Fanny Hensel

 

Fanny Mendelssohn was four years older than her brother Felix. As children they were very close, challenging and stimulating one-another intellectually and musically. They stayed in close contact for their entire lives.

The convention at the time was that Felix, though the younger, being male, would play the dominant rôle as a musician. They conformed to this, much to the detriment of Fanny. She could well have been Felix’s equal in ability, but she was discouraged from publishing her work, even by her brother (perhaps for complex reasons). As was ‘suitable for a lady’, her output was limited in the main to Lieder and piano pieces: salon music in effect. She has just 11 opus numbers to her credit, though her compositions number 500 (including one cantata, one oratorio, one overture and some chamber works). She started to publish just a year before her death, a venture in which her brother did not participate.

Fanny married the painter William Hensel – they had one child. She was a central figure in Berlin salon life (for which most of her music was written). Visiting Rome, she became friends with the young Gounod, who acknowledged her as an important influence on his developing style.

On 14th May 1847 she died suddenly of a stroke aged 41.

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Mendelssohn motets op69

Felix Mendelssohn grew up in Berlin with his dearly beloved sister and soul-mate Fanny.

Felix Mendelssohn

They led a charmed life together: highly privileged, both phenomenally clever, moving in the highest circles of Berlin intellectual society. There was much flexing of young intellectual and creative wings, by both of them, to everyone’s astonishment.

The op.69 motets belong to the other end of Mendelssohn’s life, composed in the summer of 1847.

They are remarkably serene, considering the circumstances in which they were written, for they belong to a year of turbulence he had not encountered before.

He was at the height of his career;  Elijah had been premièred in Birmingham the previous August to huge acclaim.

In early 1847 he was back in Leipzig doing his regular job directing the Gewandhaus Orchestra. In mid-April he returned to England. He oversaw six performances of Elijah in London, Birmingham and Manchester, and directed a concert with the Philharmonic Orchestra. He also gave a private concert for Gladstone at the Prussian Embassy, and was received again at Buckingham Palace.

Mendelssohn returned to Frankfurt (his wife’s family home) in mid-May completely exhausted, only to be greeted by the dreadful news that his dear sister Fanny had died while he was absent. He was in a state of mental collapse and could not attend her funeral. Trying to recover from the shock and exhaustion, he went to Switzerland with his brother, staying for several months. Being, for the first time in his life, incapable of composing, he turned to painting watercolours.

It was some weeks before he was able to start composing again. Still in Switzerland, he eventually began with the Motets op.69. If in these, perhaps, he found solace, it was in the String Quartet op70 that his anguish found expression. These were the last works he would complete.

At the end of September he finally managed to find the resolve to visit Fanny’s grave in Berlin.

He was so deeply upset by the experience that he could not conduct his next Gewandhaus concert. The following month he suffered a series of strokes, and becoming progressively more incapacitated, he died on 4th November. He was buried three days later next to the grave of his sister Fanny.