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Sisters of Great Composers - Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel.

As a similar instance of particular artistic sympathy between brother and sister, Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny, afterward the wife of Wilhelm Hensel, the painter, may be coupled with Mozart and his sister Anna Maria. The circumstances of the two families were very unlike. There is a great disparity between the frugal household of the poor Salszburg musician and the mansion of the rich Berlin banker, with its extensive grounds and its summer-house arranged for private concerts, but none between the mutual love and reciprocal influence of sister and brother in both cases. One composer, to be sure, was a genius; the other failed of this distinction but stood first among those endowed with talent. In this he and his sister stood more nearly equal than the two Mozarts. Indeed, had Fanny Mendelssohn’s career not been thwarted by family prejudice she might have stood by the side of her more illustrious brother without losing by the contrast.

The two children, she the elder by nearly four years, had the same musical training, first from their mother and later from a number of excellent teachers, among them the severe Zelter, the friend of Goethe, who taught them composition. They went hand in hand. What Felix did his sister accomplished, and, as he said himself, often better than he. She was particularly gifted as a pianist. While she was in her cradle but a few days old her mother wrote of her: “She has a Bach fugue hand”—and this was verified, for as a child she played from memory twenty-four of Bach’s fugues.

The family was of Jewish origin. Their greatgrandfather’s name was Mendel; his son Moses, the noted philosopher, was known as Mendel’s son and Mendelssohn in time became the family name. Moses Mendelssohn was the original of the character of “Nathan” in Lessing’s celebrated play, Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Sage). His son Abraham used to say that in his youth he had the misfortune of being known as the son of his father and in later years as the father of his son.

There was no thought at first of the latter’s becoming a professional musician; the father considered the musical training of his children only as one of the elements of a liberal education. He yielded reluctantly to his son’s desire in the matter, but where the daughter was concerned it was a different question; she felt the full force of the parental prohibition. Feeling and tradition, both of race and family, ran counter to the idea of a woman in a position so exposed to criticism as that of a composer. And not only this. In spite of his unbounded attachment and his admiration for her talent, her brother felt the same unwillingness to see his sister enter into public musical life. Though composition was as the breath of life to her, she respected this feeling in so far as she refrained from publishing under her own name and took refuge under that of her brother’s. It is said that some of his most admired “Songs without Words” were composed by her, and it is known that a number of her songs are included among his. So far as identified these are Nos. 2, 3, 12 of his Op. 8 and Nos. 7, 10, 12 of Op. 9. Besides these it is thought there are others.

This inclusion of his sister’s songs with his own once involved Mendelssohn in no little embarrassment. Queen Victoria was very fond of his music and on one occasion sang for him what she supposed to be one of his songs, a favorite of hers, she informed him. This was Schöner und Schöner (Fairer and Fairer). To his confusion he was obliged to acknowledge that it was not his, but his sister’s.

Her restless, mercurial temperament, however, chafed under the restraint of anonymity, and she finally determined to accept the flattering offers made to her by prominent publishers to come before the public under her own name.

Like Mozart and his sister she and her brother kept up a lively correspondence which better than anything else gives an idea of the charming relations that existed between them. In one of these letters he makes a cheerful surrender of the position he has so long maintained. He gaily wishes that she may taste only the sweets and none of the bitterness of authorship; that the public may pelt her with roses and never with sand; that the printer’s ink may never draw black lines upon her soul, and adds—“all of which I devoutly believe will be the case, so what is the use of my writing it?”

Less than a year after this letter was written she died suddenly in the forty-second year of her age, May 17th, 1847. The shock of her death hastened that of her brother’s, which followed six months later.


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You are reading Sisters of Great Composers - Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. from the July, 1906 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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