Fanny, The Other Mendelssohn Composer

Fanny Hensel c. 1842 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (source)

Fanny Hensel c. 1842 by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (source)

Fanny Mendelssohn was the oldest of four children born to Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn, including her more famous brother Felix. Born in Hamburg, Germany on Nov 14, 1805, she received her first piano instruction from her mother. By the time she was 13, she had mastered the 24 Preludes from The Well-Tempered Clavier (Johann Sebastian Bach) and soon began to study with other teachers. Both Fanny and Felix studied composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who said of Fanny’s piano expertise, “She plays like a man,” which was high praise at the time. As a teenager, she began studying composition with Zelter.

Both her father and brother were tolerant, but not necessarily supportive of her in publishing her work. Her father told her that music might be a profession for Felix, but for her “it can and must be only an ornament.” Felix felt that she was “too much all that a woman ought to be for this [authorship].” He thought that publishing would only disturb her primary duties of regulating her house, etc. He published six of her songs in his Opus 8 and Opus 9, one of which Queen Victoria stated was her favorite when Felix was received at Buckingham Palace. Evidently, he did confess that it was composed by Fanny. In spite of this, Fanny and Felix did collaborate throughout their lives.

In 1829, Fanny married Wilhelm Hensel, a painter, who was supportive of her composing. Her works were played at her father’s Sunday concert series, which she continued after his death. However, at her only known public performance, she played her brother’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Fanny eventually published some of her own works, but her work has become better known in recent years than at the time. She composed over 460 pieces of music including works for the piano and songs.

Fanny died in Berlin on May 14, 1847 of a stroke. Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 in F minor was written in her memory.

Find out what else happened on November 14 in Women’s History.

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