Fanny Mendelssohn: An Interview with Dr. Angela Mace Christian

Video credits: Chief WAM Researcher: Tracey Crystal Miller; Narrators: Nathan Bishop and Tracey Crystal Miller; Producers: Nathan Bishop, Rebecca Cypess, and Tracey Crystal Miller; video editor: Loren Stata.

Musical excerpts in the video:

Fanny Mendelssohn, “Das Jahr,” performed by Ulrich Urban

Fanny Mendelssohn, “Italien,” performed by Lauralyn Kolb, soprano, and Arlene Shrut, piano

Fanny Mendelssohn, Trio in D minor, op. 11, performed by the Claremont Trio

Fanny Mendelssohn, Song Without Words, op. 8, no. 3, performed by Elzbieta Sternlicht, piano

Overview

Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on November 14, 1805, eldest child of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn. She spent much of her adulthood in Berlin, where her family had a long tradition of intellectual and cultural activity, especially associated with the perpetuation of the Bach tradition in an age when the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was little known. Like her younger brother, Felix Mendelssohn,  she studied keyboard and composition, but when they reached adulthood, the expectations of the two diverged. The norms of the upper class did not allow for the easy integration of women on the public stage–whether in performance or through publication of her music. Although her husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, encouraged Fanny to publish her music, both Felix and their father were firmly against such a move. For most of her adult life, Fanny Mendelssohn’s primary musical outlet was the concert series that she hosted in her home. Despite her decision to publish some of her music toward the end of her short life, her music has remained largely unknown until recently.

In this interview, Dr. Angela Mace Christian shares her perspectives on Fanny Mendelssohn’s life and work.

 

Timeline

November 14, 1805: Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany.

1816: She began her musical training under Marie Bigot; Carl Friedrich Zelter praised her in a letter to Goethe. 

1818: She embarked on the study of musical composition under Carl Friedrich Zelter, also teacher of Felix Mendelssohn and director of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin.

1829: Fanny Mendelssohn married the painter Wilhelm Hensel; in the same year, Felix directed J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Sing-Akademie, sparking a Bach revival among the German public.

1830: Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel was born to Fanny and Wilhelm.

1831: She began to host the Sunday concert series (Sonntagsmusiken) originally started by her father.

1846: Decided to publish a collection of her songs, Op.1, without consulting her brother Felix.

May 14, 1847: Fanny Mendelssohn died in Berlin after suffering a stroke. 

 

Further Reading

Dr. Angela Mace Christian’s web site, with links to her publications and information about her work on Fanny Mendelssohn’s Easter Sonata: https://www.angelamacechristian.com/

Hensel, Fanny. 1987. The Letters of Fanny Hensel to Felix Mendelssohn, ed. and trans. Marcia Citron. Pendragon Press.

Kimber, Marian Wilson. “The ‘Suppression’ of Fanny Mendelssohn: Rethinking Feminist Biography.” 19th-Century Music 26, no. 2 (2002): 113-129.

Reich, Nancy B. 1993. “Women as Musicians: A Question of Class.” In Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, ed. Ruth A. Solie, 125-146. University of California Press.

Todd, R. Larry. 2010. Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn. Oxford University Press.

Transcript of the Interview with Dr. Angela Mace Christian

Narrator:

Fanny Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on November 14, 1805, the eldest child of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn. Her father was the son of the great Jewish philosopher and aesthetic writer Moses Mendelssohn, who advocated the modernization of Judaism, though not its abandonment. Her mother, born Lea Salomon, was daughter of Bella Salomon, née Itzig, whose family had helped to perpetuate and preserve the music of Johann Sebastian Bach in the generation following his death. Perhaps judging their Jewish heritage to be socially risky, and perhaps also identifying with the new Romantic Protestant theology of the early 19th century, Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn chose to convert Fanny, along with her siblings as children. The parents later converted as well, adopting the name “Bartholdy” to differentiate themselves from their Jewish family.

