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Composers

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel

(1805- 1847)

Fanny Hensel, née Mendelssohn (1805-47), was an exceptionally gifted musician whose potential was stifled by the gendered social conventions of her upper-middle-class background in mid-19th-century Berlin. She came from a wealthy and cultivated family, distinguished especially by its women. Alongside her brother Felix, she enjoyed an excellent general and musical education throughout her childhood, but while he was encouraged to pursue music professionally, she was prevented from doing so by her father. Nevertheless, music remained centrally important to her within private spaces such as the salon.

In 1825, the Mendelssohns moved to Leipziger Straße 3, a large property which allowed the family to establish one of the most impressive musical salons of the century. In 1829, Fanny Mendelssohn married the painter Wilhelm Hensel, whose active support of her gifts meant that – exceptionally –marriage and motherhood did not spell the end of her compositional life. She collaborated closely with her husband in a purpose-built studio, Hensel responding to her music with drawings, and she composing songs to his poetry.

From 1831, Mendelssohn organised the Sonntagsmusiken, informal private concerts in the garden room of the family home which involved attendees as impressive as Liszt, Paganini, Clara Schumann, Bettina von Arnim and Heine. The programmes mixed chamber music and songs, alongside some choral works and the occasional orchestra. In this ostensibly private milieu, she could flourish as a composer, conductor, performer and organiser. Maintaining the series was no small task, especially in the face of family bereavements and illnesses, and her own numerous but rarely mentioned miscarriages and still-births.

A long-desired trip to Italy from 1839 to 1840 with her family signalled the start of her liberation from her brother’s influence. Most importantly, her music was highly praised by the professional musicians she encountered in Rome. Fanny Mendelssohn was forty when she finally decided she would publish her music, in defiance of her brother.

Towards the end of her life, her self-confidence was boosted by the interest and encouragement of a young, musically inclined lawyer Robert von Keudell. By spring 1847, six opus numbers had appeared. Tragically, she suffered a stroke in May 1847 and died the following night. Felix Mendelssohn arranged the posthumous publication of two groups of songs and her Piano Trio Op. 11.

Fanny Mendelssohn wrote well over two hundred songs. As noted in Stephen Rodgers’s recent book songs, ‘Hensel’s music is tonally adventuresome, … free and flexible, often with a feeling of having been improvised on the spot; it can be at times wildly virtuosic…and at other times stripped to the barest essentials, so that every note, every moment of dissonance, speaks volumes; and it shows little obeisance to orthodox formal models,…pursuing unexpected musical narratives tailored to the needs of each expressive context.’

Hensel knew not only German but also French and English, and her output contains several French and English settings. Her taste in German poetry was discerning and high-quality, including Heine, Goethe, Eichendorff, Rückert, Lenau and her husband’s work.

Scores of all her songs are available on this site: https://henselsongsonline.org/, edited by Tim Parker-Langston, and many are easily available in print editions and recordings.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

Worked with the following poets texts

'Nach Süden' performed by Kitty Whately and Malcolm Martineau.

Click here to find the score.