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Biography Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, 1805-1847

Image: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel
[Hensel, Fanny Mendelssohn] [n.d.] Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Drawn together by their shared love of music and exceptional talents, Felix Mendelssohn and his older sister Fanny (1805-1847) developed a close relationship that was to endure throughout their lives. While Fanny's gender prohibited her from enjoying the same social opportunities or support in developing her musical gifts, her talents appeared to be nearly as formidable as those of her more famous brother. The fact that from very early in their lives, and until Fanny's death (she died only six months before her brother), Felix would regularly submit his compositions to Fanny's discerning musical eye and ear, taking her critical advice to heart, and never hesitating to modify or excise entirely material that she found questionable. Felix began to refer to his older sister as "Minerva," the Roman goddess of wisdom, for her highly developed musical and intellectual insight.

Both of Mendelssohn's parents -- his father, Abraham Mendelssohn (1776-1835), and his mother Lea Solomon Mendelssohn (1777-1842) -- were cultured individuals who played an active role in the education of their children. Young Felix and his siblings received a broad education -- initially from both parents, and only later by tutors -- in French, German, Latin, Greek, arithmetic, geometry, geography, literature, music theory, violin, and drawing. Their parents' encouragement in developing their children's rich cultural and intellectual lives reflected the esteem with which the value of education was regarded in the Mendelssohn household. The intellectual rigor of the children's education also instilled in them a life-long discipline that allowed them to explore their creative activity -- the products of which, especially in the case of Felix and his sister Fanny, far exceeded the norm.

Both Fanny and Felix made striking progress in their musical and general studies, and astonished those who heard them perform by their prodigious musical technique. By 1818, both children had begun producing their first compositional efforts; in the same year, both appeared as performers before audiences: the nine-year-old Felix in public concerts, as a soloist in J. L. Dussek's "Military" Concerto, as well as an accompanist in a trio for two horns and piano by Joseph Wölff; and the twelve-year-old Fanny, who, before a private audience, demonstrated the remarkable feat of performing twenty-four preludes from J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier from memory. (Her only documented public performance did not take place for another twenty years -- until February 1838, when she performed her brother's First Piano Concerto for a charity benefit.)

Fanny's own virtuosity on the piano evidently equaled, if not surpassed, that of her brother Felix. But if Fanny might have had musical aspirations of her own, to pursue a life as a performer and composer as her brother did, such hopes were quickly dashed: societal constraints at the time precluded women from pursuing musical professions. This harsh reality was made clear by Fanny's father Abraham in an 1820 letter to her, in which he states that while music will perhaps become Felix's profession, "for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing." While the following year Fanny met and fell in love with painter Wilhelm Hensel (1794-1861), whom she eventually married in 1829, and subsequently settled into the "acceptable" domestic roles prescribed by society of the time, her musical creativity continued to manifest itself in the prolific creation of over five hundred musical works, consisting mostly of the more intimate, ostensibly "feminine," smaller scale genres of keyboard pieces, songs (of which she wrote over two hundred fifty alone), chamber music and choral works.

Fanny, meanwhile, had, at the urging of her brother, revived the tradition of hosting a musical salon in about 1831. As her maternal aunts had done a generation before, and as her own immediate family had done -- which provided the young Fanny and Felix with their earliest performing opportunities -- Fanny's musical activities (consisting of programming each concert, performing, composing new works and conducting) found an outlet in the Sonntagsmusiken (so named since these salons were held on Sundays) over which she presided at the Mendelssohns' Berlin residence at Leipziger Strasse 3. These salons quickly became noted for their originality and for the quality of their performances. While they were private events (attendance was by invitation only), the salon's audiences were generally comprised of a wide range of musical aficionados from Berlin society. For Fanny, the small scale of the salon provided an opportunity to make music on her own terms without having to face the scrutiny of a prejudiced public. (Ironically, the relatively more informal atmosphere of the salon afforded Fanny a freedom of expression that surpassed that available even to her more famous brother.)

One day in May 1847, a few hours after rehearsing Felix's cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht for a Sonntagsmusiken performance, Fanny collapsed and died at the age of forty-one, the victim of a stroke. She did, however, live to witness changing attitudes towards women in musical professions, which resulted in a handful of her works having appeared in print, thereby fulfilling her lifelong dream of being considered a serious composer. In being among the first female composers to have their works published, Fanny established a precedent for the acceptance of women into a traditionally male-dominated artistic profession.