If Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847) had lived at a time and place when a woman could reasonably pursue a career in composition, Felix might be known as “the younger brother of Fanny Mendelssohn” instead of Fanny being the also-ran. Apparently Felix agreed, nicknaming his sister “Minerva” after the goddess of wisdom because she gave such good advice on his compositions. There’s also evidence that Fanny was at least as great a piano prodigy as her brother.
Still, we should be grateful that she received an excellent education from her parents and found the gumption to compose prodigiously. She even got to see a collection of her Lieder published the year before her death at age 42 from a stroke. She was married to a painter, Wilhelm Hensel — his last name is sometimes appended to hers — who is said to have “supported” her composing but doesn’t seem to have encouraged her to step outside the safety of her domestic life for the sake of her music.
Most of her works were for solo piano, and like her brother, she had a penchant for very short movements grouped under a single opus number. She also wrote a lot for voice and a bit for chamber ensembles.
If you’re surprised to learn that she composed nearly 500 works, it’s because many of them have fallen into obscurity. In 2015, correcting that situation turned into a project called Room for Fanny Hensel, by a group of scholars at the University of Music and the Performing Arts – Vienna. One result of their work is an album with an oddly anti-feminist title, Fanny & Wilhelm Hensel: Scenen einer Ehe (Scenes from a Marriage) on the Gramola label. It features a variety of rarities from the Mendelssohn catalog, performed by a large cast of contributing artists.
Pianist Darya Volkova wends her way through the Bach-like contrapuntal opening of the Introduction and Capriccio in B minor, reminding us that Fanny appreciated classic techniques as much as her brother. The Cappriccio starts at 1:48, and Volkova delivers with astonishing prestissimo virtuosity.
No other tracks are available on YouTube, but it’s worth going to Spotify for a vocal example. This is “Nach Sünden” (From the South), a song from the 5 Lieder, Opus 10. Soprano Jenifer Lary collaborates with pianist Chiaki Kotobuki in a robust, flowing performance despite Lary’s distracting vibrato.
You may recall that brother Felix famously composed a huge set of solo piano miniatures called Songs without Words. Well, Fanny loved that genre, too, and even called some of her solo piano works Lieder. From a set called 4 Lieder, Op. 2, this is No. 3, “Villa Mills,” marked Allegretto grazioso. Pianist Daniele Dawn Fietzek plays with grace and warmth to spare.
Given her domestic responsibilities, it’s hardly surprising that Mendelssohn focused on music that could be played by one or only a few musicians – the number who could fit in her parlor. The Opus 11 piano trio (violin, cello, piano) reflects this necessity. A recent recording by the all-female Trio George Sand on the Elstir label shows her mastery of lush yet delicate Romantic chamber music.
The first movement is an Allegro molto vivace that whorls like a river. Violinist Virginie Buscail could have more bite and solidity to her playing; Diane Ligeti is especially affecting in her cello’s upper register; pianist Anne-Lise Gastaldi keeps things moving with a light touch.
Here’s the contrasting second movement, Andante espressivo, which finds the trio matching their style better and not over-emoting.
Speaking of music for the parlor, an important contribution to recordings of Mendelssohn’s songs has been provided by Champs Hill Records, despite another frustrating, even misleading, title. Mendelssohn: The Complete Songs, Vol. 3 is not the third volume of a complete collection of Fanny Mendelssohn’s songs. Instead, it’s the single volume devoted to, as it says on the cover, “The ‘Other Mendelssohn.’” Volumes 1 and 2 contain Felix’s music. But we’ll take it!
With Malcolm Martineau at the piano, the songs are performed by soprano Susana Gaspar, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, and baritones Manuel Walser and Gary Griffiths.
“Traurige Wege” (Sorrowful Way) is a Nicholas Lenau poem more famously set by Hugo Wolf. Mendelssohn chose duple meter (as opposed to Wolf’s waltz-like version). With a golden baritone, Walser makes sense of the composer’s many shifts in styles, tempos, and modes. It’s a complex song, not a simple strophic number to sing when your neighbors come over to tea.
Sung by Gaspar here, “Der Eichwald brauset” (The Forest Roars) is a setting of the first two stanzas of a poem by Schiller. This tiny gem is a vignette of a girl in the woods, fighting her way through heartbreak as nature empathizes on every side. Gaspar is commanding in her lower register, and Martineau keeps the forest roaring via the piano keys.
As skilled as Mendelssohn was composing Lieder, solo piano works were her true forte, and it’s good to see them getting continued attention. On a brand-new CD called Dreaming (DUX Records), pianist Sunhwa Park has put together a mix of pieces by 19th-century women composers. She includes the entire four-movement Lieder for Piano, Op. 8 by Mendelssohn.
In the fourth movement, marked Larghetto, Park brings out the Romantic longing beautifully.
The presto fourth movement is called “Wanderlied” (Wandering Song). The smoothness and expressiveness of the endlessly swirling phrases make me want to find more of Park’s recordings.
Fanny will probably never get the same level of attention that Felix does, but she’s not being ignored. The Park recording was just released in June. In late July, an album called Elles will come out from ATMA Classique, featuring violist Marina Thibeault and pianist Marie-Ève Scarfone. It’s a program of 19th– and 20th-century women composers, including an instrumental version of one of Mendelssohn’s Goethe-Lieder.
(Bonus tip: Fanny’s settings of Goethe’s poetry are as exquisite and moving as anyone’s. I recommend the recording by baritone Tobias Berndt and pianist Alexander Fleischer on Querstand.)
Keep ’em coming. Every track, every performance, helps give Fanny Mendelssohn the recognition she deserves.