From the Sleevenotes: A Woman’s Hand

Helen Cawthorne’s sleevenotes from PFCD172 A Woman’s Hand – Piano Music by Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn was born in 1805, into a family offering apparently near perfect circumstances for nurturing what would emerge as her own prodigious musical potential and that of her brother Felix, born four years later. Her maternal great-grandfather, Daniel Itzig, was Frederick the Great’s principal financier, and among his numerous children were remarkable women who, variously, founded important musical salons; acted as patron to Mozart; supported the career of the virtuoso pianist Ignaz Moscheles; studied harpsichord with W.F. Bach and became a major collector of Bach family manuscripts and promoter of a revival of interest in their music.

Daniel Itzig’s son Isaac co-founded the Berlin Free School with Moses Mendelssohn, Fanny’s paternal grandfather. Moses, who grew up in impoverished circumstances, became a highly successful businessman and a leading philosopher of the German Enlightenment, recognised as one of Europe’s prominent intellectuals. Music held a profoundly important place in Moses’s aesthetic theories and he placed the highest value on musical education and training in the development of individual character and human society.

Fanny’s parents, Abraham and Lea, were full beneficiaries of these family traditions, financially secure from childhood and exceptionally well educated. Lea was a fluent linguist and a very capable pianist, having been taught by Johann Philipp Kirnberger, himself a pupil of J.S. Bach. Abraham founded, with his brother, a leading European banking house, bringing even greater wealth to the family, and both he and Lea were passionately committed to their children’s education, insisting on a rigorous schedule directed by a remarkable array of the leading tutors available. In 1811 the family, now including a third child Rebecka, moved from Hamburg to Berlin. Here, a fourth child, Paul, was born in 1814 and the family home quickly started to establish a place in the cultural life of the city. To aid the family’s integration, and in the hope of shielding them from discrimination, in 1816 Abraham and Lea made the seemingly momentous but, as they saw it, pragmatic decision to have their children baptised in the Protestant faith, they themselves undertaking a quiet conversion a few years later. It was at this time that Abraham also changed their surname to Mendelssohn Bartholdy, to add further distance between them and their Jewish roots. From a relatively young age the children benefitted not only from the exceptional tutors available but also from regular exposure to the leading intellectual, artistic and musical figures of the day.

Fanny and Felix were encouraged equally at this stage. Lea provided their first lessons on the piano and they went on to study with Marie Bigot, who was admired as a pianist by both Haydn and Beethoven, and then with Ludwig Berger, a student of Clementi and of John Field. Their rigorous grounding in harmony, counterpoint and composition was entrusted to Carl Friedrich Zelter, whose pedagogical principles were firmly founded in Bach’s practice. In 1820, the children both joined the Berliner Singakademie, directed by Zelter and dedicated in large part to restoring earlier music to the repertoire.

As Fanny and Felix’s abilities as pianists developed, Abraham and Lea established their Sonntagsmusiken, a private concert series, initially confined to relatively small audiences but expanding greatly after 1825 when the family moved to their new home, a grand estate at Leipziger Strasse, on the outskirts of Berlin.

At the concerts, not only were the children able to hear some of the leading performers of the day when they visited the city, but they were themselves given a platform. Increasingly, Fanny and Felix’s performances became a major feature of the occasions, attracting great attention from across Berlin and beyond.

Fanny and Felix appear to have been devoted to each other as children and their musical development was closely entwined. There was a constant interchange of ideas, with candid and rigorous responses to each other’s efforts, in a hugely supportive atmosphere, each taking pride in the other’s achievements. As the children grew older, divergences began to appear both in their musical education and the encouragement they received to pursue their development as executants and composers. Clearly, Felix was quite remarkable at a very young age, though it is striking that a number of contemporary comments suggest that the siblings exhibited very similar talents, with Fanny taking the lead at times, particularly in her virtuosic pianism. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Felix began to be encouraged to tackle compositional projects on a larger scale and involving larger forces, while Fanny was expected to continue with a more ‘feminine’ concentration on songs and short piano pieces. More significantly, as the extent of Fanny’s talent and potential revealed itself, Abraham felt it necessary to assert that her social status precluded any thought that she should have a professional role of any sort as either pianist or composer. The expectation was that her future should be that of wife, mother and hostess, using her musical and intellectual accomplishments to enrich her social circle and, first and foremost, her family, bringing insight and intellectual distinction to the nurturing of children, as her own mother had done.

