Fanny's Salon Programme Notes

The close and intense relationship between Felix Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn) has long been a subject of academic study and discussion. It is arguably the case, however, that she has been overwhelmingly considered in relation to her brother rather than as a historically-significant performer and composer in her own right. She composed well over an estimated 400 works, though the majority of these are unpublished and many existing manuscripts remain in private possession.

 

In spite of the disparity between their individual fame, they shared an extraordinary and close relationship, at the core of which were shared musical interests and composing. This programme seeks to explore this relationship and contextualise both her String Quartet in E-flat major (1834) and Felix Mendelssohn’s Op. 80, but through Fanny’s own eyes and words. Both quartets are interspersed between dramatic readings of her letters to Felix and her diary entries, and in doing so Fanny Hensel is deliberately put centre stage. 

 

The full body letters from which you will hear extracts span 26 years from 1821 to 1847 - from when she was the young age of 16 and Felix 12, until she is 41 and a married woman and mother, whilst Felix is now a well-established and successful composer. The sheer volume and depth of these letters reveal the ever-changing nature and nuances of Fanny and Felix’s relationship; her initial address to him as a teenager displayed a profound maternal attitude, for example calling him “dear son”, which changes as they both grow older and assume the new roles and different expectations that society at the time has in store for them as man and woman. 

 

In their letters they discuss family, life, but also musical ideas and arguments. There are several notable recurrent themes; firstly Fanny’s lack of self-confidence and her need for her brother’s support and approval is often expressed, describing him as her musical eyes and ears and a guiding force in her own compositions. Frequently she asks for his opinion on her compositions and other musical matters, but she is also quick and willing to critique Felix’s own works, also at his request. Perhaps the fact that - as a woman - she was restricted from fully entering the public sphere meant that Felix was her one true source of musical validation and support, and importantly was her main link to the professional musical world. This idea was entrenched from a young age, as early as July 1820 when her father Abraham wrote to her that:

 

“Music will perhaps become his [Felix’s] profession, while for you it can and must only be an ornament, never the root of your being and doing…and your very joy at the praise he earns proves that you might, in his place, have merited equal approval.” 

 

And 8 years later he continued: 

 

“You must prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman - I mean the state of a housewife.” 

 

Another key theme is Fanny’s musical salons, her Sonntagsmusiken or ‘Sunday musicales’, which she established after her marriage to the painter Wilhelm Hensel in 1829. With the support of her husband, this became her own space to perform and present her compositions. For educated women in the 19th century, access to the political, social and economic institutions of the time, and active participation in the public sphere was restricted. A private salon given in the home was therefore an opportunity to discuss music, politics, art and literature, and thus somewhat escape from the confines of their role as home-maker, wife and mother. Fanny’s Sonntagsmusiken were clearly of huge importance to her, and dominate many letters to Felix from this later period of her life.

 

Perhaps the recurring family discussion which has been most noted by musicologists and scholars concerns whether or not Fanny should publish her compositions. The matter of publishing is first mentioned in her letters to Felix in 1836. It is evident from what she writes that, like their father, Felix is generally opposed to the idea, and it is also notable that she does not discuss publishing until after their father’s death in 1835. Nonetheless, she proceeds to have one lied, Die Schiffende, published in a Schlesinger album in 1837. Felix sends his congratulations on its success and his pleasure at her publishing this work against his wishes. Fanny does not go on to publish any other works for a further decade, however, and it is clear that Felix’s opinions matter a great deal to her and, despite his congratulations, have not materially changed. 

 

It is important to note the full context of Felix’s reticence towards Fanny publishing. In a letter to his mother on June 2 1837, he wrote: 

 

“I hope... I need not say that if she does resolve to publish anything, I will do all in my power to obtain every facility for her, and to relieve her, so far as I can, from all trouble which can possibly be spared her. But persuade her to publish anything I cannot, because this is contrary to my views and to my convictions.... I consider the publication of a work a serious matter (at least it ought to be so), and I maintain that no one should publish unless resolved to appear as an author for the rest of his life…. Nothing but annoyance is to be looked for from publishing, where one or two works alone are in question…. and from my knowledge of Fanny I should say she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.... If she resolves to publish, either from her own impulse or to please Hensel, I am, as I said before, quite ready to assist her so far as I can; but to encourage her in what I do not consider right, is what I cannot do.”

 

At initial mention, his reasons for not persuading or encouraging her include the societal expectations and demands placed upon her as a woman. It is also relevant, however, that at this point in time she did not have what would have been considered a suitable portfolio of larger works to publish, and this may also have been a factor in his views. Fanny herself remains in two minds for a long time. When she does finally look to publish a decade later, she does not return to her earlier works composed pre-1840, and instead focuses on more recent compositions. Furthermore it is important to note that once she made the decision to publish substantially, Felix was supportive and finally conferred upon her the blessing that she so clearly desired.

 

Overall, it is clear that they shared a unique relationship at a time where women were curtailed from simply doing as they pleased; their strong affection for each other is evident from the pet names and intimate exchanges littered across these letters, and in asking her compositional advice, Felix gave Fanny some access to his professional life and treats her as his musical equal. His devastation at her untimely death in 1847 is expressed in his Op.80, which so clearly presents the raw pain and loss he felt. In a letter to their sister Rebecka (Beckchen) he wrote:  

 

“God help us all— […] Alas, dear sister, I can’t write or think about anything except Fanny. It will never be otherwise as long as we’re here on earth.”

 

His Op.80 was finished only two months before his own death and turned out to be the last piece he ever completed. And so - perhaps aptly - his final work was a musical homage to Fanny Hensel, a close sister and strong musical influence in his own life, but also a remarkable woman and artist in her own right.

 

© Behn Quartet