'[Fanny Mendelssohn's] reputation deserves the kind of boost this excellent disc offers. Both Eugene Asti and Susan Gritton get to the heart of these pieces' (BBC Music Magazine)
'Pleasant, delightful ... an excellent record: enterprising programmes, fresh young artists, fine presentation, typical Hyperion' (Gramophone)
'Beautiful, direct, simple and memorable new song[s] ... Asti provides the beautifully limpid, balanced accompaniment you imagine Fanny herself might have played' (International Record Review)
Du bist die Ruh [2'35]
Dein ist mein Herz [2'46]
Traum Ihr fernen Heimathöhen [3'05]
Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix's older sister, has been long and unjustly overlooked as a serious composer, despite a considerable and impressive output comprising numerous piano pieces, duets, trios, choral works, chamber music for different instruments, an overture, an oratorio, several major cantatas—and innumerable songs. She was writing music at a time when it was considered unsuitable for a woman from the upper middle classes to have ambitions as a professional musician. Despite her gifts and desire for recognition, throughout most of her life Fanny respected the prevailing conventions and the wishes of her family, and accepted the prescribed role of a cultivated Berlin lady of her time.
This recording is devoted to nearly 30 of her beautiful songs, most of them appearing on disc for the first time. The poets include Goethe, Heine, Eichendorff, Rückert, Lenau and Geibel, most of whom were known to her personally. It has also been something a 'labour of love' for the two artists, Susan Gritton and Eugene Asti, and they have together written the extensive booklet notes.
Madame Hensel was a musician beyond comparison, a remarkable pianist, and a woman of superior mind; small and thin in person but with an energy that showed itself in her deep eyes and in her fiery glance. She was gifted with rare ability as a composer. M. and Madame Hensel came to the Academy on Sunday evenings. She used to place herself at the piano with the good grace and simplicity of those who make music because they love it, and thanks to her fine talent and prodigious memory I was brought to the knowledge of a mass of the chefs-d’oeuvre of German music of which I was completely ignorant at that time, among others a number of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach—sonatas, concertos, fugues, and preludes, and several Mendelssohn compositions which were a revelation to me from an unknown world. (from Charles Gounod’s memoirs)
Fanny Cäcilie Hensel, née Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1805–1847, both Fanny and Felix eschewed the usual hyphen), has been long and unjustly overlooked as a serious composer, despite a considerable and impressive output comprising numerous piano pieces, innumerable songs, duets, trios, a cappella choral works, chamber music for different instruments, an overture, an oratorio and several major cantatas.
The main reasons for this unjustified neglect are threefold. Firstly, she was writing music at a time when it was considered unsuitable for a woman from the upper middle classes to have ambitions as a professional musician. Secondly, she was completely overshadowed by her younger brother, Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), both during her lifetime and ever since. To this day she is remembered more for her letters and diaries in relation to him than for her own musical talents. Thirdly, both Felix and Fanny were of Jewish descent—from the great German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and on their mother’s side from the wealthy Itzig banking family. Despite conversion to Christianity, they were referred to as a Jewish family long after they left that faith. After their deaths, the prevalent anti-Semitic feeling led to the suppression of their works—particularly in the case of Fanny, much of whose compositions and literary output has remained unpublished in library archives or in the protective hands of family and other private owners.
Born with ‘Bach fugue fingers’ as noted by her mother, Fanny’s prodigious talents as a musician were soon recognized by her parents, Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn. At the age of thirteen, as a surprise for her father, she memorized an entire volume of preludes from Bach’s Das wohltemperirte Klavier. Both she and Felix were exceptionally gifted and—along with their younger siblings, Rebecka and Paul—were fortunate to have enlightened parents who gave them an outstanding education. Fanny and Felix had the best teachers in Berlin: the Director of the Berlin Singakademie, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758–1832), for composition, and the eminent pianist Ludwig Berger (1777–1839) for piano, while the young philologist Karl Heyse (1797–1855) acted as their general tutor and science professor. In addition, the cultured atmosphere of the Mendelssohn household and especially the ‘Sonntagsmusiken’ (Sunday Musicales, initiated in 1823 by Abraham so that Felix could conduct and perform his own and other composers’ works) created an exceptional environment in which to grow up and develop their talents.
