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ClassicsOnline Home » MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL, F.: Lieder, Vol. 1 (Craxton, Dorn) - Opp. 1, 7, 10
A gifted composer of some 500 works, mainly songs and small piano pieces, Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel has been eclipsed by the fame of her younger brother Felix Mendelssohn. Yet her sensitivity in setting the German Romantic poets she loved, principally Goethe, Heine, Geibel and von Eichendorff, warrants greater attention. Like Clara Schumann, whose songs Dorothea Craxton has also recorded for Naxos (8.570747), Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel possessed a distinct and richly powerful musical voice, by turns introspective, melancholic, delicate, lilting and serene—which deserves to be heard on its own terms.
By Göran Forsling
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805–1847)
Songs • 1
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.
Songs and piano pieces 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. The sensitive word-setting, small-scale structures and deeply personal expressiveness of Fanny’s songs are all typical of Lieder in the German Romantic tradition, particularly as exemplified by Robert Schumann, but her unique harmonic sense and gift for melody are entirely her own. The Lied was, in many ways, the most quintessential of all Romantic genres—fragile, fragmentary and intimate—and it allowed Fanny to demonstrate true mastery of her craft. All of the Lieder on this disc date from the last decade of Fanny’s life, most from the final few years. The 1840s, and 1846 in particular, was an astonishingly rich period. It is significant that the first music she chose to publish was her Six Lieder, Op. 1—although it received mixed reviews. Over the next few years, more collections of songs appeared (posthumously), including her Op. 7 (published in 1848) and Op. 10 (1850). Op. 10 includes her last completed composition, a witty and charming setting of a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857) entitled Bergeslust.
The poetry that Fanny chose to set was almost exclusively written by German authors of the Romantic era, including many of the most famous literary names of the day. Goethe (1749–1832) and Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) are perhaps best-known, and were favourites of contemporary composers. Goethe, in particular, served as a muse to such eminent musicians as Schumann (both Robert and Clara), Schubert, Brahms, Mahler and Felix Mendelssohn, as well as countless others. Two of the settings on this disc—the introspective Schwanenlied (1840) and Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass (1837)—are of Heine. Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass, in particular, conjures up the poet’s melancholy, bittersweet aesthetic.
It is Eichendorff, however, to whom Fanny returned again and again for inspiration. His poetry is immersed in the sublimity of nature, a theme which evidently struck a chord with her. The small-scale song-cycle Anklänge (comprised of the final three songs on this release), dating from 1841, is typical of Fanny’s settings of Eichendorff. Wistful, fleeting and delicate, they capture the pensive longing of the text perfectly. Nacht ist wie ein stilles Meer and Ich kann wohl manchmal singen, both composed around 1846, are similarly evocative, while 1844’s Die Stille, with its lilting vocal line and rocking accompaniment is especially beautiful. Perhaps Fanny’s most powerful setting of Eichendorff, however, is Nachtwanderer (1843). The opening is deceptively serene, although the restless accompaniment hints at dark undercurrents. Growing in animation, the music rises to a brief climax, before drawing to a close on a final, almost imperceptibly quiet chord, which seems somehow unresolved. The whole Lied is imbued with a sense of longing and of secrets hidden just below the surface. It seems extraordinary to think that Fanny’s Op. 7, of which Nachtwanderer is the first song, was criticised upon publication for its supposed lack of emotional depth.
The lyric poets Emanuel Geibel (1815–1884), Friedrich Rückert (1788–1866) and Nikolaus Lenau (1802–1850) are also represented among Fanny’s oeuvre. Geibel’s Gondellied is particularly notable: an ethereal love song with a gossamer-fine, rippling accompaniment, its delicate charm is a perfect counterpart to the sparkling imagery of the poem. It is tempting to see the central three songs from Op. 10—Der Vorwurf, Abendbild (both by Lenau) and Im Herbste (Geibel)—as a set within themselves. All were written around the same time in 1846, and all deal with the metaphor of something drawing to a close. The mournful Der Vorwurf shows Fanny at her most vulnerable, and Im Herbste likewise deals with the imagery of lost love and death in sombre autumnal colours. Abendbild, however, though suffused with a sense of coming darkness, is in the manner of a lullaby, and is overwhelmingly peaceful and serene.
It is difficult not to let knowledge of Fanny’s approaching death colour one’s perception of these poignant 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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MENDELSSOHN-HENSEL, F.: Lieder, Vol. 1 (Craxton, D...