The reaction of both Fanny and Felix to this developing enforced divergence in their paths is complex and was perhaps too readily caricatured in the past, before more complete and subtle studies were written in recent years. It is clear that Fanny felt the pressure to conform to parental and social pressures very acutely, evident also that she was a highly spirited and lively presence, but also one who was – or became – deeply uncertain about the scope of her capacities, at times. Felix seems also to have been highly conflicted, torn between respecting societal norms in what he would see as the best interests of his sister’s reputation and that of her family, but also intellectually and emotionally convinced of his sister’s immense talent. Thus, when it came to a question of publishing some of Fanny’s works, he was content to include some in collections appearing under his name, but also to readily acknowledge them as Fanny’s when they were praised, sometimes above his own. Later, after her marriage and after her father’s death in 1835, Fanny’s husband and her mother were keen to encourage her to publish under her own name, but Fanny felt torn between their impulses and her respect for her now famous and established brother’s upholding of his father’s position. Felix suggested to Lea that Fanny did not have the natural temperament to sustain a public persona, that the process would be damaging to her, and that he could not himself encourage her to do so. On the other hand, should she decide to proceed of her own volition, he would support her. Despite the tensions implicit in the situation, Fanny and Felix remained devoted to each other emotionally and preserved their mutual respect and instinctive shared sympathies as musicians.

Fanny had married the established artist Wilhelm Hensel in 1829 and their only child, Sebastian, was born in the following year. They lived together in the garden house on the seven acre estate at Leipziger Strasse and, by all accounts, this was again an exceptionally propitious union for Fanny’s musical life, in that Wilhelm was profoundly supportive of her as an artist and encouraged her unfailingly. However, Fanny put her role as wife, mother and daughter before all else, and music might have been pushed increasingly further into the corners of her life had it not been for her role in the Sunday concerts.

These continued, with some breaks, for the remainder of her life, and she took on an increasingly demanding role in sustaining and developing them, as well as performing in them herself as pianist or conductor. Often the only outlet for her own compositions, these concerts became the focus of her musical life and they attracted some of the leading figures on the European musical scene – Robert and Clara Schumann, Chopin and Paganini, among many others. The audience on one Sunday in 1844 included eight princesses and Franz Liszt.

One of the happiest times of Fanny’s life was a year, 1839-40, which she spent on an extended visit to Italy with her husband Wilhelm and their then 9-year-old son. There she met many artists and musicians, including the young Charles Gounod who was deeply impressed by her as a fellow musician, and to whom she introduced the music of great German masters including Bach and Beethoven, playing works by them as well as her own compositions. The trip gave her both an immense artistic boost and an increase in personal confidence that saw her return to Berlin with renewed enthusiasm and vigour. The following year, 1841, was one of her most prolific years for composition – thirty-three works in total, including sixteen for solo piano and eleven solo songs.

Fanny continued to resist opportunities to publish throughout most of her life. In 1836, however, she allowed a song of hers to be included anonymously in an album published by Schlesinger. This won immediate recognition in musical circles, reported by Felix as being considered the best work in the album, and it caught the attention of Robert Schumann, who went on to conduct one of Fanny’s choral pieces. Despite this success, however, she was reluctant to take up any more offers without the full approval of her brother.

Ten years on, the success of the increasingly prestigious Sonntagsmusiken and the recognition they brought to her as performer and composer led, in 1846, to competing offers from two leading publishing houses. Now, at last, Fanny published music for the first time under her own name. Two volumes of Lieder, three sets of piano works and a choral part song appeared, only for this development to be cut cruelly short by Fanny’s shockingly sudden and untimely death at the age of 41 in May 1847.

Of the seventeen works on this disc, just four were amongst those few published in Fanny’s lifetime. The earliest written of these is the Andante in G major of 1836, which Fanny selected ten years later to be the first of her opus 2, and therefore her first published piano work.

The opus 5 pieces are numbers 4-6 of Six Mélodies pour le Piano, a collection of pieces written between 1839 and 1846, published in two volumes (opus 4 and opus 5) in 1847.

