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Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Born: March 31, 1732, Rohrao, Austria
Died: May 31, 1809, Vienna

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In her own words....

"I'm beginning to publish...and if I've done it of my own free will and cannot blame anyone in my family if aggravation results from it...then I can console myself with the knowledge that in no way did I seek or induce the kind of musical reputation that might have brought me such offers. I hope I shall not disgrace you all, for I am no femme libre...If it [my publication] succeeds, that is, if people like the pieces and I receive further offers, I know it will be a great stimulus to me, which I have always needed in order to create. If not, I shall be at the same point where I have always been."

German pianist, composer of Lieder and chamber music. Sister of Felix Mendelssohn.

When Felix Mendelssohn visited England in 1846-7, he had a private audience with Queen Victoria. She told him how much she liked his songs, and asked if she could sing her favorite—Italien from his Op. 8 collection. After she sang it, Felix admitted to her that it was not his, but rather his sister Fanny's. The Queen had good taste, for Fanny Mendelssohn was a marvelous composer, largely under-appreciated to this day.

Fanny was born to a prosperous family of the Jewish intelligentsia in Hamburg, granddaughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. She received early musical training from her mother, and like her younger brother studied composition with C. F. Zelter, who introduced her to the music of J. S. Bach. From an early age, her musical gifts were evident, and she was strongly encouraged by her family. Her accomplishments were limited, however, by prevailing attitudes against women assuming professional roles in music. Her brother was supportive of her creative endeavors, and he often asked her advice on musical matters. Yet he refused to help in getting her music published out of fear that she would not be able to maintain an active schedule of publication and thus be considered a failure. On the other hand, her husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel, worked to see her music published. As an adult, Fanny's musical activities focused around the family salon, where music was presented on a weekly basis. The Mendelssohn home was one of the major cultural establishments of Berlin, and Fanny composed the overwhelming majority of her music for these Sunday performances.

Our picture of Fanny Mendelssohn as a composer is based primarily on her songs. Even here, however, our knowledge is limited by the fact that most of the music is unpublished, while some is in family archives, unavailable to scholars. Yet that which is available shows a composer of sure accomplishment and great melodic gifts. Her songs, especially, are comparable to the best of the genre. The melodies are engaging and the accompaniments are well-crafted and play an integral role in setting the poetic texts. These qualities carry over into her "songs without words"—piano pieces in the style of the Lied. This was a favorit

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