I'll be lecturing on Fanny Hensel next week: she is a treasure awaiting discovery by the musical world. The older sister of Felix Mendelssohn, she was considered the "real" talent by their shared composition teacher, and acknowledged as Felix's equal by none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Unfortunately, the mentality of the times decreed that an upper class woman needed to stay confined to the domestic sphere, so while Felix pursued his education and career in Paris, Rome and England, Fanny stayed at home learning the domestic arts. While acknowledging her musical gifts, her father was very clear about the expectations the family had for her in this letter she received at the formative age af 15:“Music will perhaps become your brother’s profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament. You must take yourself in hand and concentrate harder; you must school yourself more seriously and eagerly for your true profession, a young woman’s only profession: being mistress of the house".
While she settled into a comfortable and by all accounts happy marriage to the artist Wilhelm Hensel, Fanny did what she could to devote herself to music within the margins of her life as wife and mother and music editor for her famous brother. She wrote over 400 compositions , only a handful of which received a public hearing during her lifetime. Her own musical performances - with the notable exception of a charity benefit in which she appeared as the soloist in her brother's piano concerto- were limited to the extraordinary salons she conducted at the family estate. Here, in the Garden Palace of Berlin, over a hundred invited guests would gather on Sundays to listen as works of Bach, Beethoven and of course her brother were introduced - often, for the first time. She rehearsed the orchestra and chorus, performed at the piano and welcomed guest artists such as Paganini and Liszt. And then she fed them tea, as a good wife and hostess was supposed to do.
It is a bit heart-rending to think what would have happened if she had received the same kind of encouragement her brother had. Here, after all, had been a fourteen year old girl whose birthday gift to her father had been to play by heart all 24 Preludes and Fugues of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier Book One. Her love of Bach lasted throughout her life: she was the first person to play these pieces in Italy, during a year's residence in Rome, and she named her only child Sebastian. Bach's influence is easily heard in the Cantata based on the Book of Job and written as an act of her own music therapy as a cholera epidemic swept through Europe. It was only in the last year of her life that her music began to be published in her own name: previously, a few pieces had found their way into her brother's Songs Without Words, though to his credit, he acknowledged Fanny as the true composer of "Italian" when Queen Victoria declared it her favorite.
Though she wrote over 450 works, almost all of Fanny's music is still unpublished and unrecorded. I am grateful that the Rochester Philharmonic has made the following video available, so we can hear a glimpse of what treasures might await us. What remains unanswerable is what might have happened if Fanny had been given access to an orchestra and a conductor's baton on a public stage- without the ex