Great Composers - Fanny Mendelssohn
Weekend Special

Great Composers - Fanny Mendelssohn

Siddharth S. Kumar

Siddharth S. Kumar

Do you know a woman who has five Twitter accounts, but is dead for 173 years? Do you know this girl who at the age of 14, when she played by heart, all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues for her father’s birthday, he quipped, ‘Very nice, dear, but don’t forget you’re a girl, so you can forget about taking this stuff up publicly?’ Do you know this composer whose music was published under her brother’s name, Felix Mendelssohn?

She was Fanny Mendelssohn: one of 19th century’s most brilliant composers – born in Hamburg, Germany in 1805. Ironically, in 2010 experts discovered that the work, Easter Sonata, attributed to Felix Mendelssohn was actually by Fanny. As a fitting tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn, it had its first performance under her name on International Women’s Day, 8 March, 2017.

Fanny wrote about 500 musical compositions in all, including many Songs without Words, a type of piano piece for which her brother later became famous. Musicologists now believe Fanny pioneered this musical form. Her works also included about 120 pieces for piano, many lieder (art songs), and chamber music, cantatas, and oratorios. Six of her songs were published under Felix’s name in his two sets of Twelve Songs (Opuses 8 and 9), while the few works published under her own name include several collections of short piano pieces, some lieder, and a piano trio.

Das Jahr (excerpt) -

Though a child prodigy, Fanny made her public performance debut only at the age of 33 when she performed her brother Felix’s Piano Concerto No.1. Despite an impressive body of work, Fanny only published her first work in her own name when she was 41.

Notably, Felix respected his elder sister Fanny’s talent, and they were drawn together by their shared love of music. Despite the gender inequality culture of the 1800s, Felix would seek Fanny’s discerning musical eye and ear, taking her critical advice to heart, and never hesitating to modify or excise entirely material that she found questionable. Felix respected her highly developed musical and intellectual insight referring to Fanny as ‘Minerva,’ the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Easter Sonata -

Though Fanny’s marriage at the age of 24 resulted in societal pressures for domestic roles, thanks to a supportive husband, her musical creativity continued to manifest itself in the prolific creation of hundreds of musical works, consisting mostly of the more intimate, ostensibly ‘feminine,’ smaller scale genres of keyboard pieces, songs, chamber music and choral works.

In view of the prevailing limitations on her public performances Fanny, at the urging of her brother, revived the tradition of hosting private musical salons when she was about 26, like her maternal aunts had done a generation earlier. Known as ‘Sonntagsmusiken’ (Sunday Music Salons), they provided Felix, and in particular Fanny, with musical activities--consisting of programming each concert, performing, composing new works and conducting. These salons, which were small private events, quickly became noted for their originality, and for the quality of their performances. More importantly, for Fanny, the salon provided an opportunity to make music on her own terms without having to face the scrutiny of a prejudiced public.

Piano Sonata in C minor -

Sheila Hayman, writer, film-maker and direct descendent of Fanny Mendelssohn writing in The Guardian (21 Nov 2018) states: “…Even now, only a tiny fraction of Fanny’s hundreds of compositions have ever been published or performed. The day the siblings parted, in 1829, she wrote in her journal: ‘I played my Easter Sonata.’ This sonata, along with most of her music, was then forgotten. 140 years later, only a freak of fate brought this work back into the light. For a woman of 22 to write a piano sonata less than a year after Beethoven died was a big deal. A sonata – a solo piano piece – may not sound like much of a challenge, but anybody who has heard what Beethoven did with them will understand why most other composers of the time sat on their hands for a decade. Not our Fanny, however. She turned to it, and wrote a massive, complex, energetic and adventurous piece…’

One day in May 1847 when she was 41 years old, a few hours after rehearsing Felix's Cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht for a ‘Sonntagsmusiken’ performance, Fanny, had a stroke, collapsed and passed away. As an obituary, Felix wrote his String Quartet No.6 in her memory, before dying himself six months later.

Before her death, when she saw a handful of her works appearing in print, it fulfilled her lifelong dream of being considered a serious composer. Fanny’s contributions were a precursor to the changing attitudes towards women in musical professions. As one of the first female composers to have their works published, nearly 170 years ago, Fanny established a precedent for the acceptance of women into a traditionally male-dominated artistic profession.

Siddharth Kumar holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London, and conducts weekend Classical Piano classes. Siddharth is Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year MNC stint, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music.