The bond between Fanny and Felix was a profoundly close one from an early age. Felix looked up to Fanny, who was almost four years his senior, and learned a great deal from her in early childhood. They became close confidantes sharing, exchanging and criticizing one another’s musical ideas. Felix was always interested in Fanny’s opinions of his own work, but in later years she became so dependent on his approval in all matters musical that this special bond was both a joy and a burden.
On reaching adolescence, their paths diverged: he to become a professional musician, while for her (as her father wrote to her in 1820): ‘Music … will always remain an ornament, and never the foundation of your existence and daily life’. Later, on her twenty-third birthday, he wrote again with a hint of reproof: ‘You must shape yourself more earnestly and more diligently for your real profession, for the only profession of a girl, that of housewife’. Despite her musical gifts and her desire for recognition, throughout most of her life Fanny respected the prevailing conventions and the wishes of her family, and accepted the prescribed role of a cultivated Berlin lady of her time. In this she followed the pattern set by most of her female relatives, educated and intelligent women who used their talents to establish salons or to support musicians, artists and composers. The most notable of these was her maternal great-aunt Sara Itzig-Levy (1763–1854) who was a gifted harpsichordist and pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.
In 1829 Fanny married the court painter Wilhelm Hensel (1794–1861), and they had one son in 1830—Sebastian Ludwig Felix, named after her three favourite composers—Bach, Beethoven and her brother. Wilhelm encouraged her composing and piano-playing wholeheartedly, knowing that such creativity was the essence of her being and seeing it as a necessary complement to his own work as a painter. He even urged her to publish her compositions, which was something that neither her father nor brother could sanction. In 1831 Fanny revived the Sonntagsmusiken, on which she concentrated her musical energies. These became highly prestigious musical events attended by aristocracy and bourgeoisie alike, as well as by famous visiting artists like Liszt, Paganini, Clara Schumann, Bettina von Arnim and Heine. She planned the programmes, performing chamber music and Lieder, conducted her own choir and occasionally an orchestra. She introduced the Berlin audience to the music of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Weber and of course Felix, premiering many of his works as well as several of her own. As an amateur activity carried on in her own home all this was socially highly acceptable. Publication under her own name was a different matter.
Six of Fanny’s songs were published under Felix’s name as part of his Opp 8 and 9 in 1828 and 1830 respectively, and are some of the most inspired works in the two collections. It is likely that Felix’s motive was not to take credit for her songs, but to encourage her composing in a manner acceptable to their father. Unfortunately, on Abraham’s death Felix took on his father’s mantle and stubbornly resisted the idea of Fanny publishing, despite urgent representations from his mother and brother-in-law. Apart from two single songs, it was not until a year before her death that she finally broke free of Felix’s influence and began to publish, meeting with immediate success. The impetus to disobey Felix’s wishes came from various sources, prominent among them the admiration and encouragement she received from Charles Gounod—met when a long-cherished wish to visit Italy was most happily fulfilled in 1839/40—and from the young councillor and statesman Robert von Keudell, himself an excellent musician, whom she met in 1846.
It is tragic that just as she had achieved this longed-for interest in her compositions, and was at the height of her creative powers, she suffered a fatal stroke whilst conducting a rehearsal for one of her Sunday concerts on 14 May 1847. Her premature death robbed her of the public recognition she would certainly have achieved had she continued to compose and publish her works.
The Songs of Fanny Hensel
When (if ever) Fanny’s compositions are discussed, she is automatically compared to Felix, and although there are similarities in their musical styles, the differences are more significant. In terms of both form and harmony Fanny is the more experimental of the two, and she displays a more truly ‘Romantic’ spirit. Her compositions are in many ways much closer to those of Robert Schumann than to her brother’s. Song-writing occupied her compositional process throughout her life in a way that Felix never emulated. It is perhaps for exactly this reason that her brother never attached much importance to his own songs, since he felt that Fanny had written the very best that the Lied could offer and no doubt did not wish to compete with her in this area.
Fanny’s understanding of both the voice and the piano combined with her natural gift for beautiful melody make her songs gratifying for both performer and listener. A formidable pianist, she often wrote accompaniments that were highly demanding and demonstrated great skill in creating interesting pianistic sonorities and textures. There is a sincerity and directness which shines through even the simplest of her Lieder, and she had a great respect for poetic metre and an innate affinity with the emotional and atmospheric content of the texts she chose to set to music. When one actually considers the sheer volume of songs which she composed, it is incredible to imagine that they still remain in obscurity.
