Fanny Mendelssohn Day Thread

Some fifty years after child prodigies Nannerl and Wolfgang Mozart impressed the crowned heads of Europe with their musical ability, another pair of sibling prodigies appeared on the music scene. Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn were the eldest of the four children in their family. Of Jewish descent, they were grandchildren of the enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelssohn, but the family converted to Christianity when they were children.

The Mendelssohn family was well-connected with the German-speaking intelligentsia of their day, and visitors at their home included Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt (both scientists, philosophers, and linguists, among other pursuits) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (perhaps the greatest writer in the German language). The children were instructed in music from an early age, first by their mother, then briefly by Marie Bigot of Paris (who had studied with the composer Luigi Cherubini). Later they studied piano with Ludwig Berger (who had been a pupil of renowned pianist Muzio Clementi) and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter. Their aunt Sarah Levy had also been a pupil of J.S. Bach’s sons C.P.E. Bach and W.F. Bach, and through her the family had a music library that included the works of J.S. Bach, which were not well known at the time. While all four of the children did well musically, Fanny and Felix excelled. While there were no Mozartean tours of Europe for the Mendelssohn children, they performed for many guests at their home in Berlin.

Though social norms had changed somewhat since the Mozarts’ childhood, and the Mendelssohns were a family of enlightened free-thinkers, it was still assumed that while Felix would pursue a career in music, Fanny would settle down with a husband. “Music,” her father wrote to her, “will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.” Felix was privately supportive of her compositional activities, and several of her works were published under his name to make it more acceptable.

Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel who, fortunately, was also supportive of her composing and even urged her to publish her work under her own name, which indeed she soon did. She also gave public performances as a pianist. She primarily wrote songs (over 250 of them) and solo piano pieces, but also wrote a few cantatas, a string quartet, a piano trio, and an orchestral overture, among other pieces. While she was less comfortable with large-scale forms than her brother, she was more experimental in her lieder.

Here is one of her last works, the Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11, written within a year of her death in 1847 and intended as a birthday present for her sister Rebecka.