In the final months of her life, Fanny was also preparing for publication two other collections: the four pieces of opus 6, which appeared later that year, and the Vier Lieder für Klavier, opus 8, written in 1846, which were sent to the publishers Breitkopf & Härtel by her brother Felix just after she died and eventually came to print three years later, in 1850.

The Adagio in Eb major on this disc comes from another notable collection, a selection of twelve pieces which Fanny compiled as a gift for Felix. She employed a professional copyist and sent the resulting volume to her brother under the title 12 Klavierstücke für Felix with the dedication “Twelve piano pieces by Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn Bartholdy for Felix 1843”. Five of these twelve pieces later made their way into print as op. 4 no.s 1-3 (the first three of the Six Mélodies), op. 2 no. 3 and op. 6 nos. 2 & 4.

Thankfully many of Fanny’s manuscripts have been preserved, probably in large part due to the significance of her brother’s work. The bulk of Fanny’s music is archived along with Felix’s in the Mendelssohn collection of the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, and growing interest in Fanny’s work in recent decades has resulted in much more of her music now being available in print.

In 1986 Fanny’s great-granddaughter and namesake, Fanny Kistner-Hensel, selected eleven piano works from the archive for publication by Henle. The turbulent Allegro molto in C minor of 1846 comes from this volume. Since then there has been much further activity towards wider recognition; the bicentenary year of 2005 was a significant catalyst, and now a sizeable majority of her more than 150 piano works is in print. Performance directions are often very scant, sometimes non-existent in these posthumous publications, as until the final years of her life Fanny was not expecting to publish her works; they were written down primarily for her own use.

Fanny was herself, by all contemporary accounts, a formidable virtuoso pianist, but the works she chose for her first publications were relatively modest in their technical demands, selections made very much with the domestic market in mind, as publishers were by and large selling to the amateur music-maker.

Even in the simplest seeming pieces, however, a creative treatment of harmony is always present and, whilst her short piano pieces – variously entitled Lieder für Klavier, Mélodies pour le Piano (songs for piano), or simply Klavierstücke (piano pieces) – show clear similarities with Felix’s Lieder ohne Worte (songs without words), increasingly there are signs of stylistic independence, particularly in exploring rich harmonic colourings, unconventional key relationships and chromaticism, and in a tendency to push the boundaries of the standard ABA form.

Song was the element around which all Fanny’s work revolved. She wrote prolifically for the voice – more than two hundred and fifty Lieder in addition to concert arias, part songs, choral and stage works and a cantata. And it is evident that the voice is never far from Fanny’s thoughts in her piano writing.

Some of Fanny’s most ambitious work in terms of scale came from the period after she had reinstated the Sonntagsmusiken in 1831, following a two year break precipitated by Felix leaving home and during which Fanny herself had married and given birth to her son. By 1836 audiences had become large and the three hundred or so guests were no longer drawn exclusively from the family’s own personal acquaintances. For performances Fanny had access to some of the finest musicians in Berlin, as well as the means to hire them in generous numbers. Fanny conducted and performed with instrumentalists and singers from the Berlin Court and the Berlin Opera and latterly she formed a regular choir. Fanny allowed herself to make some compositional excursions into larger scale works and into more extended forms. In addition to her choral works she produced an orchestral overture, a cello and piano sonata, piano trio and piano quartet. She also wrote at least three piano sonatas and some piano works for four hands as well as the substantial work of 1841 entitled Das Jahr, a cycle of twelve character pieces for piano evoking each of the twelve months of the year that she spent in Italy. The majority of her output, however, was made up of art song and short pieces for piano, the genres which she had been initially encouraged to embrace, and work for which there was the most constant outlet. And so, despite the demands of her domestic life, periods when she was discouraged by the lack of opportunities for her music to be heard in a wider public sphere, and her own attempts at times to quell her urge to compose, there were only two years in her adult life when Fanny didn’t write at all, namely 1842, the year her mother died, and 1845 when she spent several months with her sister, nursing her through illness.

The music on this disc contains works from the last eleven years of Fanny’s life and reflects the large scope and variety of invention which she was able to invest in this one art form, the piano miniature. Helen Cawthorne