Prior to her marriage and the departure of Felix on his extensive travels in 1829, Fanny wrote prolifically—most probably with her sister Rebecka in mind, who apparently had a sweet voice until she gave up singing in 1836. Italien (Grillparzer) was one of three songs published in 1828 under Felix’s name. It achieved much popularity and Felix was obliged on two occasions (one of which was the famous incident when Queen Victoria chose it as her favourite in 1842) to admit that it was actually composed by his sister. Ferne, the earliest song on this disc, was written in 1823, Fanny’s most prolific year, to a text by Tieck, a poet she set many times. A friend of Wilhelm Hensel in Italy, the young Mendelssohns knew him best through his translations with Schlegel of Shakespeare.
In 1826 Zelter, who had written a song to a poem by Voss, wrote to Goethe: ‘Fanny has set it to music too, and since her version was really more apposite than mine, I sent it to [Voss’s] widow’. There is no evidence that either Der Maiabend or Der Rosenkranz were this song but they are among eight Voss poems set by Fanny at about this time. They are two songs of courtship, the latter text possibly being a metaphor for the girl’s impending loss of virginity. This was a subject somewhat on Fanny’s mind; she believed such a loss might threaten her musical inspiration and identity.
Ten years after the intensely sensual song Die Schiffende (Hölty) was written in 1827, it appeared in a Schlesinger Album as the first composition to be published under Fanny’s own name. It achieved much success, and caught the attention of Robert Schumann, then editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. In Die Ersehnte (also Hölty) one senses the anticipation Fanny might have felt with the coming of each spring between 1823 and 1828, years which Hensel spent in Italy before returning formally to ask for her hand in marriage.
In Die Mainacht, she created a song of noble beauty from this Hölty poem of romantic contemplation (better known in the setting by Brahms). Just prior to Hensel’s return, Fanny wrote her remarkable song Die frühen Gräber (Klopstock). This was a song she held in especially high esteem, later writing an arrangement for wind accompaniment, the manuscript of which is unfortunately lost.
The 1830s brought major changes in Fanny’s life: marriage, childbirth and the death of her father in 1835. Apart from a few trips abroad, she spent most of her life in Berlin happily married, creating a contented family life which would probably have sufficed but for her growing sense of musical isolation. In 1836 she wrote to a close friend: ‘Now that Rebecka has left off singing, my songs lie unheeded and unknown. If no one ever offers an opinion, or takes the slightest interest in one’s production, one loses in time not only all pleasure in them, but all power of judging of their value. Felix, who is alone a sufficient public for me, is so seldom here that he cannot help me much, and thus I am thrown back entirely upon myself. But my own delight in music and Hensel’s sympathy keep me awake still, and I cannot help considering it a sign of talent that I do not give it up, though I can get nobody to take an interest in my efforts.’
In 1846, Fanny chose Schwanenlied (Heine), written between 1835 and 1838, to head the first group of songs she was to publish under her own name. Heine was a regular visitor to the Mendelssohn household and at one time an admirer of her sister Rebecka. Fanny had reservations about him and made these observations to a close friend in 1829: ‘Heine is here, and I do not like him at all … he gives himself sentimental airs, is affectedly affected, talks incessantly of himself, and all the while looks at you to see whether you look at him. But have you come across his Travels in Italy? It contains some magnificent passages. Even if you have felt contempt for him … you cannot help confessing that he is a poet, a true poet!’. Fanny set fourteen of Heine’s poems, including Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen and Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass?, presenting the latter as a gift to Felix’s new wife Cécile in 1838. Suleika (von Willemer), most probably written before Felix’s song to the same text, was also presented to Cécile but as a wonderfully decorated autograph with a gold-embossed title vignette by Wilhelm Hensel as part of her famous Christmas Album of 1836, along with three other items by Fanny including Die Schiffende, and which was eventually also to contain autographs of Goethe, Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, among others.
