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Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel


"... my memory so dead for things I learned is imperturbable for things I experienced ..."    Fanny Mendelssohn

The German composer was born in Hamburg on 14 November 1805, as daughter of Abraham Mendelssohn and his wife Lea. Fanny Mendelssohn was a granddaughter of the Jewish religious philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

Together with her brother Felix, Fanny was given a very thorough general education, far better than was usual for girls at her time. We are told that Fanny performed Bach’s “Das Wohltemperierte Klavier” by heart at the age of twelve. Her letters of travels and her essays on music show her outstanding literary talent and her knowledge in the theory of music.

Later Fanny’s family moved to Berlin where she was given piano lessons by Ludwig Berger, and lessons in the art of composing by Carl Friedrich Zelter. Her first compositions were mostly songs and works for the piano.

Soon, however, she also ventured to write compositions with a different instrumentation, e.g. a piano quartet in A-flat major (1822) an adagio for violin and piano (1823), a capriccio for violoncello and piano and the “Sonata o Fantasia” for violoncello and piano (both 1829).

In 1829 Fanny got married to the painter Wilhelm Hensel, who promoted her and encouraged her to publish her works. In 1830 her son Sebastian was born, later author of the important authoritative work “The Mendelssohn Family."

Starting around 1823 Fanny began to take part in the famous “Mendelssohn’s Sunday Musicales", of which she assumed the direction in 1831, and which enabled her to perform compositions for larger instrumentation. This time, until the death of her father in 1835, was for her a very prolific period of her creative powers. She wrote oratories, a dramatic scene called “Hero and Leander”, an overture for orchestra and the String Quartet in E-flat major (1834), in addition to many other pieces.

After her father’s death the “Sunday Musicales” took place less often and so Fanny lacked the audience and, by virtue of this, the response and stimulus for her work. Moreover, her brother Felix, whose judgement she was very particular about, rejected any publication of her works.

In 1839-40 she traveled to Italy together with her husband and child. In Rome she got to know the artists of the Villa Medici and became acquainted with the young composer Charles Gounod.

Back in Berlin, she composed the cycle “The Year, Twelve Characteristic Pieces for the Piano-Forte” (1841-42), still feeling the influence of this journey. Other works were written as well, among them choruses, songs and the Piano Trio in D-minor (1847), which was left out in the autograph.

During her lifetime only her works op. 1-6 were published by Schlesinger and Bote & Bock.

On the occasion of the publication of her songs op. 1 and op. 2 in 1846, Fanny wrote into her diary: “Finally Felix has written to me and in a very charming way given me his approval; though I know that at the bottom of his heart he disapproves, I am nevertheless happy that he finally has granted me a friendly word about it.” This acknowledgement of her professional qualities as a composer, however, came rather late for Fanny.

She died from a fit of apoplexy on 14 May 1847 during the final rehearsal for the performance of her composition on parts of Goethe’s “Faust, 2nd Part”, which she was directing from the piano.

After her death her relatives also published op . 7 to op. 10 and the Piano Trio op. 11.

“… you know indeed what God had in mind when he invented Music …”    (Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy)

book tips

Francoise Tillard:
"Die verkannte Schwester. Die späte Entdeckung der Komponistin Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy."
Kindler, Munich, 1994.

"Fanny Hensel geb. Mendelssohn Bartholdy, DAS WERK."
Edition text + kritik, Munich, 1997.


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Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel 





Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel,
Rome 1845