Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel Piano Music

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel Piano Music

by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

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Although best known as the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-47) was a virtuoso pianist and a composer of considerable merit in her own right. Her oeuvre of more than 400 compositions remained largely unknown for more than a century after her untimely death, and her newly rediscovered reputation as a composer rests chiefly with her piano


Although best known as the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-47) was a virtuoso pianist and a composer of considerable merit in her own right. Her oeuvre of more than 400 compositions remained largely unknown for more than a century after her untimely death, and her newly rediscovered reputation as a composer rests chiefly with her piano music. This volume is the first American publication of her important early works. Reproduced directly from rare first editions, its contents include Vier Lieder für das Pianoforte, Op. 2, Op. 6, and Op. 8, in addition to two selections from Six Mélodies pour le Piano, Op. 4 and Op. 5. Introduction.

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Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel Piano Music

By Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-17157-9


"Had Madame Hensel been a poor man's daughter, she must have become known to the world ... as a female pianist of the very highest class." To this forthright observation by the English music critic Henry Chorley we might well append "and composer" ("Mendelssohn's Sister and Mother," in W. A. Lampadius, Life of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, trans. W. L. Gage, London, 1865, p. 185). Indeed, Fanny Hensel (1805–1847) is now generally regarded as one of the most talented and productive women musicians of the nineteenth century. Like her brother Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847), she was a child prodigy; at age thirteen, Fanny performed from memory twenty-four preludes from J. S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, and by age nineteen, she finished her thirty-second fugue, an accomplishment dutifully reported to Goethe by her composition teacher, C. F. Zelter. Her oeuvre comprises over four hundred compositions, the majority of which remained unknown until late in the twentieth century. Focusing on short character pieces for piano and solo songs, she also produced an estimable String Quartet in E-flat major (1834) and Piano Trio in D minor (1847), and an Overture in C major for orchestra (1832), along with numerous duets, part-songs, and choral works, including several cantatas with orchestra.

The granddaughter of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), eminent Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Fanny was also a great-granddaughter of Daniel Itzig (1723–1799), court banker to Frederick the Great. The family's wealth afforded her many opportunities—lessons in piano and composition with leading pedagogues of the time, and, at the Berlin family mansion, a spacious room bordering on lush gardens, the Garten-Saal, where Fanny directed biweekly Sunday musicales that attracted musical luminaries such as Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann, Joseph Joachim, and, of course, Fanny's brother Felix. But because of her gender and class, Fanny's musical world was largely sheltered. Though at her musicales she often performed piano works and songs, and directed operas by Gluck, cantatas by Bach, and Felix's music, Fanny appeared in "public" concerts only twice, to render a piano concerto and trio by her brother. And the vast bulk of her compositions was intended for private or semi-private use at the residence, not the glare of public scrutiny. Nevertheless, Felix brought out six of Fanny's songs under his own name in his Op. 8 and 9, which appeared between 1826 and 1830. Throughout her short life, Fanny wrestled with the idea of officially publishing her music, initially without the encouragement of her brother. In 1836 she considered releasing a collectionof piano pieces, and the same year brought out under her own name a setting of Ludwig Hölty's "Die Schiffende." Not until the last two years of her life, though, did she begin systematically editing her manuscripts; in 1846 and 1847 the Berlin firms of Bote & Bock and Schlesinger released her first four opera, including songs, piano pieces, and part-songs. Fanny prepared three more collections, Op. 5–7, but by the time they appeared in 1847 she had already died, on May 14, after suffering a stroke during a rehearsal of her brother's cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht. There is some evidence that Felix, devastated by her death, selected further works for posthumous publication, but tragically enough he survived Fanny by only a few months, and died in Leipzig on November 4, following a series of debilitating strokes. After the eruption of the Revolution in March 1848, four more opus numbers followed in 1850 from Felix's principal publisher, the Leipzig firm of Breitkopf & Härtel. The last to appear was the Piano Trio Op. 11. A curtain of silence then fell over Fanny's manuscripts for more than one hundred years, until the rediscovery of her music in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Often titled Lieder, Fanny's piano compositions are sometimes viewed as heavily indebted to the lyrical piano pieces Felix published as Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), destined to become staples of later nineteenth-century music parlors. Typically in a three-part song form (ABA), these piano songs feature singing treble melodies with arpeggiated or chordal accompaniments, and impress as keyboard abstractions of German art songs. The listener is thus to imagine a type of poetic text which might be set to the music; as if to assist this endeavor, Felix (and Fanny) occasionally provided descriptive titles as tantalizing clues. During their childhood the siblings evidently devised texts to be fitted to their piano songs, though not clear is the extent of Fanny's contributions to this musical/literary game, or, indeed, to the invention of the Lied-ohne-Worte genre. But for all Fanny's stylistic proximity to Felix's music, her piano works are not without striking signs of inspiration and originality. In comparing Fanny's and Felix's music, an early critic found that with Fanny "fantasy is permitted a freer reign, and form is applied with broader brush strokes" (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung [49] 1847, 382). Because Fanny composed most of her music for private domestic use, she was free to explore an increasingly ambitious tonal palette, with striking juxtapositions of unrelated harmonies and chromatically colored progressions. The songlike qualities of her music are manifest in the piano pieces assembled here, yet some of them are technically challenging, and suggest the brilliant style of virtuosity for which Fanny was celebrated by those fortunate to attend her musical salon.

