When one hears the name Mendelssohn, one automatically thinks of Felix Mendelssohn, one of the giants of classical music. However, unknown to many, Felix had an equally talented older sister by the name of Fanny Mendelssohn.
Born in Hamburg in 1805, by the time Fanny Mendelssohn was fourteen, she had memorised J.S.Bach’s forty eight preludes and fugues, performing them to her father as a birthday present. Her father was apparently very impressed by this unbelievable feat of memory and technical skill, yet his response to his exceptionally talented daughter was ‘very nice dear – but leave the music making to the boys’. Perhaps Mr Mendelssohn was a little intimidated, even jealous of the dexterity shown by his eldest child. Sadly, this was a typical experience of female classical music composers before the late 20th century. Time and time again we hear of (or rather don’t hear of) talented women that wished to express themselves through music, but who were forbidden from composing except behind closed doors by the patriarchy. This is even more frustrating when you consider that Fanny was in a supposedly supportive environment. A couple of years later, in 1819, Fanny, along with her brother Felix, received instruction in composition by Carl Friedrich Zelter who appeared to actually favour Fanny over Felix describing her as being ‘really something special.’ Much later in 1831, he wrote to poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe describing Fanny’s skill as a pianist with the highest praise possible for a woman at the time: ‘She plays like a man.’
While Fanny and Felix were both away in Berlin receiving this instruction, their father wrote to Fanny again, this time telling her ‘Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.’ Sharing a close bond with her adoring brother Felix, they listened to and critiqued each other with their compositions, which was taken very seriously by both sides. Yet even he was wary of her publishing her works (admittedly for family reasons). He did, however, publish a fair amount of her work under ͚F.Mendelssohn͛ which was, for many decades, assumed to be his. Even today her works are being discovered under his name. Fanny’s music, despite not being recognised as hers had a great impact on listeners of the time. One of her inadvertent fans was Queen Victoria, who when asked which of Felix’s pieces she liked best, chose one of Fanny’s – Italien.
Meanwhile, as Felix’s fame grew, he went off on a grand tour of Europe, while Fanny settled down and got married. Fortunately her husband, painter William Hensel, was very encouraging and made sure she had plenty of manuscript paper each day before retiring to his own studio. Her public debut at the piano (and only known public performance) came in 1838, when she played her brother’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and in 1846, she decided, without consulting Felix, to publish a small collection of her songs (as her Op. 1). Fanny probably believed that the majority of her music would never be heard outside of her own home, so many of the 450 odd pieces she produced are miniatures for the piano. She has also composed (often in conjunction with Felix), string quartets and other string pieces. Fanny died in Berlin in 1847 at the age of 41, from complications after a stroke suffered while rehearsing one of her brother’s oratorios. Felix himself died less than six months later from the same cause.
Fanny’s music is deeply romantic and packed with emotional depth. I think it is safe to say that she was a composer who wrote from the very depths of her heart, and I challenge you to listen to any one of her pieces without being profoundly moved. My personal favourite, which is in fact possibly my absolute favourite piece of music (and that is really saying something), is her Six mélodies pour le piano, Op 4 & Op. 5: Andante soave in E-Flat Major. But in all honesty, you could choose any piece by Fanny and be bowled over by its beauty. Other highlights in this constant stream of virtuosity include, Schwanenlied, the Das Jahr suite, and of course the rest of the Six mélodies pour le piano. It is of great joy to me that at long last her music is being valued and performed. Fanny Mendelssohn is a name which should, and I’m sure will, go down in musical history.