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Eight interesting facts about Fanny Hensel

By R. Larry Todd

Tomorrow marks the 207th anniversary of composer Fanny Hensel’s birth. Here’s a a few interesting facts about this overlooked composer.

(1) Fanny Hensel (1805-1847) was a granddaughter of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a devoted sister of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and the wife of the Prussian painter Wilhelm Hensel.

(2) Fanny Hensel composed over four hundred and fifty compositions, the great majority of which vanished after her death from public awareness for well over a century until late in the twentieth century and beyond.

(3) Like her brother, Fanny Hensel was a child prodigy with perfect pitch, and a formidable pianist who played the Well-Tempered Clavier from memory, wrote cadenzas for Beethoven’s piano concertos, and was among the first generation of pianists to essay that most intractable of piano sonatas — Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. By some accounts, she was her brother’s peer as a pianist.

(4) Fanny Hensel performed twenty-four preludes from J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier from memory for her father when she was fourteen.

(5) Fanny Hensel’s compositions weren’t restricted to short songs and piano pieces. Among her large-scale works are a fifteen-movement cantata to mark the end of the cholera epidemic in Berlin in 1831, the 1841 piano cycle Das Jahr on the months of the year, and her last major composition, the Piano Trio in D minor, Op. 11, written for her sister, Rebecka, in 1847.

(6) Fanny and Wilhelm Hensel named their son Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel, after Fanny’s three favorite composers, in chronological order.

(7) Fanny Hensel performed her music in the music room of the family residence in Berlin, which could accommodate upwards of one hundred guests. There Fanny organized a private, biweekly concert series in which she directed a chorus from her piano, and performed chamber works. Her repertoire included cantatas of J. S. Bach, oratorios of Handel, chamber works of Mozart and Beethoven, music of her brother, and occasionally her own music.

(8) Queen Victoria listened to Fanny Hensel’s music, though in an unusual way. Six of Fanny’s early songs were published under her brother’s name in his first two song collections, Op. 8 and Op. 9. When Felix visited Buckingham Palace in 1842, he accompanied the queen, who chose to sing the song “Italien,” published as Felix’s Op. 8 No. 3. After Felix disclosed that Fanny had written the song, the queen chose another, this one by Felix, to sing.

R. Larry Todd is the author of Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, winner of the ASCAP Nicolas Slonimsky Award for Outstanding Musical Biography, and Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, named Best Biography in 2003 by the Association of American Publishers. An Arts & Sciences Professor of Music at Duke University, Todd was recognized in the New York Times as “the dean of Mendelssohn scholars in the United States.” He is also a Guggenheim Fellow and Fellow of the National Humanities Center.

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