The present volume offers facsimile reprints of the first editions of Fanny Hensel's Op. 2, 6, and 8, as well as of two pieces from Op. 4 and 5. The four collections, reproduced by courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Op. 2) and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin—Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv (Op. 4/5, 6 and 8) are: Vier Lieder für das Pianoforte, Op. 2, Berlin, Bote & Bock, 1846; Six Mélodies pour le Piano, Op. 4 (livre I) and Op. 5 (livre II), Berlin, A. M. Schlesinger, 1847; Vier Lieder für das Pianoforte, Op. 6, Berlin, Bote & Bock, 1847; and Vier Lieder für das Pianoforte, Op. 8, Leipzig, Breitkopf & Härtel, 1850.

Fanny compiled the Vier Lieder, Op. 2 from four pieces composed between 1836 and 1843. No. 1 ( G major) may have influenced Felix's Lied ohne Worte in the same key, Op. 62 No. 1. No. 2 (B minor) was originally composed for the cycle Das Jahr (The Year, 1841), where it appeared as September, Am Flusse (September, By the Stream). Here Fanny positions the melody in the middle register against flowing figuration, in an effective display of the so-called "three-hand" technique popularized by Sigismond Thalberg. No. 3 (E major), written during Fanny's first Italian sojourn (1839/1840) restores the melodic line to the soprano voice, as does No. 4 (A major), where Fanny thickens the texture by adding a brilliant series of arpeggiations divided between the hands, to create another variation on the three-hand technique.

No. 2 (Allegretto in C–sharp minor) and No. 4 (Lento appassionato in B major) from the Six mélodies, Op. 4 and 5 date from 1846. Their compound meters and lilting rhythmic patterns bring the music close to the genre of the barcarolle; noteworthy are their supple melodic lines and the ease with which Fanny enriches the traditional tonal orbit with passing modulations to distant keys.

The Vier Lieder, Op. 6, selected from pieces composed between ca. 1840 and 1846, divide into two Andante-Allegro pairs, with juxtapositions of keys separated by a third (A-flat major-B major, and F-sharp major-A minor). The autograph of No. 3 bears the heading O Traum der Jugend, o goldner Stern (Oh Dream of Youth, Oh Golden Star), a reference to Fanny's son, Sebastian (1830–1898), who had been confirmed in May 1846. Though Fanny suppressed this title for the publication, she let stand the heading Il saltarello romano for Op. 6 No. 4, a whirling, colorful Italian dance in A minor that recalls the clamorous finale of Felix's Italian Symphony, Op. 90.

Whether Fanny, Felix, or an anonymous editor compiled the Vier Lieder, Op. 8 remains unknown. No. 1 (B minor) is among Fanny's most evocative creations. Composed in 1846, it begins with a haunting treble melody that alternates with a new subject, a paraphrase of a theme from the Overture to Felix's cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht.No. 2 (A minor), in a lean, spartan style, offers pealing pedal points in the bass like the tolling of bells. No. 3 (D-flat major) bears the heading Lied with the name of poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850) added in parentheses, as if Fanny had in mind to set his verses. And No. 4 (E major), a brilliantly hued work that traverses several keys, bears the romantic heading Wanderlied (Wandering Song).

R. Larry Todd
Fall 2003
Durham, N.C.

R. Larry Todd (Professor of Music, Duke University) is the author of the recently published biography Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003).


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