R. Larry Todd is Arts & Sciences Professor of Music, Duke University. His new book, Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, offers a compelling, authoritative account of Hensel’s life and music, and her struggle to emerge as a publicly recognized composer. In the interview below we Todd gives us some insight into Fanny Hensel, granddaughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and sister of the composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
OUP: Despite the fame of her family, why are we only just now hearing about Fanny Hensel?
R. Larry Todd: Most of her music, which numbers well over four hundred compositions, was unknown, unavailable, and unperformed until the late 1980s, 1990s, and beginning of our own century. So we had no idea of the full extent of her work. She was known primarily as a composer of songs, including six that were published under her brother’s name, and short piano pieces. But there was little appreciation that her compositional aspirations extended to chamber music (a string quartet and piano trio), choral music (part-songs and cantatas with orchestra), or that she composed a major piano cycle, Das Jahr (The Year) and an orchestral overture. Also, to the extent that we knew her music–admittedly in a quite limited way–there was a tendency to view her as a figure in her brother’s circle. Now that the music is becoming better known, it’s becoming clear that she participated with her brother in forming the Mendelssohnian style (Fanny was three and a half years older than Felix) and, further, ultimately developed her own compositional voice, with signs of separation from the music of her brother.
OUP: The Mendelssohns were Jewish, and your writing seems to suggest there were undertones of Anti-Semitism towards the family. Do you think this was another barrier to Fanny Hensel’s career or affected her art in any way?
Todd: Fanny and Felix were the grandchildren of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, though they were baptized and raised in the Protestant faith (Fanny at age eleven, Felix at age seven). The parents added the second surname Bartholdy, so Fanny Mendelssohn became Fanny Mendelssohn Bartholdy, before she married Wilhelm Hensel in 1829. On the maternal side, Fanny was descended from great wealth–her family belonged to the uppermost echelon of Berlin society, and guarded its privacy. Because of her gender and class, Fanny did not have a public career as a musician, and she was insulated for most of her life from the public limelight. But her brother, who became an international celebrity at an early age, did experience anti-Judaic sentiments directed toward himself and his family, even though, ironically, he was the guiding force behind the centenary revival in 1829 of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, quickly embraced as an emblem of German musical Protestantism.
OUP: Fanny Hensel was quite the Renaissance woman: a master composer; a scholar with a voracious curiosity; a loving wife, mother and sister. Over the course of your research of her life and work, what was the most surprising thing you discovered about her?
Todd: Apart from the many beauties and subtleties of her music, the strength of her convictions, depth of her intellect, and acute > musicianship. Though her husband, a court painter, was a confirmed Prussian monarchist who had fought against Napoleon, Fanny sympathized with the fervor of the July 1830 revolution in Paris and sewed the French tricolors into the clothing of her infant son, whom she named Sebastian Ludwig Felix, after her three favorite composers. Fanny held her own in conversations about the arts, literature, and politics, and did not hesitate to debate with her brother the finer points of his scores. As a musician she was an exceptional pianist and gifted conductor, and composition was her lifelong companion. Though she received encouragement from her brother only late in life, he acknowledged that her songs were among the finest examples of the German Lied. Along her path toward becoming a professional composer–she began publishing her music in 1846, only to die within a year from a stroke, as the first few reviews of her music were appearing–Fanny directed an illustrious series of concerts at her residence that attracted a gallery of distinguished visitors–among them Franz Liszt, Clara and Robert Schumann, Charles Gounod, the young Joseph Joachim, her brother, and Hans Christian Andersen.
OUP: Of the 400 plus compositions of hers, what do you judge to be Fanny Hensel’s greatest composition and why? Where could we go to listen to it?
Todd: I would rate Das Jahr as one of the major piano cycles of the nineteenth century, and would also recommend the String Quartet, Piano Trio, the Gartenlieder Op. 2 (choral songs), the Piano Sonata in G minor, the concert aria Hero und Leander, and any number of individual songs. There are many exquisite settings of Goethe, Heine, and Eichendorff. Several commercial recordings are available, but there is a need for more.
OUP: Do you think Felix Mendelssohn would have enjoyed the same successes that he did as a composer were it not for the guidance of his sister?
Todd: A fascinating question that has been all but overlooked so far. Because Fanny was three and half years older than Felix, she was for several years the dominant musician in the family. And she was a remarkable child prodigy herself, who was playing sizable portions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier from memory when she was fourteen. From her letters, we know that she knew intimately her brother’s music, and there is some evidence that she may have been involved in collaborating on some of his early compositions, and possibly had a role in the early development of his Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words) for piano. That said, Felix was an extraordinary prodigy compared by both Goethe and Heine to a second Mozart. But having an older sister of Fanny’s caliber if anything probably served to accelerate his own rapid development.
Two sibling prodigies in one family was a rarity of rarities. One thinks, for example, of the Mozarts–Nannerl was about four and a half years older than Wolfgang, and Nannerl was a composer, though none of her music survives. In the case of Fanny Hensel, we now have well over four hundred compositions, and a new window into the music of the nineteenth century.