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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL, F.: Piano Sonatas / Lied / Sonata o Capriccio (H. Schmidt)
It is only relatively recently that Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel has stepped out of the shadow of her more famous sibling Felix. Nearly all of her five hundred or so
compositions remained unpublished during her lifetime, despite their undeniable beauty, lyricism and passion. This volume of piano music spans almost her entire adult life, from youthful experiments to music written less than a year before her untimely death, giving the listener a whirlwind tour of a much-underrated composer.
ABC Classic FM
The Classical Music Guide Forums
By Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805–1847)
For many years Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel was known only as a footnote in the history of music, if she was known at all. Even now, the fame of her younger brother
Felix far eclipses her own—despite the fact that she was a gifted composer in her own right. Descended from the well-known philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Fanny was born in Hamburg in 1805 into a highly cultured family. Her upbringing was unusual, and somewhat conflicted—although she was given more or less the
same musical education as Felix (and apparently showed similar promise) she was always made aware that as a woman, she would be unable to follow the path for
which she had such obvious natural aptitude. On her twenty-third birthday, her father Abraham instructed her to ‘become more steady and collected, and prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman—I mean the state of a housewife.’ Even her beloved brother Felix, with whom she had an intensely close relationship, was ambivalent towards her musical aspirations. Although supportive of her work, even passing off some of her compositions as his own, he always discouraged her from publishing under her own name.
In 1829 Fanny did get married—to the artist Wilhelm Hensel, and a year later she gave birth to their son Sebastian. She remained musically active, travelling
to Italy several times, where she met the young French composer Charles Gounod, who later remarked that she had introduced him to Bach’s keyboard music. She was
a passionate champion of Bach, and had joined the Berlin Sing-akademie—which was dedicated to reviving music of the past—in 1820. Fanny also continued to give private performances (her only public appearance took place in 1838) and to compose, although it was not until 1846 that she ventured to publish anything—a collection of Lieder that became her Op. 1. Publication represented a step towards independence for Fanny, and future years would presumably have seen more pieces appearing in print—but her nascent career was cut short by her untimely death. On 14 May 1847, a day after completing her final Lied, she died from a stroke.
Piano pieces and songs make up the bulk of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s compositions, which number around five hundred. Considered by her contemporaries to be a ‘salon’ composer, such small-scale works as these were a socially acceptable outlet for her talents. They reveal a talent for lyricism and a respect for
traditional harmony and forms, but also a strongly individual streak. The music on this disc spans almost her entire adult life, from 1823 to 1846 (her very first
composition, a Lied dedicated to her father, dates from 1819). The earliest pieces in this volume, the Allegro molto agitato in D minor and Schluss, meaning ‘Conclusion’, were written in 1823, when Fanny was just eighteen. The two works are sharply contrasted: Schluss is wistful and nostalgic, whilst the Allegro molto agitato—an octave study—is a virtuosic whirlwind. She herself noted in the margins of the manuscript that it was ‘very difficult’, and acknowledged that it was in the manner of Kalkbrenner, referring to the famous piano virtuoso and teacher Friedrich Kalkbrenner, to whom Chopin’s first piano concerto is dedicated. Kalkbrenner’s influence is evident in the sheer technical difficulty of the work, which, though brief, is a tour-de-force of musical showmanship.
The following year saw, among many other pieces, Fanny’s Piano Sonata in C minor and the single-movement Sonata o Capriccio. Both works show the
young musician experimenting with sonata form, mastery of which was still considered an essential element of a composer’s armoury. The C minor sonata,
in particular, demonstrates an active concern for motivic unity and capable handling of large-scale structures—much of the musical material can be derived from the two main themes of the first movement. It was dedicated to Felix ‘in his absence’, as he was away at the bathing resort of Bad Doberan at the time of composition.
The Notturno in G minor, written fourteen years later, illustrates how Felix could so easily pass off Fanny’s works as his own. Much like her brother’s Songs Without Words, this beautiful, lilting piece consists of a lyrical melody above a constant, rippling accompaniment. The influence of John Field’s nocturnes is much in evidence, as with so many nineteenth-century composers of piano music. Despite its undeniable charm, this piece remained unpublished during her lifetime.
The exquisite Adagio in E flat major, composed between 1840 and 1843, is a testament to Fanny’s extraordinary gift for melody, and reveals an
adventurous harmonic sense. Echoes of the influence of Bach—always her favourite composer—can be heard, especially in the opening bars. 1843 also saw what may be Fanny’s greatest achievement in the piano repertoire: her Piano Sonata in G minor. This work—fiery, lyrical and dramatic—shows Fanny at the height of her powers. Earlier experiments with sonata form such as Sonata o Capriccio, written almost twenty years previously, came to full fruition in this piece. The thrilling, hot-blooded first movement immediately commands the listener’s attention, leading smoothly to an ethereal Scherzo (in contrasting B minor), whose shimmering semiquaver tremolos are played una corda. A dignified Adagio follows, and finally a lively, fleet-footed Presto that
propels the sonata forward to its dramatic climax.
Similarly passionate is the Allegro molto in C minor of 1846, written the year that Fanny first decided to publish her work. Defiant, powerful and fiendishly
difficult, the Allegro molto provides a perfect counterpoint to that rebellious step. Two other works from this year, however—the Lied in E flat major and the Andante con moto in E major—find the composer in a less turbulent frame of mind. The title of the Lied clearly makes reference to her brother’s Lieder ohne Wörte—the Songs without Words; and indeed the wistful lyricism of the piece is highly reminiscent of vocal
music. Like the Andante con moto, however, the Lied is tinged with moments of intensely fervent eloquence, drawing to an emotional climax.
It is difficult not to let knowledge of Fanny’s approaching death colour one’s perception of these poignant last works, or to speculate what she might have gone on to achieve had she not died less than a year later. Being ‘Mendelssohn’s sister’ has often inhibited consideration of her as a composer in her own right, a tendency reinforced by the similarity of their musical styles. Her work, however, belies this glib dismissal, revealing instead a distinct and richly powerful musical voice—a voice that deserves to be heard.
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