Thursday 23 May 2019

Fanny Mendelssohn: the talented older sister who never got to shine


Confidante: Felix never encouraged Fanny to publish her music
Confidante: Felix never encouraged Fanny to publish her music

George Hamilton

Encyclopedia Britannica describes Felix Mendelssohn thus: "German composer, pianist, musical conductor, and teacher, one of the most celebrated figures of the early Romantic period".

He only lived to his late thirties, yet he produced a vast catalogue that contains some of the most enduringly popular of all music. You're sure to know him, if only because of his 'Wedding March'.

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There was another prodigiously talented Mendelssohn, one Felix acknowledged was a better pianist than he was - his older sister Fanny.

That not so much is known of her has all to do with the fact that she was a woman in the middle of the 19th century.

Both she and Felix had the same teachers, and he thought enough of her to engage her as his musical confidante.

But while the family - they were top Berlin bankers who counted the Russian Tsar among their clients - spared nothing when it came to educating their children, there was only so far a daughter could go.

This was their father, Abraham, in a letter to Fanny when she was just 15: "Perhaps for him (her brother), music will become a profession, while for you it will always be an ornament, never the basis of your being, and what you do."

That was just the way it was.

But she wrote music, and she played her piano at private soirées in the Mendelssohn house, now home to the German Bundesrat, the Federal Council. And she kept encouraging her brother.

His path was set, her light though condemned to remain hidden under the biblical bushel.

When she got engaged to an artist, Wilhelm Hensel, a relatively impoverished court painter who wouldn't have been the family's choice, Felix promised to write some music for the big day.

By now he was an international star, living in London at the time. But he was involved in an accident, run over by a coach. He couldn't travel back to Berlin for the ceremony.

So Fanny had to write her own 'Wedding March', which she did. It's the only piece of organ music of hers that's still in existence.

The artist, who'd had to prove his devotion by staying away from his beloved for several years, turned out to be the perfect match.

He knew what music meant to Fanny. Every morning when he'd go off to work, he'd put blank manuscript paper on the music stand and say, I want you to have written something new by the time I get home. Despite the affection and respect that was shared, Felix never encouraged her to publish her material. On the contrary, he actively discouraged it.

It was only when the family finally got around to arranging a grand tour of Italy - which had been the inspiration for Felix's 4th Symphony - that Fanny got to realise that there was real merit in her work.

While they were there, they met the French composer Charles Gounod, then in his early 20s. Mrs Hensel, he was to write, was an extremely learned musician who played the piano very well.

Now she was on an upward trajectory, but still Felix was advising caution. It would be several more years before she would finally take the plunge and put her work out for publication.

The music was well received, but within a matter of months, she fell victim to a stroke. She never got the chance to enjoy the fruits of success.

She died in 1847 at the age of 41. Felix, who wasn't in the best of health himself, took it badly. Within six months, he too was gone. He was only 38.

Now Fanny (you should also use "Hensel" when you go Googling) is recognised for what she was - a woman of music just as entitled to the cachet of the Mendelssohn name as the brother who got all the plaudits in their lifetime.


George Hamilton presents 'The Hamilton Scores' on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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