A prodigious talent in music, Fanny Mendelssohn’s accomplishments as a performer and composer were intimately bound up with her status as a woman. Building on her family tradition, she hosted concerts in her home where she showcased her great virtuosity and musicianship, but she rarely played her own works there, choosing instead to present the music of her brother and other male composers. Her work as a composer was geared towards the domestic genres of Lieder or art songs, solo piano music, and chamber music. She struggled throughout her life over whether to publish her works—a move that, for some, seemed out of step with her high social class. That so few of her works were published has contributed to the general neglect and obscurity of her music until recent years.

Dr. Angela Mace Christian:

For most of her life, and through the 20th century, it was really a very private narrative. Family and friends knew about her, and she was pretty famous in Berlin as well, at the time. But by the mid-20th century, the name “Mendelssohn” was not associated with good things. It was mostly associated with, sort of, this Victorian sentimentality, and the reaction to that with modernism, kind of threw the baby out with the bath water a little bit. So, as her brother got rehabilitated in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with the work of people like Larry Todd and Douglas Seaton, and then later on, Marcia Citron and Marian Wilson Kimber, we started to think about her more as a—kind of a daring figure, actually—someone who dared to follow her dream even though her time wouldn’t recognize her. So we have started to adjust that now in terms of thinking about—how to say this? This is a kind of delicate issue, because there are two schools of thought about how to talk about Fanny Hensel today as scholars. There’s one school of thought that says that Fanny Mendelssohn was actively suppressed by her brother and her family, and there’s one school of thought that says, no, she wasn’t suppressed; she actually had a very fulfilling and happy life within what was expected of her in her time. So, I like to take sort of a middle road…

…I think there were many parts when she was very satisfied. She had a wonderful family; she was very much supported in all of her musical endeavors at home; her family’s successful banking business helped support her salons that she had, which—I hesitate to even call them salons, because they were more of a concert series, but in the context of the time, they were salons. She had a beautiful home on Leipzigerstrasse in Berlin. She and her husband occupied this beautiful garden house in the back, which they renovated—one side for her studio, one side for his, and they lived what they called a “double counterpoint” of painting and music. And they had this son that they loved and raised, and she had a couple of miscarriages, and some heartbreak there—a stillborn daughter. So she had three pregnancies but only one child. So she really struggled with that. That was very difficult for her, as it is for most women. There were elements of her personal life and her “pseudo-professional” life that were very satisfying for her. Her concerts in the summers, they would open up the doors in the back of the garden house, and they would have 200 guests out there in the gardens, which backed up to the royal gardens, and so she had this wonderful life. She wrote about never wanting to leave this spot, because this spot, this house, this home, this music center for her was so bound up with who she was as a person that she couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

Narrator:

Abraham Mendelssohn reported his wife’s observation, when Fanny was a newborn, that their daughter had “Bach fugal fingers,” and indeed, Lea helped to ensure that those fingers were used to their fullest. Lea was Fanny’s first piano teacher, educating her daughter in the Bach tradition that she had inherited from her grandmother, aunts, and uncles. The young Fanny Mendelssohn showed prodigious talent and was educated in music alongside her brother Felix. The two studied piano with Ludvig Berger, and by 1819, they were learning the art of composition from Carl Friedrich Zelter, director of the bourgeois choral institution known as the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin and an important proponent of the music of Bach in the early nineteenth century.

Fanny and Felix grew in music together. As adolescents they helped one another constantly, critiqued each other’s work, and together developed what Angela Mace Christian has called a “Mendelssohnian style.”

Dr. Angela Mace Christian

The relationship between Felix and Fanny was quite complex—very interdependent. They shared working spaces growing up; they had the same teachers, both piano and composition. But where things started to diverge for them was in their early 20s. Fanny was about three and a half years older than her brother, so she would have been more advanced at the piano earlier than her brother, and he actually looked up to her for quite a while. He refers to her in his letters as his muse, as his “cantor” (referring, of course, to J. S. Bach as the Thomaskantor). So they encountered the music of Bach together; they encountered the music of Beethoven together. They both dealt with the shadows of those great pillars of their style for the rest of their lives in different ways.

