was the most important one to her, and Fanny's self-confidence could shrink to the point of losing faith in her creativity if she didn't hear from him for a long time. Despite all this, she wrote over 400 works, including many songs and piano pieces, other vocal works and some chamber music. However, her insecurity, the discouragement around her, and the lack of wider opportunities mean that she didn't venture into some of the more large-scale forms she could have tackled, given suitable encouragement. She wrote one work for orchestra alone: an energetic and colourful Overture. Maybe, in different circumstances she could have written a Symphony.

Her Mother described her as having Bach'sche fugenfingers at birth, and her piano playing was so brilliant that her piano writing is always challenging. Fanny's biggest piece - the Piano Trio in D minor (written for her sister Rebecka's birthday in 1846) - has such a shower of notes in the piano part that when I perform it, I have to get into training. Performing it feels like 30 minutes driving a racing car round a race track, to scary and exhilarating effect. The volcanic first Allegro has torrents of notes in the piano part. Next comes a beautiful song without out words. Then a Lied, and the Finale includes elements of Bach, gypsy, improvisation. Her desription of Hummel's Quintet "a slight tumult among the fingers" describes this work.

Some of her music is being published now. Although not many people know how good it is, some may also be put off by the challenges of the piano parts. Felix was ambivalent about her publishing; he felt it unseemly for a woman. However, as women had to stay at home in the 19th century, Felix had been happy to include some of her work with his own; he incorporated some of her songs in his Op 8 and Op 9.

In 1834 Fanny wrote her String Quartet. It is not the first Quartet written by a woman - Maddelena Lombardini-Sirmen got there about 60 years earlier. The second movement is a Scherzo inspired by Paganini's 'Bell Rondo', from his Violin Concerto No 2, which Fanny had heard in 1829. Felix wrote to her "I have just played through the Quartet again and thank you with all my heart. My favourite part is still the Scherzo, but I also like the theme of the Romance very much." Felix was in London for the 1842 Coronation, and when received at Buckingham Palace by Queen Victoria, she asked to sing some of his songs with him. She chose 'Italien', and he then had to admit it was by Fanny. Many people think that the Songs without Words were Fanny's idea; there is nothing to prove it either way.

Probably the happiest year of Fanny's life was in 1839-40, when she and Wilhelm toured Italy for a year. This included three months in Rome, most of it passed in the company of the artistic community at the Villa Medici. Ingres, the Director of the Académie de France, was devoted to her. They had musical parties most evenings; she played German music with which they were not familiar, to their collective delight. A year later she wrote a highly original series of twelve character pieces 'Das Jahr', which are almost a musical diary of her Italian journey. She was appreciated and acknowledged as never before; she gained a new confidence, which enabled her to start publishing, even without Felix's blessing.

When she died suddenly, of a stroke (in the middle of a Sonntagsmusik rehearsal) in May 1847, the family were devastated. Poor health was a family feature, but to die aged 42, was shocking. Felix died six months later, many said of a broken heart. However, in the meantime, he had arranged for Breitkopf und Hartel to publish more of her music, including piano pieces, several Lieder and the Piano Trio.

Many years later, Charles Gounod remembered the Italian parties, and Fanny in particular: "Mme Hensel was an incomparable musician, a remarkable pianist, a woman of superior intelligence, small and slender, but endowed with an energy revealed in her deep eyes and fiery gaze. She had rare gifts as a composer..... She sat down at the piano with that good grace and simplicity possessed by people who make music because they love it, and thanks to her prodigious memory I was introduced to many masterpieces from German music which, at that time, were completely unknown to me. These included numerous pieces by Sebastian Bach, sonatas, fugues and preludes, concertos, and many compositions by Mendelssohn, which for me were like revelations from an unknown world."

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