BOTD: Fanny Mendelssohn

(BOTD: Born On This Date. An idea I’m brazenly and openly stealing from Sheila O’Malley, who is the master of these kinds of posts.)

Today is the birthdate of Fanny Mendelssohn. She was a pianist and composer, but her own work was supplanted in her time by virtue of her being a woman and her younger brother, Felix, being one of the great musicians of her day. Fanny’s skill as a performer was substantial, but apparently she rarely performed for anyone outside her own familial circle, and adding insult to injury, a number of her compositions were credited to Felix, with modern scholarship only correcting that record in the last several decades. As with Clara Schumann, a musician whose gifts were also mostly in thrall to those of a better-known man, I wonder how music history would shine all the brighter if we’d been able to really harness all of the musical talent that existed, instead of just half of it.

Fanny does leave a lasting mark on music, though, and not just through her own compositions. She and Felix had a warm and collaborative relationship, and Felix took her constructive criticisms very seriously. Apparently at one point Fanny and Felix were discussing creating an opera based on the legends of the Nibelungs, which would have predated Richard Wagner’s titanic quadrilogy had they ever got the project off the ground. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn both died the same year, 1847, with neither being very long-lived: Fanny died at 41, and Felix went less than six months later at 38. Fortunately both Mendelssohn siblings left behind their voluminous correspondence. Here is an example of such, Fanny congratulating her brother on being appointed to a prestigious position in Berlin:

If one is a member of the people walking in darkness who don’t know when they will see you, the Great Light, in person, then one probably had best proceed with the help of quill, ink, and paper, standard accouterments of absence, in extending one’s thanks and congratulations. I had actually thought that it wouldn’t be necessary to write for a while, but that isn’t the case yet. I therefore congratulate you, Herr Music Director, upon attaining the highest human office next to Privy Councillor and Pope. Kapellmeister is a proper title, insofar as it shows what sort of a person one is, whereas Doctor could just as easily refer to a tooth puller or midwife, God be with us!

There we have it: Privy Councillor, Pope, and Kapellmeister. The pinnacles of human achievement! You can practically hear Fanny’s laughter as she is writing this.

Here’s a good article on Fanny Mendelssohn’s life and times, and here is a piano trio of hers. It’s a good work, indicative of a clear and logical musical mind. Mendelssohn composed this trio in her last year of life, and it was published posthumously. I have always been rather behind in my chamber music listening, but this work seems to me an excellent example of the chamber music of the mid-Romantic era, in the tradition of Fanny’s younger brother, Robert Schumann, and an early Johannes Brahms. Would that she had been as encouraged and allowed to flourish as her brother was!

 

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