He published his opus 8 and 9 songs in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s, and six of those songs were hers, which is what started that fun myth that much of Felix’s music could be by Fanny. But it’s not. There was even a letter that she received from somebody in Vienna asking her that question during her lifetime: how much of his music is really yours? And she relayed it to her brother, saying “it’s so silly to think that all of your amazing masterpieces could be by little old me.” She self-depricated a lot. So that relationship formed their style in a way that’s almost inseparable throughout the rest of their lives. But what really separates them is the fact that he was able to go out into the public and he was encouraged to write larger genres. So, when he was still in his teens, he was writing operettas; he was having them performed publicly in Berlin. (It failed because of a jealous rival.) But he was doing all these bigger genres; he’s publishing piano quartets with dedications to princes—these kinds of very public gestures as a composer—while she was not. So there was a point where their education split, went in different directions—where she was no longer given composition directions and he was—where he was going to organ lessons and as a woman, as a young girl at that point, she wasn’t allowed to take organ. It was considered unseemly for a girl, but she was allowed to sit next to him while he was taking lessons. They eventually she composed her own organ prelude for her wedding, which is very pianistic in feel. So you can feel the lack of organ education in that piece. So, really what separates them is their different opportunities.

Narrator:

Fanny Mendelssohn inspired admiration from her family’s friends and intellectual elite of their community, including the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who judged her talents the equal of her brother’s. Within this same circle, professional musicianship would have been unthinkable for a woman of high social standing. As musicologist Nancy B. Reich has pointed out, some women of Fanny’s generation pursued careers in music—one famous example is Clara Schumann—but the level of public scrutiny involved in a professional musical career would have been unseemly for Fanny Mendelssohn. Yet her parents promoted Felix’s pursuit of a career in music. Her father wrote to her in July, 1820 that “Music will perhaps become his profession, whilst for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing.” (R. Larry Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, 28)

Dr. Angela Mace Christian:

She could not herself make up her mind about whether to publish. Because her husband was encouraging her to publish; her friends were encouraging her to publish; but her father and brother did not want her to publish. She wrote that, at the age of 40 I am as scared of my brother as I was of my father at age 14. So it’s really strongly embedded in her that she does not want to disappoint her family. And the way she would have been disappointing them was that she was a very high-class woman, and high-class women in those days did not parade themselves before the public. It was considered unseemly to be a person on stage. It was to be equating yourself with prostitutes or actresses, or dancers, those kinds of things—women who entertain, and not women who are considered upstanding or high-class.

Narrator:

Fanny Mendelssohn married the Prussian court painter, who encouraged his wife in her musical pursuits. In the 1830s and 40s, the venue for her musicianship was the Gartensaal, or garden room, of their home. There, she held private Sunday-afternoon concerts in the tradition of the Berlin salons, inviting guests from the upper classes as well as intellectuals and musicians. She selected the programs, performing music of her contemporaries alongside that of past generations, including Bach, Handel, and Mozart. Her public performances were exceedingly rare.

