Born In: Hamburg, Germany
Fanny Mendelssohn was a German pianist and composer best known for the compositions she produced in the early romantic era. Born in an aristocratic German Jewish family, Fanny was inclined toward music from an early age. She and her brother, Felix, both received training in piano and composing growing up. Fanny exhibited extraordinary talent as a musician since her teenage years. However, due to the societal taboo attached to upper-class women performing music, she could not take music as her full-time profession. She instead worked closely with her brother Felix and helped him with several of his compositions. She also wrote her own music from time to time. She has written about 450 pieces for piano, lieder, chamber music, cantatas and oratories. Her brother also published several of her compositions under his own name. However, following her death, her brother got plenty of her songs published. She is currently celebrated as one of the greatest European pianists and composers from the early romantic era. She passed away in 1847 following a stroke but her work and life still resonate with the classical musicians.
Also Known As: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Fanny Hensel, Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Died At Age: 41
Spouse/Ex-: Wilhelm Hensel
father: Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy
mother: Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy
siblings: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Paul Mendelssohn, Rebecka Mendelssohn
children: Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel
Born Country: Germany
place of death: Berlin, Germany
Cause of Death: Stroke
City: Hamburg, Germany
Fanny Mendelssohn was born on November 14, 1905, in Hamburg, Germany, to Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn. She was born as the oldest among four children in a traditional German Jewish family. She was raised in a highly distinguished family from both her father and mother’s side. Her father was an esteemed banker and a philanthropist.
She had a younger brother, Felix, who also went on to become an esteemed composer. When Fanny was 11 years old, she was baptized into Christianity and as a result, her name was officially changed to Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn Bartholdy. She expressed her resentment when her parents decided to adopt Christianity. Although the family followed some rules of Judaism, Fanny and her brother Felix, both were against the change of name, as it downplayed their Jewish ancestry.
Fanny exhibited a great interest in music at an early age, along with her brother. Seeing that, their mother arranged for music teachers for the siblings. She received her initial education from her parents and later, attended piano classes. Fanny was also good in academics and was trained in mathematics, science, geography, French, German, Greek, Latin, music theory and literature among other subjects.
The family moved to Berlin, where Fanny further honed her skills in music. By the time she was in her early teen years, she had begun writing her own music. In 1819, on the occasion of her father’s birthday, Fanny played 24 preludes from Bach’s famous The Well-Tempered Clavier from her memory only. She also had relatives, who were also patrons of Salon, who facilitated her musical interests early on.
Fanny received music lessons from masters such as Ludwig Berger and Marie Bigot. One of her teachers, Carl Friedrich Zelter wrote a letter in which he described Fanny as ‘special’ and said that she was capable of delivering a Sebastian Bach performance. There were many other masters at that time that were heavily impressed by the siblings, Fanny and Felix. In one of the appreciation letters, she was described as a woman who could play like a man. It was considered a great honour at that time as making music was largely considered to be a male-specific occupation.
While Fanny was equally interested in forging a career as a full-time musician, she was limited by the traditions of that time. The societal constraints were too many and making music was not a profession anybody associated with women, not even her own family. Her father wrote a letter to her in 1820 and talked about her ‘impossible aspirations’. He wrote that her brother Felix might become a professional musician but she must consider music only as her ‘ornament’ and not the means of living.
She was also limited by her status as an upper-class woman. It was taboo for upper-class women to engage in performing arts professions. Henry Chorley, a friend of her brother, once mentioned that Fanny would have become of the best pianists and composers of her time if she was born as a poor man’s daughter.
Musicologist Marian Kimber, however, noted a different facet of reality. He refers to Felix’s son’s documents to state that Fanny herself never wanted a professional music career. She was happy performing for her family and close family friends in privacy.
Fanny shared a very close relationship with her brother. Their bond was further strengthened due to their common interests in music. While Felix went on to perform at multiple events as a musician, he often took suggestions from Fanny. Until Felix left home, she remained his main music advisor. Felix also stated on multiple occasions that he believes his sister was a far better musician than he was.
Fanny first came to the public’s notice in 1830 when one of her admirers John Thomson wrote an article in an English journal The Harmonican. He praised some of the songs that she had written, that was shown to him by her brother.
In 1838, she delivered one of her very few public shows when she played her brother’s Piano Concerto No.1. In the same year, she was invited by the ace conductor Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen for his show where her brother was also performing. Her knowledge resulted in Carl taking her consultation on multiple aspects of rehearsals and the final performance.
Despite obvious limitations to her performing in public, she had ample support from other musicians and her brother. Felix inspired her to keep composing, along with musician Wilhelm Hensel. One turning point in her life was her trip to Italy in the late 1830s. During the trip, she met many musicians and was inspired to keep making music.
In 1846, two Berlin publishers approached her and asked her to publish some of her songs. In total, Felix composed about 500 songs in total, among which 120 songs were for piano. The rest were for oratories, chamber music and cantatas.
Some of her songs were also published under her brother Felix’s name, in his two sets of Twelve Songs. It also led to an embarrassing situation with Queen Victoria in 1842. Felix was invited to Buckingham Palace where he was asked to perform the songs. He was unable to do so and hence, he confessed that the songs were written by his sister.
Felix took suggestions from his sister on many of his concerts and songs. He also analyzed the suggestions carefully and adopted them into his work.
Majority of works published by Fanny were on piano or lieder. She mentioned that she didn’t believe she was fully loaded with the capability to conduct large scale orchestras as unlike her brother, she was not trained in any string instruments.
When Felix was on his deathbed, he made an attempt to get his sister the recognition she deserved but didn’t get all her life. He contacted his publisher, who then began distributing her works one by one. Thanks to Felix, Fanny’s work stayed in the public consciousness for a long time and she is still considered one of the greatest American pianists and composers of the early romantic era.
Fanny Mendelssohn married Wilhelm Hensel, a painter in 1829. They had been in a relationship for many years before getting married. The couple had one child, Sebastian Hensel. Fanny later had two miscarriages.
Fanny passed away from a stroke on May 14, 1847, while rehearsing one of her brother’s cantatas. Her brother died six months later, from the same complications.
There has been a renewed interest in the life and works of Fanny Mendelssohn, starting from the 1980s. The Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn Museum in Hamburg, Germany, has been dedicated to the siblings.
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