Song without words, sister without brother
by Barbara Maria Rathbone
To the memory of Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn
November 14th 1805 – May 14th 1847
I have always wanted to write about Fanny Mendelssohn and it seems apposite to do it now while we observe her younger brother’s bicentenary, for somehow I strongly believe, Felix would not have become so revered without her. She, rather than the more regaled Clara (Wieck) Schumann has enthralled me since I was a novice pianist playing through the wispy melancholy of her brother’s elegiac Lieder Ohne Worter (Songs without Words), and I was told by my piano teacher that in fact several of these were Fanny’s rather than Felix’s compositions, but that she could not have published under her own name. In her day, women simply did not compose and would only be tolerated as pianists in private soirées and family gatherings. Her parents forbade her work in music, which she deeply loved – you can hear it in every note she penned, and polished the laurels of Felix instead. Her father told her – “You must become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman – I mean the state of a housewife… The appreciation of every moment and its improvement for some benefit or other – all these and more… are the weighty duties of a woman.” With reference to the encouragement being poured upon her brother, Abraham Mendelssohn adds – “Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” This naturally ignited my female indignation and righteous outrage and thus Fanny became to me a heroine – a musical totem and icon.
Fanny, brought up in a radiantly musical household and inordinately gifted was only allowed to be daughter and sister, a somewhat muted participant in the rising fame of her younger brother Felix – his shadow, and though bestowed with the devotion and admiration of her brother, had to greet a life of pursuance and wifehood. Supported by Felix however, and later by her husband, the painter Wilhem Hensel, she did at least take some pride of place in the lauded Sunday Musicales which took place in the Mendelssohn household at 3 Leipzigerstrasse, Berlin, when some of her works were presented, albeit privately. Indeed, Felix considered her a greater pianist than himself and asked her to premiere his 1st Piano Concerto in 1838, purportedly then giving her only public piano performance.
Thankfully, the suppression of her musical activity by her parents did not stop Fanny producing a healthy and glowing portfolio in her oeuvre – piano, chamber music and songs, including a cycle called Das Jahr (The Year). It could be said that a lot of her work leads the way where Felix was soon to follow, developing a delicate and distinctive romantic style that was to be most popular with the mid-Victorians, particularly in the limpid textures of the Songs without Words . The Queen herself, was noted to have liked some of her songs, presuming them of course to have been written by Felix. Goethe wrote poems for her to set and became a great admirer of hers after visits to the Mendelssohn home, which developed into a paternal friendship with the siblings. Though encouraging of her exemplary skill and talent, Felix himself declared that the pressure of publication would be too much for Fanny, and there is evidence that Fanny felt wronged and disappointed by this. Fanny’s work when performed received very enthusiastic approval and it could be argued that Felix was in fact not a little jealous.
One of Fanny’s songs, beautifully illustrated by her artist husband, Wilhelm Hensel.
The sibling relationship was undoubtedly a very complex but loving one. Felix was devastated by Fanny’s death in May 1847 – she suffered a stroke whilst preparing for performances of one of Felix’s oratorios – Die Erste Walpurgisnacht. Felix himself died less than six months later from a similar affliction. Ironically, after her death a few works from her folio were published by her family, but only relatively recently are there any commercial recordings of these. Below I have an extract from her piano trio, completed in the year of her death, and the blissful song for two voices – Aus meinen Tränen. ( The latter is absolutely gorgeous and I have sung it!) When you listen to these beautiful pieces, please wonder why we did not afford celebrations of her bicentenary in 2005 in the manner we are her brother’s. The brother without the sister was a song without words…