Through his friendship with Zelter, Goethe became acquainted with some of Fanny’s songs when the eleven-year-old Felix stayed a fortnight with him in 1821, and he was so impressed that he wrote a poem for her. It appears she never actually set that poem though she used Goethe’s texts more than anyone else’s throughout her life. In her published works she included Erwin (better known in Grieg’s setting) and Wanderlied, encapsulating with irrepressible vigour in the latter the jubilant sense of Wanderlust—a freedom denied to women of her class and time, and only to be enjoyed vicariously through such poetry. In Dämmrung senkte sich von oben Fanny demonstrates her deeply-felt response to Goethe’s famous poem, which is a serene hymn to nightfall.
In 1839 Fanny made her long-awaited visit to Italy where she spent one of the happiest years of her life and where she finally felt that the full extent of her talents was properly recognized. In the evening serenade Gondellied (Geibel), she captures magically the seductive beauty of a moonlit gondola ride in the warm night air. The years following her return to Berlin were creatively prolific. Between 1841 and 1847, she made fourteen Eichendorff settings including Maienlied—in which the young Cupid-like knave is startled by the exultant awakening of spring—and Morgenständchen, in which the joy and pain following the consummation of love (almost understated in the poem) burst forth with passion in the musical rendering. Frühling (Eichendorff) bubbles over with a similar energy reminiscent of—and in the same F sharp major key as—Schumann’s famous setting in his Op 39 Liederkreis of 1840. Fanny’s song is undated, but in all likelihood she would have known the Schumann piece.
In Nachtwanderer (Eichendorff), the mysterious music of nature casts a romantic spell over the poet’s heart: dark clouds momentarily shroud the moon, bewildering his thoughts and confusing his inner and outer worlds. This song heads her Op 7, a compilation of songs from the 1840s with one exception, Du bist die Ruh (Rückert), a song of profound serenity written during the difficult months prior to her trip to Italy when she nursed her sister Rebecka through serious illness following the death of the latter’s thirteen-month-old son. Op 7 concludes with two settings of Lenau: in Bitte, the ‘dark eye’ as a metaphor for the night seems to be an omen of the insanity into which Lenau’s spirit was doomed to plunge in 1844. In Dein ist mein Herz, Lenau inspires her to daring use of chromaticism; written in the extraordinary key of C sharp major, there is a sense of heightened emotion which fills the ecstatic utterances of the poet with passion and exuberance.
In 1844 Felix severed his links with Friedrich Wilhelm IV, and with them the opportunity for him and his family to settle in Berlin. In November of that year Fanny wrote tearfully to Cécile about her dashed hopes that they all might have grown old together. The nostalgic melancholy of Traum, a combination of two Eichendorff poems and written at this time, seems to reflect these feelings. The entire song has a classical purity which harks back to Fanny’s earlier style, reminiscent perhaps of her youth when she was closer in every sense to Felix. The way she gives a special expressive emphasis to ‘brothers’ when she sets the words ‘Mutter, Freunde und Brüder’ (using an appoggiatura in the vocal part followed by a chromatic sigh in the left hand of the piano) leaves us with little doubt as to who was the most important to her.
Fanny Hensel’s sudden death in May 1847 had a powerful and complex effect on Felix which included some guilt at not actively encouraging her to publish. One of his last acts before his own death six months later was to arrange for the publication of more of her music—Opp 8–11. Many of the songs chosen for Op 9 were written much earlier than those included in Opp 1 and 7 and appear to have been family favourites. For Op 10, however, he chose some of her most mature songs. In Nach Süden (poet unknown), the old German dream of the south is imagined as a kind of paradise, fired by music with almost boundless energy. Abendbild (Lenau), an idyllic picture of unspoilt happiness, is framed by two highly chromatic songs. In Vorwurf (Lenau), Fanny chooses the key of G sharp minor to heighten the innate despair in the poem. One senses the presence of Bach in this song with her use of part-writing in the manner of a freely improvised organ fantasia and the final tierce de Picardie, as in Im Herbste (Geibel), another song of pain and remorse where there is perhaps an influence of Bach’s choral preludes.
The day before her death, Fanny had completed an Eichendorff setting which was still on her piano the day she died: it was Bergeslust. The final lines are poignant and innocently prophetic, for as she wrote it she was full of life and hope for her future. These lines are found inscribed on her tombstone in the Alte Dreifaltigskeit Kirchhof in Berlin, where Felix lies buried to her right and Wilhelm to her left.
Eugene Asti and Susan Gritton © 2000