A Respectable Woman, an Outstanding Talent

R. Larry Todd: Fanny Hensel. The other Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-0-19-936638-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ If there ever was a good biography of Fanny Mendelssohn, it is this book. Fanny Mendelssohn was an outstanding pianist and composer and happened to be the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, one of the great composers of German romanticism. This book is not exactly a page-turner, but it’s not meant to be a page-turner. Its scientific value for anyone interested in Fanny’s life and works cannot be praised enough. Todd’s painstakingly meticulous research led to a work loaded with innumerable details on Fanny’s relation to both her brother and her husband Wilhelm Hensel, with multiple quotes from her letters and diaries and with a rigorous analysis of Fanny’s compositions. A treasure trove for musicologists and freaks like myself.

If Fanny Mendelssohn is known by insiders only today, it has of course to do with women’s social position in the 19th century. A woman from a respectable family like the Mendelssohn’s would not embark on a career as a professional composer or pianist or any other career for that matter. She would marry a respectable man and raise children and devote herself to fashionable leisure activities. Composing and performing were acceptable only in a private circle, but publishing works under her own name or embarking on concert tours – that idea seemed unacceptable to both Fanny’s father and to her brother.

How ambiguous however Felix’ feelings about this were, becomes apparent when Todd explains how he encouraged his sister to perform her works at charity concerts and organize weekly concerts at their home. The “Sunday Concerts” attracted Berlin’s elite and were semi-public cultural events that not only put Fanny into the limelight but also gave her the opportunity to mingle with the brightest artists of her time, notably composers and musicians that would consider her as a peer.

On my music blog I will give female composers this year considerably more space and as an introduction to Fanny Mendelssohn’s work I suggest you enjoy some of her song cycles, a genre in which she excelled and outranked her brother:

Longing for Italy, home of Beauty