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Discovering Felix’s Forgotten Sister

Discovering Felix’s Forgotten Sister

The work of pianist/composer Fanny Mendelssohn is just now being appreciated.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

She seemingly had everything going for her. She was a terrifically gifted pianist and composer. She came from a wealthy family. Her father had taken the precaution of converting the children from Judaism. There was only one small problem.

Fanny Mendelssohn was born 150 years too soon to gain recognition as a pianist and composer.

On the evidence of her output, more than 400 pieces including the cantata “Scenes from the Bible (Musik für die Toten der Cholera-Epidemie),” which will be performed this week as part of the American Symphony Orchestra’s program “Music and the Bible,” Mendelssohn ought to be considered a major voice of European romanticism, much like her younger brother Felix.

“A grave injustice was done that she was forgotten,” says R. Larry Todd, a music professor at Duke University and the author of “The Other Mendelssohn” (Oxford University Press), an acclaimed biography of the neglected Fanny.

The biggest change is that, since the 1980s, Mendelssohn’s music is available in quantity, even though she published very little in her own lifetime.

And therein lies the key to her history.

Fanny was born a bit more than three years before her more famous brother. The two were the grandchildren of the brilliant Jewish philosopher and activist Moses Mendelsshon, although he had been long dead before their birth. They were raised essentially without religious training, and their father Abraham had them baptized as a precaution against the anti-Semitism that he knew would plague them otherwise. Like her brother after her, Fanny was a musical prodigy; blessed with perfect pitch, she was a very quick study at the piano. As they grew up, she became something of a mentor to Felix.

“She contributed to the formation of the Mendelssohnian style,” Todd says. “If you read his letters it is quite clear [Felix] had the utmost respect for his sister’s genius. He wrote that she was responsible for ‘some of the very best German lieder we possess.’”

The siblings were one another’s toughest critics, and, as Fanny’s talents blossomed, her brother became more ambivalent about helping to advance her career.

“There is a poignant letter from their mother in which she asks Felix if he can’t help his sister,” Todd recounts. “He answers that she has her hands full raising her young son and a music publisher couldn’t rely upon her commitment to a musical career. But he says that if Fanny were to ask him, he would help.”

Fanny’s husband, the artist Wilhelm Hensel, was more supportive, but the social codes were stacked against Fanny. First, she was a woman in a highly paternalistic society. Her father warned her in a letter that she could never let music be more than “an ornament” to her life, and as Todd points out, Felix bought into that sentiment to some extent.

Perhaps more important, she was the product of a wealthy upper-class family. Clara Schumann, Fanny’s contemporary, enjoyed a highly successful career as both composer and performer, but Schumann was raised in the middle class, where the taboos against a woman having a career were not nearly as stringent.

“[Fanny’s] sphere was semi-public, and yet semi-private,” Todd says. “She gave these concerts in her home, but they were by invitation only. Everyone in Berlin knew she was a great pianist and choral director. But there was a rigid line between private and public, so she was in this special musical space.”

She continued composing, finally publishing her music for the first time a few months before the stroke that killed her at age 42. Her brother died shortly after, at least in part as a consequence of losing his beloved sister. Fanny Mendelssohn had created a substantial body of work, but almost no one knew it.

Until the 1980s.

Then the confluence of the donation of the manuscripts to German state libraries and the rising tide of feminist musicologists led to her rediscovery, a process that is beginning to develop considerable momentum.

The cantata that will be performed by the ASO has a typical history. The “cholera cantata,” as it is frequently called, was written by Fanny in 1831 to mark the end of a devastating wave of the Asiatic strain that had swept across Europe, doing considerable damage to the Mendelssohns’ hometown of Berlin. Unpublished, the piece was completely unknown until 1984 when the German conductor Elke Mascha Blankenburg discovered it in an archive and led the first performance of it.

The texts Mendelssohn set for the cantata are drawn from both Hebrew and Christian scripture, but the overwhelming majority come from the former. (Interestingly, her other cantata was a retelling of the story of Job.)

“There are a lot of texts from Psalms, Isaiah 1 and 2, and 2 Maccabees;” Todd says. “It appears that she chose these and stitched them together to suggest a narrative in which God summons the rebellious to judgment, and there is a reunification with God at the end.”

Musically, Todd hears a lot of the influence of the Mendelssohns’ favorite composer, Johann Sebastian Bach.

“It was Felix who revived his music, and Fanny was heavily involved,” he adds. “When she was 14 she was playing at least half of ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’ from memory. She also composed 32 fugues, all of them lost, regrettably. Her [musical] voice was wired for counterpart, complex part-writing and chromaticism,” a composition technique interspersing diatonic pitches and chords with chromatic ones.

In an era in which we seem increasingly obsessed with the stock market of critical opinion, it seems unfortunately inevitable to ask just how good Fanny Mendelssohn was.

Her biographer is frank.

“She’s like a new voice in 19th-century music,” says Todd. “Her piano piece ‘Das Jahr’ is a major work. Her one string quartet shows a formal freedom and spontaneity. Her songs contain some real gems; she is a natural songwriter, like Schubert or Irving Berlin.

“We’re still in the early stages of establishing a critical tradition. Her situation is much like the case of Emily Dickinson; it took a while for people to recognize and she becomes part of the canon. Will that happen? I don’t know, it depends on shifting fashions. At the moment, her reputation is on the upswing.”

The good news, as he says, is that 163 years after her death, her music is becoming widely available.

The result, Todd says with satisfaction, is that Fanny Mendelssohn “offers a new window onto a century we thought we knew too well.” n

Fanny Mendelssohn’s “Scenes from the Bible (Musik für die Toten der Cholera-Epidemie), will be performed by the American Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Leon Botstein as part of its program, “Music and the Bible” on Tuesday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m., at Carnegie Hall (57th Street and Seventh Ave.). For more information, go to or call (212) 247-7800.

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