Dr. Angela Mace Christian

The performance spaces open to her would have been her own salon, her own music room. It was quite a large room. The walls were covered with her husband’s paintings, so her concert series served as a venue both for her own music and the music of others, and her husband’s paintings. So it’s sort of this multi-media opportunity for her circle of friends and colleagues. So she held something that she called her Sontagsmusiken—her “Sunday musicales”—every two weeks or so. It wasn’t 100% regular, because people would get sick; she would get sick; her family members would get sick. Usually she wasn’t the sick one—usually it was someone else who was sick. She was a pretty healthy woman. Or someone would die, or she’d be pregnant, or having a miscarriage. So there were a lot of gaps in it that we can account for with these personal family issues. But she held them for most of her life after she got married; she sort of took over the concert management from her parents, because they had hosted them for her and her brother when they were younger as a professional-development opportunity (for him). And so she would put together these concerts of other people’s music. She really actually quite rarely presented her own music there, but she often performed. So 1831 is when she started the series, so this would have been about two years after she got married that she decided to start. And she initially thought that she was going to create these as a sacred choral-music series in the model of the Sing-Akademie of her old teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter. And she wrote to her brother about this and said, I’m going to put together this choral concert series; it’s going to be focused on sacred choral music; kind of like our old teacher’s. And wrote back to her and said, well that’s great, but this would be a great way for you to keep playing piano. He pushed her to do that, which is really interesting, because he’s not pushing her to be a public composer, but he still wants to see her happy as a musician as well. So he says, you know, you’re a fantastic pianist; I’m sure your audiences would love to hear you play sometimes. This would be a great way for you to keep playing the piano and keeping it up. So initially she doesn’t want to do that, but she writes three cantatas that year. And then, after that, she decides to start incorporating the piano into it. So she’s performing Beethoven trios; she’s getting her friends and colleagues in Berlin to come play with her, and she’s accessing the court musicians; she’s accessing her network of friends who are also musicians in the area. She has a couple of fellow high-class female music performers in the city who come and sing with her, and she writes a lot of her songs for them. Friederike Robert is one of them. And her own family members were good performers as well. Her younger brother Paul played cello quite well. Felix actually wrote one of his cello sonatas for him—dedicated it to someone else publicly, but it’s really for his brother. And her younger sister Rebecka was a wonderful singer. They would perform each other’s music sometimes.

Narrator:

Mendelssohn was never certain of her own skill as a composer, and she was often critical of herself. In 1835, she wrote to her brother of her perceived inability to write large-scale works: “It’s not so much a certain way of composing that is lacking as it is a certain approach to life, and as a result of this shortcoming, my lengthy things die in their youth of decrepitude. I lack the ability to sustain ideas properly and give them the needed consistency. Therefore Lieder suit me best, in which, if need be, merely a pretty idea without much potential for development can suffice.” (R. Larry Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, 178)

Dr. Angela Mace Christian

She viewed her own works with a mixture, I think, of hope and frustration, because she didn’t have that same rock-solid compositional training that her brother did. She had quite a bit, but not as much, and I think she felt that. So she was always feeling like she had to live up to what her brother was doing in the more public sphere. And she would, as many talented women of her age did (including Clara Schumann), self-depricate a lot. So there’s this sense of pulling back from the achievement, and belittling it, in a way, even if she knows she’s really got something that’s really amazing, she’s not going to say so.

Narrator:

For most of her life, in keeping with the norms of her high social class, Fanny Mendelssohn avoided publishing her works. A handful of her compositions were published under her brother’s name—a fact that has sometimes been taken to mean that her brother sought to appropriate her music. Equally likely, however, as R. Larry Todd has suggested, is that he was seeking to give her music a public stage when it would otherwise have gone unpublished. Nevertheless, Felix discouraged his sister from publishing, seeking to protect her from the public scrutiny involved.

When, toward the end of her life, she finally resolved to publish some of her works under her own name, Felix granted his blessing but alluded to the risks that publication entailed. As he wrote, “May you know only the joys of authorship and nothing of its misery, and may the public pelt you only with roses and never with sand, and may the engraver’s ink never seem oppressive and dark to you—actually, I believe there can be no doubt about all that.” (R. Larry Todd, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, 316). Felix signed this letter by using the moniker given to him by Carl Friedrich Zelter decades earlier: “the fellow journeyman tailor.” He thus referred to himself and to all published composers in derogatory terms—as low-class artisans who needed to make things in order to earn a living, and so exposed themselves to the whims of the buying public.

The tensions that Fanny experienced over the issue of publication exemplify the divergent pulls experienced by many women of her age—tensions that shaped their creative endeavors even as they introduced limitations and a sense of ambivalence about their work.